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Kendall Curlee

REABEN, JAMES ELLIOTT (1956–1989). James Reaben, painter and sculptor, was born on June 12, 1956, in Houston, the son of James Noel and Esther (Joyner) Reaben. His parents had both been married before, and Reaben had three elder half-sisters from his parents' previous marriages. His childhood was not a happy one. Dyslexia and hyperactivity hampered his success in school and led his father to send him to a military academy near San Antonio. He later attended a "free school" and Lamar High School, both in Houston, before earning a general equivalency diploma. Reaben studied art and philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston in 1976 and periodically took classes at the Glassell School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In his early works Reaben railed against Communism, capitalism, and Nazism, using cardboard, wire mesh, and Day-Glo colors. The implicit threat of Mine Field, an installation piece consisting of a gridwork of circular rubber disks laid on the gallery floor with a taped line around it, characterized the antagonistic spirit of his early work. Mine Field attracted comment at Reaben's first solo exhibition, held at Studio One in Houston in 1983. After this exhibition he developed a more subtle but no less disturbing style using imagery from his dreams and "charged" materials. He was inspired by the writings of French poet and dramatic theorist Antonin Artaud, whose words he often quoted in his work; he also found inspiration in the visionary art of the Texas painter Forrest C. Bess.

Reaben's later works are densely layered paintings on paper and wooden assemblages on a small scale, ranging from the miniscule Man is Degenerate (1988), which measures 3½" x 3" to Monitor (1988), which measures 32½" x 21½" x 3". He frequently used traditional worship forms such as diptychs, triptychs, and altars and relied on a vocabulary of symbols-eyes, spirals, ladders, swastikas, stars-that changed meaning within different contexts. Reaben incorporated words into many of his works. An untitled piece from 1988 illustrates the symbolic qualities present in many of his wooden constructions. It is a simple box topped by a wooden finial. The two panels on the front open to reveal a nightmarish triptych. A swastika, helix, sperm, scorpion, ladders, and two tridents are drawn on the inside of the two panels. Within the box a large glass eye resting upon a pile of pigeon bones, flanked by gilded wings, forms an altar, beneath which is a small drawer filled with dirt from a sacred well in Chimayo, Mexico, and a small black disk covered with white plus signs. On the back wall a Buddhist prayer painting is hung upside down.

Supposed communication with the spirit world informed many of Reaben's sculptures. One activates the 1987 cherry wood Deadphone, for instance, by placing the memento of a dead person within a trapezoidal form conveniently perforated to permit amplification of the dead soul's whispers. Reaben also built a series of coffin-shaped structures variously treated with eyes, masks, wings, and tattered ribbons intended to house the Ka, the Egyptian version of the human soul. Other pieces were purely whimsical, such as an untitled three-tiered ziggurat ornamented with heavily lashed eyes on waving stems.

In his paintings Reaben layered scribbled words, images, and rich colors in an ambiguous space that usually filled the picture plane. He preferred to use what he termed "psychologically charged" materials; in one series, for example, he used stationery from a concentration camp that he described as "impregnated with the blood of the spirits of the dead." He also used materials with a more individual resonance, such as lamp shades, doorknobs, and pages from his father's diary that he salvaged from his family home. In a 1988 piece entitled Thanka, for example, he transformed a lampshade by laying it out flat, and further flattened it formally by painting six large staring eyes over nostalgic country scenes of a cake sale, barn, and circus featured on the lampshade. Reaben's father, a mechanical engineer and inventor, died in 1987, and Reaben incorporated many of his father's inventions into his work.

Although his chaotic blend of words, abstractions, and representational elements has been compared to the work of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Robert Longo, Reaben's emphasis on personal, often painful content in preference to formal conceits distinguished him from other artists of the 1980s. He used painting to express rage, sexuality, and fear. In his 1987 Self-Portrait he used a diptych to comment on his childhood: on the left he pasted a photograph of himself, from which wound the words "I have vivid memories of being tormented and singled out from nursery school on up for being different by other children and then parents." The photograph is countered on the right by an inverted clear plastic mask and drawings of dentures.

Reaben was diagnosed as having the AIDS virus in 1987, and his knowledge of his impending death increasingly colored his works. In The Female Cult (1988), he acknowledged the toxoplasmosis that eventually killed him with the phrase "imminent destruction of the nervous system"; the composition is bound within a neatly drawn line, unusual in his work, which perhaps acknowledged the boundaries imposed by his disease. The relatively large Monitor (1988) expressed Reaben's fear of disease with no words at all: the trapezoidal shape of the wooden panel recalls Gothic tomb slabs, and its gray surface streaked with smears of red paint and marred by two red holes suggests diseased flesh. A doorknob from the Reaben home is placed in the center of the composition. The anguish of works like Monitor was counterbalanced by Reaben's biting sense of humor, which appeared in such works as Fried Chicken Cologne (1988), Cooked Being (1988), and Launch Those Missiles (1988). In Art-Money (1988) he mocked the commercialism of the art scene by pasting an old German banknote spattered with red paint underneath a gold swastika, upon which a blood-red dollar sign was superimposed.

Reaben's mature style won considerable critical acclaim. From 1986 until his death in 1989 he participated in thirteen group exhibitions in Houston, including the Small Show at the Lawndale Art Center in 1987, the 1988 Houston Area Exhibition at the Blaffer Gallery, where he was awarded an Honorable Mention, Conscience and Content, sponsored by the Art League of Houston in 1988, and the Texas Art Celebration '89 held at the Cullen Center. His work was featured in solo exhibitions at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston (1987), at the Moody Gallery in Houston (part of the Introductions '88 series), the Jung Educational Center in Houston (1989), and the Simms Fine Art Gallery in New Orleans, Louisiana (1989). Reaben died on July 1, 1989. His last works, drawings executed with his left hand after his right hand had been stilled by toxoplasmosis, were included in Tradition and Innovation: A Museum Celebration of Texas Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1990). His work is included in the permanent collections of the Menil Collection, Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the VooDoo Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.


Michael Ennis, "The Rage of Chaos," Domain Magazine, Summer 1988. Houston Chronicle, July 4, 1989. Houston Post, March 8, 1989, July 4, 1990. William Steen, "Affinity with a Madman," Eleven x Fourteen, Autumn 1987.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Kendall Curlee, "REABEN, JAMES ELLIOTT," accessed April 08, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fre62.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on November 7, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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