California artist Julio Reyes composes new classics
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
In Julio Reyes’ recent painting GOLGOTHA, a man stands on a hillside overlooking a distant, sprawling metropolis. It’s dusk, and the sky is a hazy amalgam of orange and yellow—reminiscent of the smog that looms ominously over Los Angeles, the city where Reyes was born and raised. In many ways GOLGOTHA is a quintessential Reyes work: It employs a well-known friend or family member as a model, it contains a rich backstory, and it incorporates a cityscape as a background and key element.
Reyes usually depicts only people he knows well in his figurative works, like his wife, fellow artist Candice Bohannon. “I want to paint real people in my life who have real stories,” Reyes says. “I don’t want to pay a model I don’t know to come and sit in my studio. I like to get down deep into the roots of things. If I am familiar with people’s stories, I can think about them when I’m painting, and I can feel tied to their emotions. I want to feel filled up by their stories and then pour it all out into a painting. I would rather go deep into a few things than know a lot of things hardly at all.”
Thus, behind every Reyes work there’s a backstory layered with content. In GOLGOTHA, the hillside where Reyes posed his friend is not just any hillside. It’s a place in East Los Angeles, a favorite haunt where he and his friend hung out when they were in high school—their own private Idaho where they ruminated about life. After they dispensed with small talk about girls and school, Reyes recalls, talk turned to politics, religion, and the future. “We were scared of shooting off into the world. We felt lots of turmoil because we were heading into the unknown. But we had the feeling that we were on the verge of something big,” he says. “I will always remember the tremendous amount of anguish my friend felt and how our trips to lookouts in different parts of the city were a kind of catharsis for him.”
Reyes grew up in the gritty neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, where Hispanic gangs ruled the turf. When he recently returned to his old neighborhood to photograph his friend for reference material, he was struck by the prevalent signs of thinly veiled peril. He saw the environment of his youth as if for the first time. Things he had never paid attention to came into sharp focus: crack houses, gang graffiti, a name scribbled on a wall and then crossed off—a death threat.
About a decade had passed since he and his friend had engaged in their weighty discussions on that hillside perch. Now both are married and ensconced in successful careers. His friend has become an assistant district attorney for Los Angeles County, and Reyes, 28, is having his first solo show, which opens this month at Arcadia Fine Arts in New York. But his angst-ridden teenage years remain etched in his memory, and so Reyes created a painting for the show that captures that sense of being on a precipice, standing over an abyss, and looking into the future.
It makes sense that people’s stories are important to Reyes. His family history brims with colorful characters and tales of adventure and courage. When he was young, his family would sit around the dinner table and share stories about the lives of his ancestors, such as his great-grandmother Eduviges, a spirited woman known for carrying a braided leather whip in her apron. She was a midwife and a bootlegger in Douglas, AZ, in the early 20th century. She once shot a man in the leg who was trying to steal a chicken from what Reyes calls “the hovel” where she lived. Eduviges was also a curandera, or healer, who used spells, herb potions, and old Indian charms to cure the ailing. “When my father had asthma attacks, she would rub dried coyote dung with castor oil on his back as a cure. I think that’s why my father decided to become a doctor,” Reyes jokes.
Although Reyes spent his early years on the hardscrabble streets of East Los Angeles, his family eventually moved to better and better neighborhoods as his father’s medical practice flourished. By the time Reyes was a senior in high school, the gang-member classmates had been replaced by affluent suburban teenagers driving $50,000 cars. Nonetheless, it’s the cityscapes of East Los Angeles that remain singed in his memory and so often emerge as backdrops to his haunting portraits of his friends and family. Reyes’ contemplative figures grace the foreground amid wires, electrical grids, slabs of concrete, and dandelions popping up from cracks in the sidewalk.
These urban scenes are often menacing and serve as visual metaphors for that which is larger than life, unsympathetic, and overwhelming. In a signature Reyes work, he places a person he cares for juxtaposed against this forlorn urban terrain. “I like to place something knowable against something unknowable,” he explains.
The idea of characters struggling to find their way in a cold universe connects him to his forebears. Explaining the connection, he says that his great-grandmothers and grandmothers, for example, were young women who managed to survive against all odds in a daunting, unforgiving landscape. As Reyes points out, he is actually painting an age-old plotline from great novels, such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: His grandmothers are more contemporary interpretations of characters like Cosette, the orphan who had the cards stacked against her but somehow preserved and was redeemed.
Redemption and longing for a new life are other themes that weave through Reyes’ paintings. The title GOLGOTHA references the biblical place, a hillside outside Jerusalem, where, it is believed, Jesus was crucified. “In the painting I was thinking of Philippians 2:12: ‘work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.’ All of us have felt, at one time, as though some great suffering was ahead of us,” Reyes says. “It’s as if somewhere in your heart you know you will have to endure a kind of death before a new life is available to you.”
Reyes says that, in retrospect, it is easy to see that when he and his friend shared their fears and aspirations on a Los Angeles hillside, it also induced a deep longing for what the future held as well as a sense of hope. They understood, on some level, that their old life was passing away, making way for the new.
Steve Diamant, the director of Arcadia Fine Arts who has represented Reyes for two years, says he has sold every drawing and painting Reyes has sent him and has a waiting list for Reyes’ work. “Julio’s sense of solitude and reflection in his works is what sets him apart from so many contemporary artists,” Diamant says. “While his works usually depict solitary figures, they are often reflective as opposed to maudlin and isolated, which seems so popular with young painters today. What Julio portrays is what has always drawn me to artists like Andrew Wyeth and Lucian Freud—the sense that being alone does not mean lonely. His works invite introspection from the viewer.”
Not yet 30, Reyes seems too young to have faced any personal crisis in his art career. But in his sophomore year at the Laguna College of Art and Design, he wanted to quit art school. He excelled quickly in the eyes of his professors and his peers, but that wasn’t satisfying to his soul, he explains. “I didn’t want to sit around and paint pretty pictures. I felt I had to contribute something of value because the people in my family have risked so much,” he says.
At the time, Reyes says, he couldn’t stop thinking about his family’s legacy of sacrifices. His father, Edward, the son of a laborer, earned scholarships to Dartmouth College and took out loans to attend medical school. His mother, Maria, picked grapes as a girl, saved enough money to attend college, and eventually became a social worker for Los Angeles County. His brother, Alberto, graduated from West Point and was a captain in the army. Today, Alberto is on his second deployment to Afghanistan. During his art-school crisis, Reyes planned to join the Marines. But his good friend Candice (who would later become his wife) and his father convinced him to stay in school and complete his education. He agreed to give it one more shot.
In his junior year he immersed himself in studying art history and aesthetics. That was the turning point. “I began to talk about ideas,” he says. “I started to think about what I wanted to say in my art and what moved me. I decided I didn’t want to speak about or paint anything unless I felt it deeply.”
As this story was going to press, Reyes was not only thinking deeply about his work but staying up until 4 a.m. to complete paintings. He is anxious about how the works will be received. “I am definitely feeling like I’m on the verge of a precipice,” he says, then adds, “Like the stories told to me around the family table that enchanted me as a child, I hope that my works speak with great humanity and compassion. I am very excited and have worked many long nights to pour all that I am into these pieces. I can hardly wait for the big day.”
Arcadia Fine Arts, New York, NY; www.julio-reyes.com.
Featured in November 2011.