Bunnie Reiss is defining a world of her own — one stitch, sparkle and brush stroke at a time. In the fertile space of her studio in Vernon, amid heaps of worn-in fabrics, pouches of glitter, rusty artifacts and motifs on every wall, the prolific artist is gearing up for her largest installation to date. On Nov. 4, Superchief Gallery will open "Space Angels," a solo show showcasing Reiss’ paintings, quilts and immersive sculptural installations.
As a muralist, Reiss has painted the world over, with artworks in Europe, India, the Philippines, Mexico and all over the United States, including more than a dozen murals locally. She says her focus on public art the last couple of years has allowed her to “understand the vibration of the area.” As Reiss explains, “L.A. is about thinking big,” describing how the city’s infinite sprawl has stoked her appetite for big walls since relocating from the smaller, denser Bay Area in 2015, where she established her 20-year career.
A year after her move, the tragedy of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland reverberated deeply throughout Reiss’ close-knit artistic community. Coupled with President Trump’s inauguration last November, she says she felt “a collective consciousness of weeping” that spurred a kind of retreat for her.
Reiss took to the road in an attempt “to fall back in love with [this] country.” Seven thousand miles, seven murals and three months of highway wandering later, she came to a renewed sense of hope after convening with people in parts of the United States where city types seldom tread. “It was an opportunity to remember that people in our country are suffering on a tremendous level,” she says. “They’re so much more similar to us than I would have ever thought. I had forgotten that.” On the long drives, her worries abated as her imagination ambled through an alternate world, one of softness, healing and inquiry, which served as the inspiration for her upcoming show.
Inside her studio, Reiss appears seamlessly at home against the backdrop of her artworks in progress, wearing a dress that’s clearly been patched, altered and brought back to life more than once. “When a caterpillar goes into a cocoon, it dissolves completely,” she says, cupping her hands one on top of the other. “It doesn’t stay in its form. They call it ‘bug soup.’ The scientific term is ‘imaginal cells,’” she explains.
“Instead of putting up walls from grief and sadness and trauma, what if we became soft? More jelly and squishy?” she wonders rhetorically. Instead of fixating on the chaos of immediate circumstances, she asks, “What if we could dissolve like a caterpillar in order to start over and regrow as a completely different organism?”
"Space Angels" illustrates this proposal, equal parts futurist fantasy and plea to the present. Feminine characters welcome the viewer to a utopian society in the stars, where humans are empaths, telekinetically compassionate and deeply invested in a better world for all.
In her signature style, folklore and fantasy collide on the canvases of Reiss’ graphic paintings. Bold, colorful shapes contrast delicate stitchlike brushwork, recalling the patches and stitches of handmade quilts. Boats are time-traveling spaceships and flowers are cast into orbit around the female facilitators of the future. “Men aren’t leading the discussion, women are,” she says, calling my attention to gender and gesture in the paintings. “These characters are in positions of asking. They are wanting dialogue,” she explains. “They’re not forcing and they’re not saying you’re not welcome,” she goes on. This chimerical world isn’t a means of escapism — it’s an invitation to safely confront pressing questions.
“This might be the time for women,” she tells me with a steadfast nod. Though she’s cautious not to be “boxed in” as a feminist artist, she tells me over the past year she’s been heartened to see the women’s movement seemingly moving forward.
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Reflecting on the current #metoo moment, the artist eschews coyness. “You better run if you’re not willing to sit and listen,” she says, her voice picking up in vigor. “You better turn around and run because women are mad. They have something to say and they’re going to keep saying it. You’re probably not going to be happy, but the best thing you can do is sit down and listen. Don’t say, ‘I didn’t know.’ Don’t say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ Don’t say anything. Just listen.”
While her imagination is steeped in whimsy, Reiss is anything but wishy-washy. Our conversation consistently reveals a core set of values based on community building, activism and resilience, tenets she says were instilled in her Eastern European Jewish upbringing among a household of strong women.
Today, Reiss lives communally with 10 other working artists in a warehouse turned live/work art studio in South L.A. “As artists, the motivation is partly economical, but part of it is in reaction to a feeling that you’re different in a society that doesn’t accept people who are different,” she expresses. After living solo for five years, Reiss was compelled to return to the collective lifestyle, and she calls it the best decision she’s made in a long time. “I think if we want to really survive in a healthy way [as a society], we’re going to have to go back to understanding communal living in a way that people don’t get now.”
"Space Angels," Superchief Gallery L.A., 739 Kohler St., downtown; opens Sat., Nov. 4, 6-11 p.m. (through Dec. 2). superchiefgallery.com.