When she was 8-years-old, Maeghan Reid's mom moved the family from their Northern California home to live in Bali for three months. Those three months in Bali would affect the artist in ways that no one could quite foresee. In Bali, the young Reid got close to a family and witnessed a cremation, which remains one of the most amazing things she has ever seen in her life. "The color from the fire, the body with the toenails coming off, how frightening but ultimately beautiful it all was to me! The color of the fire from that trip became seared in my memory and I use that fire a lot in my work."
Indeed, Reid's work is preoccupied with rituals of life and death. The artist believes that the actions the living enact on behalf of the dead are ultimately about the living and not about the dead. "Rituals of death," the artist insists, "are some of the best ways of finding about the culture of a place. Here is where you really interface with how people feel deep down about themselves, their lives, and how they see the world. Rituals of death," she says, "aren't so much about death as they are about life." Consequently, grave markers and totems feature prominently in her work. Circles as representatives of the circle of life are also given a place of prominence in her works. There is an overarching transience and ephemerality in them.
But how, exactly, to classify her works?
She admits that the terms "collage" and "sculpture" are often invoked when describing what she does, but for her the works are primarily paintings. She does a lot of her work on a self-made paper that looks more like bent metal, as well as on panels and matt boards. Mirrors are also an important part of her work, because they have the effect of incorporating the viewers.
When I caught up with her in her lovely large Harlem studio the artist was busy preparing for two upcoming shows: A show for Art Basel (Hong Kong) and a two-person show at the Weingruelle Gallery in Germany. She was particularly excited about going back to Berlin, where she lived for several years and still considers a "home" to her, despite the fact that she lives in New York City now. "In Berlin, I found my voice," the artist says, "and in Berlin I found a place very supportive of artists. They have these huge vacant spaces -- very cheap -- in Berlin, and there is massive funding for the arts." But despite the "young dirty artists" she found and liked in Berlin, she missed the kinetic energy of New York City. She missed, too, her family, and so she came back to New York for those two reasons.
And, in a sense, she took her own family back to New York with her in the form of the same characters that reappear in her works. The thing that struck me about her characters is not only how frequently they migrate from one painting or sculpture to another, but also how they migrate from one country to another, moving around with the artist wherever she goes.
Migration and memory are huge themes in Reid's life and work. Travel, too, is another theme in her work. Explains the artist, "I have to be able to pick up and carry my work wherever I go. All my sculptures and other works I can break down and carry around with me. I have a love of travel, of wandering; it seems that I am always restless. A storage unit and two boxes are what I have, and home is what I travel with and take with me. Memories are home for me."
Maybe this is so because she grew up with stories of travel. There are distant tales of a family from Romania, who fled the invasion of the Turks and spent their lives as nomads and wanderers. She is also a direct descendant of the environmentalist John Muir, and his sense of wandering informs many of her pieces. "If you look at my work," she says, "it is preoccupied not only with traveling, wandering, wanderers and nomads, but my work, too, is preoccupied with people being forced off their lands either by politics or natural disasters. I am inordinately fascinated with maps, because maps mark boundaries. In my work everyone is anonymous and everyone is on the go."
What I find so moving about Maeghan Reid's work is her insistence that the displaced and the anonymous nonetheless live meaningful and important lives and their unease and displacement -- or wandering -- can tell us all about how we live and make sense of our individual and collective lives. Their displacement -- these nomads, wanderers and travelers, whom Reid seeks to give voice to -- asks us not only to stop and think about our individual lives, and how we live in and move about the world, but it also asks us to consider forced displacements and migrations and people who are all looking for a place -- actual or otherwise -- to call "home."
Until next time.
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