Artist Albert Reyes, 33, is no longer that Chicano kid from East L.A. who came to San Francisco and sold his art out of a beat-up suitcase. He graduated in 2001 from the San Francisco Art Institute, which disqualifies him from being a naïf or an outsider artist. He’s part German and part Mexican, and his middle name is Vaughn Norman. He does not want to be known for drawing pictures of Chihuahuas or making art plastered with Mexican flags. With a new chapbook out called Don’t Give Up, his ever-building audience can see how he has grown into, and out of, the box of street-punk/urban artist.
Putting the Heart Back in Art
What Albert Reyes does want to be known for is at the core of his tag, GIVE. As Bruno Mauro, the owner of Ampersand International art gallery, stated, “I see GIVE as being a part of Albert’s artwork. He cares about bloody everything, he cares about other artists. He is a walking wound.” It is this pureness of heart that keeps Reyes clear about who he is as an artist as he walks the line between selling art in galleries and adding his art to merchandise, such as shoes for Converse and T-shirts for Artwear and Upper Playground.
In Don’t Give Up, many images form a strong case that art is Reyes’ pulpit. Reyes said that growing up, “I was forced to be Christian, forced to go to church and forced to believe that there was some guy up in the sky calling for the end of the world. They used fear tactics to control and scare people.” Many of Reyes’ pictures contain people who have nails in their hands, and he strongly believes “everyone is Jesus, he was a man, and there is God in all of us.” In a few of his drawings, pictures of Jesus are embroidered on a figure’s lapel, and in another, Jesus is hungry and going to In N’ Out Burger. “I figured that would be where he would eat,” Reyes said. “It is run by Christians and they put scripture on the bottom of their cups.” In a drawing of the Madonna and Child, baby Jesus is scrawling the tag “GIVE” on the wall.
Many of Reyes’ drawings have porous boundaries between art and text, with his thoughts ending up as written tattoos on characters. In one drawing, a man is displaying a tender gesture to a woman; on his face are the words, “best price in town,” and the script, town, becomes his moustache. In Reyes’ artwork we are made up of words, and at our worst, of regurgitated slogans. In one drawing, a man wears a trucker cap with the phrase, “No One Cares,” while the woman in the drawing has a tattoo on her arm to counter the argument: “End the Wars Please.” Reyes’ art works to re-contextualize religion, the classics, the neighborhood, and celebrity culture. It jumps fences while jumping off the page.
Claire Light, a Program Curator at San Francisco’s interdisciplinary artists’ association The Lab, illuminates this gray area between selling art and selling out. “There are no underground artists, just under-funded artists. There really is no such thing as ‘selling out’ in the sense of punk rock in the ’70s.” Urban artists who use the city as their studio have the modern sense that art and culture are the same thing: high and low flattened into one big morass. Professional artists who want to make a living by their craft must bend to merchandising. The T-shirt is the new canvas, and at $24.95 it is relatively accessible for the masses.
What Reyes and other artists have learned is that a tag is a brand, and style is an extension of that brand. Companies looking for an image will use the artist’s story to sell their products. Given the public nature of what is very often a private product, it is hard for artists to keep tight control over who they are, and who their art makes them. One magazine, Trace, falsely claimed that Reyes had been tagging GIVE since he was 12. “It’s not true,” said Reyes. The magazine, it seems, couldn’t resist the romantic narrative of a lone wild prodigy out in the hood tagging at a young age. Not all are as honest as Reyes, though; the up-and-coming generation of artists is onto the system and recognizes the closing gap between art and merchandising. Reyes cites the recording artist Prince as being an influence, a true independent who owns his label and follows his muse, not that of a corporation. Gallerist Bruno Mauro, who has shown Reyes’ work, sees the role of a traditional artist/gallery relationship changing. “The days of the gallery as a white box with fixed hours are obsolete. Most art viewing is taking place on the Web, at art fairs, and at the artists’ studios.” The place for galleries in the digital age is providing legitimization in the art world and giving artists access to a roster of collectors.
Many of Albert Reyes’ drawings include an extraordinarily polite request: “SF price $200 please.” Reyes said, “I see art as full-time job; I want to sell the art, and saying please is a respectful way to do that.” His mother should be proud. In an effort to bridge the space between art and artist, Albert Reyes will continue to take any opportunity to show his art, his way.
(First published in Kitchen Sink Magazine)