Why was I drawn nearly every day for a year to the Alex Reisfar mural in Tim Spencer Alley?
At first glance, I was able to interpret most of the symbolism in the surrealistic figures beneath cloudy skies and tucked in dark-red haunting rooms — but they kept calling me back to look deeper.
There’s always a lag as you step away from any painting. A residual feeling. For some paintings, that residual feeling lasts longer than for others, and for each person it’s different.
For me, the residual feeling from a Reisfar is as if you just stepped away from a Ouija board, in which the pointer moved craftily on its own — not a “look there, it moved … no you bumped it” move — the pointer moved when none of you were touching it, then it spelled your name, told you to turn around.
Reisfar’s art has this kind of feeling. All Davis residents may see his artwork up close on exhibit through March 1 at the John Natsoulas Gallery, 521 First St. in downtown Davis.
For non-superstitious realists, Reisfar is a painter who attempts to surrealistically mirror society. Symbolically, he asks — begs, rather — for individuals to pay attention to historical and environmental fairness, and he usually steals your attention by drawing the eye to symbolic comparisons.
He doesn’t make it too hard. A person can figure out his symbols — most of them — while standing in front of his work. But they can make you contemplate for quite a while.
In each painting are scenes and symbols that battle and balance each other: war, national history, industry, the environment, carnival-ish scenes, mix-and-match animals with heads of historical figures, unusual plant and fungi species and folklore, always in dark colors.
After viewing a few Reisfars, it’s time for a breather. Walk outside the gallery, talk about anything but art with someone but then you’re pulled back to the gallery for more Reisfar.
Why go back if his art is so unnerving? Why did I make it a point to walk past Reisfar’s “chief” mural in Tim Spencer Alley every day for nearly a year?
Things I did there: Think and write songs while the chef/dishwasher at the sushi restaurant would whistle along through the alley screen door; talk to family members about upcoming events; discover the little things.
I talked with others about the mural. One local barber didn’t want to talk too much about it when he was cutting my hair last year, but he’d heard of it and said it caused a bit of a stir downtown. I’ve seen others stop by and they said they dig the painting. I took visiting friends to see it, and I asked them what they thought of it.
I think I sat there each day as a gesture to the fairness and honesty presented to me from the imagination of a painter’s spirit world. In reality, the fairness and honesty came from living people allowing a mural with such difficult historical issues to be painted in an American town.
Coincidentally, I met Reisfar on the day he completed the chief back in January 2012, which actually is titled “The Signs & Wonders of an Interdimensional Warrior.” We talked for a few minutes as he explained how he was using a technique of projecting from a smaller painting onto the wall.
I met him again this week and asked him about the mural and a little about his other work as well.
Q: Was the location of the mural in Tim Spencer Alley in Davis chosen to be in an alley — as opposed to out in the open — for a reason, i.e., people might be too sensitive to it in a more open location, or was it a statement to say: the nation historically silenced Native Americans on reservations — so we’re going to hide away this mural?
A: No, the location was just random. The guy who owns that building was OK with it — John (Natsoulas) was looking for a place, and it was available.
Q: Why does the red and black flag not have a flagpole attaching to the ground?
A: The colors are of an anarchist flag. The decision not to give a flagpole was to not associate or ground it with any particular culture — a struggle on a wider scale than just a labor or indigenous struggle.
Q: The boy has two apples to symbolize greed and lack of sharing, right?
Q: Do people ever treat you with anger because of your art?
A: It’s been a long time. I try to make my paintings balanced, that even when there’s intense things. … For instance, a baby skull might be balanced with a flower on the other side. I try to keep symbolism subtle to not offend people too much. So, even if they disagree they can find their own meaning in it. It could probably really insult people if they knew what my meaning was, but they can take from it what they want.
Q: Did you ever paint in bright colors, and what type of paint do you use?
A: I did paint bright colors once in a while, when I was much younger and inspired by Mexican folk art. All acrylic, it’s cheaper.
Q: Do your ideas come to you in dreams? If not, where?
A: Some come from dreams. Some come from my daughter Farrin’s dreams. She draws from her dreams. Her illustrations are a lot of times what she dreams about. She comes up with ideas that are almost too scary for even me to paint about. She recently painted a creature made out of heads with X’s for eyes, like they were dead, and the bottom head arms became legs.
Q: Why do you paint animal heads on people bodies?
A: I like the idea of turning into creatures. My daughter was really interested in werewolves, so I took her to the library. We checked out books on Native American legends, myths around the world about werewolves, and these started showing up in a lot of my paintings.
Q: But what do the animal heads mean?
A: Being able to change your idea depending on the people you’re around — such as a secret society with ties to the government — being two-faced or twisted.
It’s also really fun to paint animal heads on people.
Q: Oh, one more thing … about 10 feet to the left of the mural in Tim Spencer Alley, someone painted a black flower (not in the mural). Was that you? If so, explain.
A: I was going to do more (black flowers). I felt like since I had the right to write on the wall, I added the flower because I could.
Reisfar’s paintings are on view on the second floor at the Natsoulas Gallery, and he might or might not be wandering about listening to what people think of his art. On the first floor are works by several outstanding artists for the Bark! 2014 series.
The mural in Tim Spencer Alley was completed by Reisfar during a residency with Natsoulas Gallery. A map of all of the town’s murals is available at the gallery.
— Reach Jason McAlister at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052.