Destiny’s Calling

From Matisse to mid-century modern—East Bay painter Fernando Reyes wows fans with his joyous abstractions
Destiny's Calling
Fernando Reyes in his Oakland studio. Here, Fernando is holding up one of his relief block prints, entitled 'My Muse.'
Destiny's Calling
Figurative abstract 'Prudence.'
Destiny's Calling
'Masquerade.'

Maybe Fernando Reyes was destined to win success as a mid-century modernist. Could a pencil drawing of swirling biomorphic shapes he made as a boy and titled 'Modern Art' be seen as a sign?

That's not to say Fernando lacked free will. Throughout his 20-year career, he's made bold choices. He left his traditional, church-going family in Fresno to become part of San Francisco's gay scene. He quit a well-paid job as a senior manager for bankruptcy accounts at Bank of America to become an artist. He moved to Chicago when his partner began studying psychology there.

Fernando has also worked hard. He began his career by bringing his portfolio to gallery directors, with little luck. He'd set up exhibits of his paintings at street fairs.

But might it have been destiny that led him to Henri Matisse, an artist he had never much considered? It was an artistic encounter that changed Fernando's life.

He traveled to New York City to see an exhibit of the Austrian figurative artist Egon Schiele, a longtime favorite. Seeing Matisse was an afterthought. "Because Matisse was showing [at the Museum of Modern Art], a major art figure in history, we had to see the exhibition," Fernando says.

"Matisse had immense paper cutout blue nudes," Fernando recalls. "It basically blew me away. I was in awe of the blue nude figures. They are very abstract and very simple."

This was four years ago, and Fernando, then 50, had never been interested in abstraction. "That wasn't my idea of being an artist," he says. "My idea of being an artist was being able to actually draw the figure."

But in recent years, some of his figurative drawings had been veering towards abstraction, and Fernando wanted to try something different. Matisse gave him the push that led to his current crop of paper cutout abstractions that express a joyful, mid-century modern feeling. They also have brought much attention to his work, including a museum retrospective earlier this year.

"That's what changed everything for me," he says. "Once I started work on this purely abstract artwork, it has opened up more doors for me than the figure has ever opened."

Fernando has developed a style that is often completely abstract, with multi-colored forms that range from angular to curvaceous and seem to dance.

The collages are complex in look, conception, and method. Unlike many collagists, Fernando doesn't use pre-existing or found images for his raw material. Instead, he says, "I make my own prints from my own designs." Then he cuts them up and pastes them down.

Destiny's Calling
Fascinating abstracts and collages from Reyes' hand. 'Making the Cut' (left), 'Ebullience' (center), 'Marmalade' (right).