The Human Condition

From banal and bizarre to strange and sad

Gutsy Andrew Reach is an artist with steel in his spine.

His show, "Beyond Pain," on exhibit at Tip Freeman's Paintings and Art Gallery, features nearly 40 riotously color-saturated digital works that chronicle his gritty comeback from two life-saving surgeries.

His large archival Epson pigment prints on Somerset velvet paper bleed over with lush expanses of color, reflecting a bold source of influences and an inspiring odyssey into art-making.

Andrew Reach's Meeting of the Spines
Andrew Reach's Meeting of the Spines


Through November 11. Tip Freeman's Paintings and Art Gallery, 738 NE 79th St, Miami; 305-754-8221. Open Monday through Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

In 2003 the classically trained architect, who graduated from the Pratt Institute, underwent an operation to correct a crippling disease called Scheuermann's kyphosis, a rare affliction that folded him at the waist like an unclasped safety pin and threatened to crush his internal organs. He describes feeling as if he were "breaking in half."

To correct the curvature, doctors fused two titanium rods along almost the entire length of his spine.

As an architect, Reach had enjoyed a productive life. His work included the Miami Federal Courthouse, a terminal at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, and the original Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. During the months-long recovery, however, he plunged into a sea of fathomless anguish.

"In essence I've always been a hands-on, creative, nuts-and-bolts type of guy," the artist ruefully reflects when speaking of the two rebarlike rods and nearly fifty screws now a fixture of his body.

In early 2004 his condition worsened to such an extent he became physically unable to hold up his head. Reach suffered from a weird complication called spondylothesis. His surgeon told him: "Your head is falling off of your spine" and that he required yet another complex surgery to keep his skull from dislodging.

Reach endured the darkest season of his life. For almost a year he lived encased in a pair of torturous neck and thoracic braces, spending several hours a day racked across a bone growth machine to stimulate healing.

"I began relating to my condition as a construction site to put things in perspective," Reach reflects.

Adrift upon a raft of misery, he clung to dreams of salvaging his sanity and finding a way back to the creative world from which he felt marooned. From his hospital bed, he used a special bookstand to read, reconnecting him with the works of poet Allen Ginsberg, the abstract expressionists, and painters Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock — his favorite.

After returning home, Reach was still physically unable to paint, so he taught himself Photoshop and began to express his pent-up creativity with teeth-clenched insurgency. He experimented with composing richly cultivated kaleidoscopic works on the computer.

Vibrations of whirling dervishes, Emilio Pucci designs, exotic Indonesian batiks, Masai shields, cervical vertebrae, Islamic architecture, Rorschach tests, and neon bloom bouquets oscillate exuberantly in Reach's energetically charged pieces.

At times the works seem derivative, and the footprints of many a modern master hoof out at the viewer. Traces of Mondrian, Rothko, Albers, Hoffman, and Stella appear as if scanned from the pages of a coffee table art history book and then reworked.

Meeting of the Spines is executed in warm, silky pastels and almost betrays the frigid technical nature often associated with digital prints. The piece hums with buttery sunflower yellow, velvety aqua, creamy avocado green, and mimosa orange hues. What might be described as moonlit azure, lyrically teased by the artist from the crests of powdery ocean waves, adds to the work's carefree air, disclosing Reach's intimate comfort with color. The lavishly complex tones fuse into chorus lines of vertebra shapes that fluidly reflect the artist's meditations on life.

Big Bang is akin to one of Georgia O'Keeffe's orchids or a Robert Mappelthorpe calla lilly. The work is rendered in luscious hibiscus red and green watercolorlike ink washes, and bristles with sensuality. A vulva-shaped halo of light shimmers nebulously near the center.

Lost in a Place Where Pain Does Not Live has the feel of one of Pollock's famous dripped-over paintings and demonstrates the creative freedom Reach culls from his computer.

In this work, the artist effectively conveys a knack for juggling his jeweled palettes while orderly structuring biomorphic shapes, calligraphic tangles, and spinning geometric forms.

"I have a limited threshold for pain," the artist explains, mentioning he can work only for an hour at a time. "If I go a day without doing this, though, I don't feel happy as a person. It gives me a lot to be grateful for."

Absorbing this detailed work and talking with this thoughtful, humble man, one is moved by his lust for life and gumption for leaving a mark on the world.

At the Ambrosino Gallery, vagabond curator Trista Dix taxes the hydrant of credibility like a weak-bladdered terrier eager to draw attention. Her show, "Manifesto (one)," features a quartet of Miami and West Coast-based artists exploring the "human conditions present on this bizarre and strange planet."

If the curator would allow the artists' work to speak rather than distracting the focus from the exhibit, she'd seem less of a nuisance. Instead, she nyuck-nyuck-nyucks with her theoretical stoogery until the eyes glaze over. Skip the gallery handout and spare yourself a migraine.

The work is remarkable for its delicious banality, and the four artists seem to share a predilection for dysfunctional motifs.

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