Raf Reyes is a 21-year-old artist who produces dramatic work that aims to (re)consider our inner consciousness, the natural world, modern consumer society and describe how they all interact.
A multidisciplinary artist, Raf's practice combines mixed media collage, analog and digital art as well as graffiti based performances.
He enjoys experimenting in across a range of media and techniques including pop art, photography and collage. The counter-cultural aspect of digital art appeals to him, especially emerging digital art trends such as vaporwave, glitch art and grime/slime.
Hello Raf, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today — we are looking forward to learning more about your work! (you can also enjoy more of Raf’s work in our upcoming publication, Curatorial Volume.1, Leaders in Contemporary Art, out July 2019)
Firstly, can you introduce yourself and tell us what you’re working on at the moment?
First name, Raf. Last name, Reyes. I was born and raised in Paris yet, after A-levels, I moved to Warwick University to study Business. I diverted away and fell for Art later on. While my childhood was filled with bold visuals, vibrant colors, spray paint, ripped posters and newspapers’ doodles. As far as I can remember, life for me has always been surrounded by art. I am mainly self-taught. My friends tend to characterize me as a "DIY guy". Illustrating is my method of personal expression, and collage the result. A peculiar fascination for calligraphy, symbols and textures altogether drove me to further experiment first with mixed media then go full on digital. The kid in me still uses his weapons of choice like ballpens, colored pencils, cheap pastels and gouache, but as time went by I decided to shift again and I came up with even more unconventional ways of doing. Right now, my artistic concept is like a gamebook's pathway a reader would choose to take. I usually compare the dozens of layers of my digital artworks to the very layers of our own unique minds: references to objects, feelings and inspirational artists become signals towards the spectator (signals he can notice and grasp in their entirety - or not).
I am currently working on a triptych called “The Garden of Earthly Delights” as a response to Hieronymus Bosch’s 1510 triptych which was a dire warning on the perils of life's temptations; yet this time, I am incorporating my signature style and a modern twist to it with contemporary elements and themes ranging from society to loneliness through love and hate.
Your work is influenced by a number of elements, including street art, commercial advertising and counterculture. Your art also comments on modern consumer society. This is especially evident in the body of work you have chosen to feature in Curatorial Volume.1, Leaders in Contemporary Art. Can you expand on why they resonate with you?
A huge inspiration to me is the Renaissance movement (coupled with classic and baroque artworks too). Conversely, I also love the mass culture appeal of pop art as well as the big, bold bubbles and falsely naive illustrations in comics that jointly infiltrated the world of art. The very concept of guerilla marketing animates me on the daily: how to do more with less? You nailed it, modern (consumer) society is effectively (one of) my favorite topics of choice, probably because I am myself so embedded into it already (though I want it or not), like some sort of real-life board game in which I wouldn’t be able to stop playing, even if I wanted to. It has become incredibly hard nowadays to control our (purchasing) impulses and be clear-sighted in an ocean of diversions, with new needs being created by the minute, and videos of crowds going wild for Black Friday going viral.
Speaking of the devil, my biggest obsession is about finding beauty in adversity, and Art in chaos and confusion. As my influences range from music to fashion through graffiti, murals and "vandal" (in appearance) ephemeral art practices, my work is itself meant to be socially reflective (including some form of social commentary through sub-layers, textured effects or smaller “Easter eggs” visuals imprinted in the bigger picture for the viewer to then find/notice). I always knew there was a way to relate these effects to something societally based. Indeed, the neighborhood I grew up in, as swarming and multiethnic as can be, represented this patchwork vision all throughout my teenage years. It magnificently reverberated images of creativity in the most unexpected and counter-cultural ways imaginable, as people were using every space or voice they had to convey their messages. Still resonating strongly with me to this day, these distorted vibes, echoing all around me, have altogether contributed putting forward a maybe biased yet (at the time) beautiful vision on so many debated topics and things ongoing in the fast-paced, techy age of the 21st century.
You’re a 21-year-old artist, a digital native and part of Generation Z (the first generation to have Internet technology easily available at a young age). Can you explain how you engage with social media in the context of your practice as an artist?
As crazy as what our era has to offer, with ready-to-eat content being posted every day and narcissism being hailed almost as a quality amongst youngsters, when it comes to my art practice, body of work and social media more generally, I conversely found solace in humility and patience. I am religious about empathy: the only two things I merely think about nowadays are 1. what is best for my community and 2. how can I work FOR them in the best way possible. Start mapping your audience’s behaviour, find your most valuable contributors, try your best to reply to comments and DMs, that is the basics.
On another note, I have stopped strategizing my Instagram posts based on the number of likes it could potentially get or the relative followers I could potentially gain from them. A lot of newcomers, actually peers of mine, they want to get fast money through social media, they try and seek solutions/short term gains in tips and tricks easily found on the Internet, like engagement groups and other horse**** hacks supposed to maximize engagement artificially.
