Enigmatic Painter Alex Reisfar Returns to Davis’ Natsoulas Gallery
Unencumbered by any formal art training, modern surrealist painter Alex Reisfar nevertheless succeeds in imbuing his work with a palpable appreciation for the great painters of the past. Raised by artists—Reisfar’s mother studied under the renowned American New Realist Wayne Thiebaud at UC Davis, and his father is a surrealist wood sculptor—Reisfar honed his own symbol-laden style while dabbling in other creative pursuits, from tattooing to music. Now a parent himself, Reisfar has spent recent years dedicated to his art full-time, including a stint as artist in residence at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts in Davis last year.
After relocating to Portland, Ore., and joining that city’s newly invigorated art scene, Reisfar is making his return to Davis, with a solo exhibition at the John Natsoulas Gallery. Running through March 1, 2014, the exhibition is titled The Coyote Show and features Reisfar’s latest works, paintings that, though still rife with political and cultural commentary, are also filled with deeply personal, cathartic sagas, using equal parts haunting and ambiguous imagery. In addition, Reisfar used reclaimed wood for the supports of his new works, with the irregular shapes and textures provided by these materials furthering the unsettled, mysterious tone of his art. The unfulfilled search for definition, says Reisfar, is an intentional effort on his part, and one of the recurrent themes found in the paintings on display in The Coyote Show.
How does the new work you’ll have at this exhibition compare to previous work of yours that people may have seen?
It’s similar. It’s definitely in the same vein. My last paintings were more about worldly issues, more about political issues. My newer paintings are more about personal struggle.
Was that an intentional effort on your part?
I don’t even know if I really had that much control over it. It kind of ended up being what was coming out of me. I had a lot of different stuff on my mind that was sort of making its way into the painting. I think the imagery can still be taken by the viewer as being not as personal; the viewer can take it and assign different meanings to it.
So you try to keep the meaning of your work open to interpretation?
I like to have the symbolism be something that’s not so obvious; I like it when there are questions without answers. I like it when somebody has to really wonder what something means and take out of it their own meaning. And people always do come at it from angles that I had no idea about.
Do you hear people’s interpretations of your paintings and say to yourself “Well, that wasn’t what I was thinking, but that works too?”
Yeah, exactly. And every time I get that feedback from people, next time someone asks me what a painting means, I can add that too it.
You didn’t have any formal art training or go to art school, but your work certainly seems to be informed by a respect for a lot of the great artists and art movements.
I was always inspired, as a kid, by Degas and all the old masters. I always wanted to be really painterly in my paintings; that’s something I’ve worked really hard at getting better at. Then also, I was always interested in the sort of darker surrealist paintings, the darker imagery in Frida Kahlo and Dali and Francis Bacon, all that sort of stuff. As I grew up looking at all the books, that was what I was drawn to. So when I started painting full-time, that ended up being what my style was.
Was art something that you knew you wanted to do professionally, or was there a sort of a moment when you decided you wanted to be an artist?
I always wanted to be a painter, even when I was a kid. I think when I was little, right around the time I was coming to terms with death—the fact that humans don’t live forever—was around the same time I was looking at these paintings that people had done three or four hundred years ago that were in these books. So I think my little brain grasped onto the fact that if you became a good enough painter that you could have some version of immortality, like if you could reach that point. So that was a subconscious thing where I always wanted to do it. The only struggle I ever had with it was that I like to play music, so there were certain times in my life when I was trying to play music and paint at the same time, and trying to balance those two lifestyles at the same time can be really difficult. But painting always sort of wins out for me.
You recently moved to Portland, how is the scene there?
Music and fashion and visual arts, there’s definitely a lot going on. With painting, there was a while where everybody in Portland was drifting toward the sort of simplified, low-brow comic character, cartoonish sort of thing, which is great, and there are a lot of artists who are really good at it here. But it was getting to be where every time you went to a show, that was what you were seeing: something that would end up on a T-shirt or a pair of shoes or something. A lot of the reason that the art here is so strong, unfortunately I think, is that there are a lot of artistically driven companies, and because of that, a lot of the design school students end up coming to work here for Nike and Adidas and those sort of companies. So a lot of the art you end up seeing here is from those artists. But now, there’s sort of a resurgence of painters starting to pop up, and I think the next year is going to be really exciting because there are a lot of people who are just starting to get a foothold.
How was the experience in Sacramento and Davis during your residency last year?
It was great. I had a lot of support from the artist community there and the other artists who are part of the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts. I had a really fun time. I stayed in the gallery for a couple of weeks when I was painting a mural, and I met a lot of people at night, the different sort of nocturnal people who were around and who were really great. But there’s a lot of great art happening in Davis. I got to go with [Davis artist] Myron Stephens to the art walk in Sacramento and there was crazy art happening there too.
What are you long-term goals, career-wise?
I want my work to continue to grow. A big goal right now is I want to be able to support myself and my daughter with my painting and be comfortable enough that she can have a comfortable life, so that’s sort of the main drive, for me. But besides that, I just want to continue to make paintings that people are drawn to or intrigued by. Or disgusted by.
See Alex Reisfar’s The Coyote Show now through March 1, 2014 at the John Natsoulas Center for the Arts, located at 521 1st Street in Davis. For more info on the Center, such as gallery hours and other upcoming and current exhibitions, go to Natsoulas.com.