The cerebral and absorbing artworks of Mike Cloud, on view at the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) through July 7, have a myriad of entry points. It all depends on what viewers bring to bear and how deep they are willing to go.

“Choose your own adventure,” urged Lily Seigel, GRACE’s executor director and curator of the exhibition, in a recent conversation. “If you’re interested in his use of paint, you can go there, she suggested. “If you’re interested in symbolism, you can go down that path. If you’re interested in art history, you can go there. If you want to go deeper, you will be rewarded.”

She further emphasized, “As a teacher, [Cloud] thinks about his audience. He’s very aware of the meaning and significance of being an artist today. … He wants to add something new.”

Delving deeper into Cloud’s process in the exhibition catalogue, “Mike Cloud: Figure Studies,” Siegel wrote that Cloud’s art “addresses how we read symbols, shapes, faces—even history. Nothing is taken at face value. … Cloud asks us to question our assumptions and look at the way we look. … For him, there is danger in symbolism; it must be deconstructed and distilled until one reaches the foundation without meaning. He is offering the viewer the opportunity to reconsider their truths.”

Siegel first saw Cloud’s work about six years ago when she was visiting a collector in Baltimore to do research on another contemporary artist, Moira Dryer, for an exhibition that she is currently preparing for the Phillips Collection art museum. Speaking by phone, she recalled, “The [Cloud] work was so strong, it just stuck in my mind. … He kept coming up in my consciousness.” After that, “our paths just seem to be converging.”

Her opportunity to do an exhibition of Cloud’s work came when she joined GRACE as executive director and began putting together her 2018 exhibition schedule. Her meeting with Cloud in his Brooklyn, N.Y., studio exceeded her expectations.

“He has great physical as well as intellectual authority,” Siegel said of Cloud, who, besides his growing national and international reputation as an artist, is also a much-admired teacher and lecturer. “I walked out of his studio awed and humbled that he’d do an exhibition with me.”

She added, “He’s a really important painter now and has an important place in the contemporary art world. … He’s part of the contemporary conversation.”

Born in Chicago in 1974, Cloud, who earned his M.F.A. from Yale University School of Art and his B.F.A. from the University of Illinois-Chicago, is leaving Brooklyn College where he teaches art to return to his hometown for a professorship at the Art Institute of Chicago. His work may be found in private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lincoln Center and has been reviewed in the New York Times and Art in America, among other publications.

The Cloud exhibition at GRACE, the first in the Washington, D.C., area, Siegel further noted, fits perfectly into GRACE’s ambitious “destination” initiative, establishing Reston and GRACE as a recognized arts destination. She defined the common threads of these exhibitions as “intellectually challenging but approachable.”

For example, Cloud’s “shaped” canvases in the current GRACE exhibition, she said, are “colorful and fun but play an intellectual role.” Cloud also, as an educator, is “teaching the next generation of artists, and it is important to bring that to GRACE, too.”

The Cloud exhibition is built around his intensely vibrant and abstract version of the “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” which has been interpreted for centuries in more traditional ways by many celebrated artists to show their mastery of the human form in movement. In addition to a selection of his shaped canvases, the exhibition also includes 26 of his small, acclaimed “Leibovitz Orange” collages and some of his paper quilts.

The title of the Cloud exhibition, “Figure Studies,” is somewhat “tongue-in-cheek,” Siegel said, explaining that, unlike the conventional artistic exercise of creating accurate preparatory drawings using live models, Cloud intentionally disassembles figures rather than rendering them realistically.

She further explained, “Although Cloud is thought of as an abstract painter, so much of his work is not abstract in the traditional sense or as painting in a traditional sense.”

In Cloud’s distinctive version of the “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” titled “Cycle and Stable,” there are no human figures. According to Siegel, writing in the catalogue, the body is represented through written text and disembodied images—"wagging tongues and a set of furled stars and stripes evocative of a pair of spread open legs.”

Text, as much a strong visual as verbal expression, is a device that Cloud frequently employs in his art, often as a way to communicate negation. Speaking in a dense, more than 30-minute video conversation between himself and Siegel at GRACE, Cloud confessed that he “makes up excuses” to use text.

In the video, which is available on the GRACE website, Cloud also talked about his use of color, saying “I tend to use symbolic palettes.” His large 2017 painting, “(Star) White Square,” in the GRACE exhibition, for example, is shaped like a six-pointed star and painted primarily pink with vague touches of white and edgings of grey. The shaped painting’s form and color, he explained, intentionally evokes the yellow Star of David that the Nazi regime in Germany forced Jews to wear. The pink evokes the pink triangle, which when pointed up is a gay pride and rights symbol and when pointed downward was used in Nazi concentration camps as a badge to denote homosexual men.

Defining his style as “gestural abstraction … a bodily journey of the mind,” Cloud also remarked on how much “physical information” may be found in his paintings. How fast or slow his arm might have moved while he was painting, how close or far away he was standing, the angle of his body, they all “register.”

Cloud’s large, abstract shaped paintings lean against the GRACE gallery’s walls. Paintings, in general, he explained to Siegel, “are often windows on the wall that look into some other world.” Sculptures, on the other hand, “are always in the room with us.” Moreover, while architecture and sculpture have to “negotiate” with whatever surrounds them, “paintings have a sacred space on the wall.” Leaning his paintings against the wall is a kind of “cheating” and brings “some of sculpture’s presence into painting.”

For his 26 “Leibovitz Orange” collages, Cloud used copies of photographs by famed portrait and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, which he dissected and repurposed to play with ideas about perception and celebrity. For his collages,” Cloud said, he “wanted to be responsive to other people’s work” and “see what was possible.” He used photography because, unlike a painting or sculpture, “you could actually possess another artist’s work.”

His paper “quilts” were made two years after the Leibovitz collages. He again used Leibovitz photographs along with acrylic paint and color-aid paper, which was originally used by photographers and now is used to teach color theory. Like the collages, the idea is to transform them, so they “work the way paintings work.” Also, like his collages, his paper quilts play with perceptions of celebrity. Each quilt uses a Leibovitz image of someone famous, which he has “cut up, painted over and otherwise obscured.”

Cloud’s use of acrylic paint in his paper quilts has both an emblematic and practical purpose. While he regards using oil paint as “kind of romantic,” acrylic paint “makes good glue, but it doesn’t make good paint.” When his quilts are glued like that, he explained, “what you see is the messiness of the process. It’s not a painting but a collage following the rules of painting.”

The idea that a work of art may only be fully understood and appreciated during the time and within the context in which it was created is among the key beliefs that Cloud shares with students. While we may prize a painting like the “Mona Lisa,” he suggested, we can never have the same relationship with it as the people living during its creation.

His own art, Cloud said, “addresses the people in the world I live in. … One-hundred years from now parts of these paintings will still be there, but there are some parts that will be lost forever.”

The conversation about Cloud’s artwork will continue on June 28, during one of the Creative Responses programs that accompany “Destination GRACE” exhibitions. These free programs, initiated by Siegel, are offered on the last Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the gallery and feature other artists in a variety of media responding to the works on exhibit. The June 28 Creative Responses guest artist will be painter Tim Doud, who also is an associate professor at American University’s Department of Art.

People are often intimidated when they walk into a gallery, Siegel observed. They are “afraid to state their ideas, afraid they will be wrong.” The intentionally relaxed and approachable atmosphere of these programs and the sometimes totally different perspectives offered by guest artists is both “empowering and stimulating.” During Creative Responses, Siegel wants visitors to feel “I can talk to this person.”

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