For ANYONE to create a meaningful community, in this case artists, what I truly believe in is simple and relies heavily on actually BRINGING your audience VALUE (through your works). Maybe take a step back to the roots of the social media you are posting on, go back to their original mission statements; ask yourself: how can your branded/original content add to their lives? why? what could be really worthy of taking their time appreciating and engaging positively with your own content???
What do you think is the most exciting aspect of being a young artist producing work today?
Just to put back into context, upon writing these words, I am about to graduate and enter a five-year window of my life in which I want to be massively risk-orientated.
Being a young artist pouring out work nowadays surely has many cons, like we had less time to gather that experience and accumulated talent some might have built over the years; but we also have a fresh, unique look on things and, unburdened by “adult life” chores yet, the pros are countless. We can just pick and choose between a wider, richer range of sources, techniques and mediums that would have been altogether unthinkable a few years ago, change our vision swiftly as days pass by to better adapt to this fast-moving world, and then be classified as “emergent” much more easily, in my opinion. Versatility is our biggest strength. Advanced technology, design software updates and AIs are taking over the world of art. We can either ride the wave or be swept out by the tsunami. Now (more than ever) is the time for the youth to try and grab as many opportunities we can, while we are not worried about society having sucked out most of our dreams and hopes, whose mouths to feed and which interest payback rates to select from.
Conversely, can you discuss the challenges have you experienced, and how you have overcome them?
Still being at uni, having no solid background in art from before, starting from scratch… even my overall personality, I mean I can get obsessed over simple things easily. It might as well be second nature to wonder about mental health in art. I still feel awkward asking about it but I really have no problems talking about it. In fact, I think it is something we should all be comfortable talking about. I was amazed while watching the “Take Your Pills” Netflix documentary, seeing how both anxiety and OCD can be much more pervasive than we think in today’s world/anyone’s lives. I won’t go into details but undergoing ordinary yet peculiar thoughts is still extremely frequent, it started in high school, all throughout college. I have had loads of fears about society, modern life, death and religion — four big topics I knew almost nothing about. And when you lack knowledge, your mind sometimes fills in the blanks with some really absurd things. Ups and downs, we have them both. People tend to see only the ultimate result of your hustle, only the final achievement rewarded after long hours of grinding alone. And through the downs, that is when I really started experimenting with art and software. Making art became, by far, the best means of escape, the most effective form of therapy I could ever experience. Comfort, sanity, liberation, a place to turn to. Along with music, it really helped me focus on something else than my own thoughts. Next thing you know my mind is put into action and ideas take artistic shape, morphed into digital art, visualized through symbols. About art, it is much more about what you feel than what you see; there is and always will be a mental connection, some kind of emotional bond between the art piece that a viewer can see and sense, and the artist who did it first.
Lastly, being able to produce a handful of large-sized artworks every week if mentally ready can sometimes take a toll somewhere else. Both having a healthy balance and not being stuck in these phases are key: alternating, by seeing friends or family, is the remedy. I can sometimes just be very focused on Art. If you’re looking in from the outside, it can seem “unhealthy”. One can start to live a very reclusive lifestyle if he does not feel part of something bigger than him, and these types of habits can be hard to break.
Your method of producing digital work is incredibly layered and detailed. As a viewer, each element of your work takes my gaze down its own path. You’ve also mentioned that it’s an active choice of yours to deliberately make room in your process for spontaneous changes and actions occurring during production. Can you talk us through the process of creating a work such as ‘Home Sweet Home’?
Affirmative. I mostly do so by relishing possibilities of chance and spontaneity: half of the times I am producing, I make sure to leave room for alea, randomness and incident, so as unpremeditated objects get incorporated in the final piece without any particular method or rule of thumb for display matters. Such elements define my artistic essence and style. It is like reworking a cookbook recipe. These "glitches" (due to their minor malfunction, misplace - whether they're set in the foreground to emphasize their importance or in-between dozens of opacifying layers) altogether contribute to translate my will to let the viewer see absolutely everything that he or she ultimately wishes to be entailed in the works.
When you said that each element of my work takes your gaze down its own path, it is honestly heartwarming hearing that. I enjoy saying that each visual (element) incorporated in the artwork has its own story: it might appear unrelated at first, but if it is in the artwork, it is for a reason, it is related to it a way or another. Like an enigma or riddle you would uncover little by little, like a thread you would pull, bringing back a whole bunch of memories or visions upon doing so.
When I came up with “Home Sweet Home”, I started with a classical base layer by Rubens, representing people dancing happily near their family house. For now, everything looks jolly. But then I set the whole place on fire and bring chaos to Eden, daring to write right in the middle “Home Sweet Home” in big-lettered graffiti-style spray paint, as if nothing had truly changed. I aimed at depicting a surrealistically built construction, including bold typographic elements and quotes that spell out impactful words in stylized fonts. Similarly to what Duchamp's achieved with his "Fountain", for my part, quotation marks represent an essential component of my modus operandi, wherein punctuation and symbols help me in my quest to challenge the seriousness and validity statuses of current stone-set conceptions.
When my solo exhibition “Métamorphoses” was hosted last April in Paris (Galerie Gismondi, 20 Rue Royale), I appreciated visitors who first told me they were visually struck by the artwork, then taking a few steps forward and back, examining it under many perspectives and angles, really trying to dive into it figuratively.
We’d like to explore the dualities and antagonisms you feature in your work, can you talk us through the specific themes that you explore?
All my works are one-off (“1-of-1s”). I tend to recast ideas of black and white, dark and light, the conscious and the subconscious, life and death, love and hate; questioning conventions and defying perceptions of good and evil. Some of my works reveal deep-seated conflicts, while others offer images of companionship. By combining disparate elements in a single artwork, I also kind of suggest that opposing forces can be united to create a whole new entity.
A bit like Basquiat did with his so-called “suggestive dichotomies”, for my part, visuals eventually blend together in the canvas thanks to their apparent relatedness in terms of theme, history and overall impression extolled (conveying similar or contrary feelings). Structural interventions or "alterations" as I like to call them also cause base shapes to appear in a state of flux as if these shapes were melting or dripping, thus reversing notions of objective rigidity and regular norms of display.
I often identify deeply with the individuals I depict in my paintings. Loads of my artworks merge the new and the old, further exploring issues of identity – specifically through social networks, mythological figures, form and content – altogether seen as mirrored images of (the artist) myself. From legendary heroes to modern icons through friends, I tend to paint/represent people I relate to and admire. The dualities and antagonisms featured in my works speak for the experiences I felt I shared with my subjects of choice.
You enjoy experimenting with digital techniques, including glitch, vaporwave and grime/slime. What about these techniques appeals to you?
Aforementioned subgenres might have weird-sounding names but what they extoll is in fact quite simple. I just love the distortion, as if you were on some drug trip without the drugs. It also takes you back to the golden era of VHS and bad tv effects… It has a lot of common points with what I create ultimately: alternate realities dominated by a sense of disorientation. Often, sculptures, burning flowers or birds absorb and come to complement my subjects’ faces/bodies. I was very inspired by @slimesunday (Mike Parisella)’s liquefying techniques and ingenuity with the matter, or @circlecirclemath ‘s “cut-face” effect and melting effects. Both use vibrant colors too.
The art world now is very complex and challenging. I am glad traditions of fine art are tackled by popular imagery and mass culture including advertising, comic books and mundane cultural objects. I tried and took the best out of the aforementioned techniques; now, my aestheticized multi-layered renders aim at fulfilling hypothetical emotional states experienced by the viewer, through visual catharsis or psychological signaling. Hyper magnification of pixels and hues through photo manipulation somehow became predominant in my most recent works. Counterintuitive designs, queuing possibilities of object positioning (upon assembling), as well as coercing visual material behaving atypically altogether aim to talk to the subliminal. I ultimately strive to present powerful work that possesses visual drama while also possessing either minimalist or visually charged aspects, measures of solid intention and moments unrehearsed, signals of Humanity's apparent progress or possible entropic future scenarios. Be it through my imagination, ideas and interactions, I encourage the viewer to evaluate and carefully look through hidden meanings, references and "abnormalities" as much as possible.
Can you share with us your top five new trends, techniques or artists we should check out?
Honestly, the last thing I saw on Pinterest that struck me the most was Lucas Chimello Simões’ work. I don’t think he has Instagram nor other big social media platforms, but his signature style of burning out photographs “to physically erase a memory” by doing so really struck me on another level. Shoutout to him. Additionally, Elisa Insua (@elisainsua)’s “Trash to Treasure” work using objects good for the bin, giving them a new life through her Art (by recycling) is just fantastic. Alexy Prefontaine (@aeforia), Shepard Fairey from @obeygiant, Joshua Vides (@joshuavides), Louis Carreon (@louiscarreon), and album cover rework genius @deadmonbernz all deserve their fair share of attention as well. So many more should be put forward too, but we will limit ourselves to five for now. On another note, you should really check out 3D printing (notably designer toys) and 3D art, lenticular photography (stereoscopic GIFs), motion graphics, linocuts, mail art…
Finally, can you tell us about what projects and plans you have for 2019?
2019 is the year I will attack what I love and what I want to do more fiercely than ever before. One thing for sure, I will never stop following my Dream and the decision to embark on new roads in my life. A few weeks ago, I have applied for an MFA (Master in Fine Arts) at Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Arts and Central Saint Martins. Hopefully it will turn out positive and open up a whole new terrain for experimentation for me, with access to resources, knowledge, staff, peers and facilities I have never been granted with for now.
A new exhibition dubbed “XFleurs” revolving around the floral theme happening in Paris (Le Purgatoire-54, 54 Rue de Paradis) will also feature works of mine in July. My agents and managers at DARMOArt (talent agency) are planning on another solo showcase too, bigger this time, and hopefully somewhere else than Paris. I love my city but I would love to be exhibited in the US, Asia, Australia or the Middle-East. Round and round we go 🌏!!! I’ve been truly honored with this interview and the feature on Capsules Books’ Curatorial Vol.1: Leaders in Contemporary Art (out July 2019). Stay blessed y’all.
Thanks for sharing your practice with us Raf! We are looking forward to seeing what you create next!