Interview with Painter, Dean Reynolds (Part 1)

The Cosmic Dharma Bears, b Dean Reynolds. oil on canvas, 32″x44″ 2015.

Dean Reynold’s surrealist, mythological, Jungian, paintings look like someone spiked my punch. The paintings of Dean Reynolds have a unique surrealist, spiritual, psychedelic flavor with a strangely familiar transcendent clarity. Those bears [above] with their singular eyes are saying something to me, but it can’t be put into words. Seeing is believing, but here not believing an argument or story, but rather the existence of a plane of consciousness. All of his paintings make me feel like I’m napping in a hammock at Burning man, and unbeknownst to me that lollipop the hot topless girl on the bicycle gave to me was laced with Lysergic acid diethylamide, and the effects have come on strong. Where the hell am I? There is a fine line between the psychedelic, the spiritual, and the vision that forms on the artist’s canvas via the process of imagining.

Portrait of Forest at the Mystery of Feminine, by Dean Reynolds, 38″x48″ 2014.

Dean’s paintings are not just about being seen, they are about seeing, and seeing as a metaphor for awareness. There’s an attempt in these paintings to see and become aware more, and to manifest that as an image for others to gaze into. He creates an environment of his own, like a dream world, where everything is bright and clear, under an azure sky, but you don’t need sunglasses.

The Walker, by Dean Reynolds, oil on canvas, 48″x48″ 2013.

Dean is conspicuously adept at life drawing, knows how to balance color and make a clever composition. Aside from the more intangible content, the images are beautifully rendered.

Outside of his art, Dean has left several comments on my blog that indicated he’s someone who has thought deeply about the big questions surrounding art, and can share his ideas articulately. Here I will find out not only more about his art, but also get his take on central, critical, and controversial questions revolving around contemporary art and present day life.


Dean is from LA, got his BFA in painting from Northern Kentucky University, and his MFA from Arizona State University.

The artist in his studio. Click to see a 360° Panorama.

Eric: I’m not going to pry into your private life, but if you want to share any biographical information you feel is relevant, feel free.

Dean: As for questions I am open to any. If you are so willing I can relay some biographical details that are not directly related to art.

I was born in Torrance, CA which is slightly south of LA proper. I lived and worked in LA for many years, mainly as a waiter. I tried my hand at acting for a bit, but not with any real dedication. Did some theater there.

Both my mother and father are dead. My father died before I turned 21. He was in his early 50’s. Cancer. I stayed home to take care of him when I was 19 to 20 years old. My mother lived a great deal longer, the ripe old age of 75, and died of cancer too.

I have had serious back issues for most of my life. When I was 16 I suffered a serious herniated disc. I basically limped and moved in pain, went through several procedures and a final major surgery. I still suffer from it from time to time. My final year in grad school, during the middle of my last semester, for two weeks I was unable to stand or walk due to pain.

This is sounding like talking to your grandfather, listing his ailments and health problems. I come from a working class, non-religious family, strict in terms of everything; no smoking, drinking, drugs, long hair, tattoos. That remained a model of behavior till I was about 25 and then three of those “taboos” would be broken.

Eric: Who are a few of your favorite artists. Just a few.

Dean: Max Beckmann, Bosch, De Kooning. Let me stop there. (some of the Surrealists, Odd Nerdrum to sneak them in through the back door!)

Eric: I would not have guessed those artists, who are also quite diverse. De Kooning, being an Abstract Expressionist, is the biggest surprise? Why de Kooning?

A young Willem de Kooning in front of one of his heroic canvases.

Dean: I look at an artist’s work in terms of what are they (or were) thinking and what they have made. What were they dealing with as artist, person, human being. De Kooning’s is not like mine. I do not have those qualities to my work: flashy brushwork, buttery application of paint, etc. I never cared much about his work until I did a research paper on him in undergrad. It was through that I got to know the person behind the paintings. He approached painting with a sense that you were just making a painting, and not saving mankind. His Woman painting series of the early fifties were based on a Dutch running joke and he found the critical reception rather amusing.

Willem de Kooning, The Visit, 1966/1967,

His way of working on a painting was methodical and involved responding to each new thing he added. He would apply some paint in an area, step back, look, apply paint near that area, step back, repeat. He was thinking about the painting and how it was working. He thought about bringing it all together and making it work together. It has a practical, down to earth quality. He had a sense of humor also. The other Ab-Exes seem to be overly serious about everything. When Philip Guston transitioned from abstraction in 1970 to those crude cartoonish figurative works, there were those who felt he was betraying abstraction. De Kooning responded; “We all don’t play for the same baseball team”.

Detail of de Kooning’s “composition 1955” showing his vigorous brushwork.

Eric: And how about Hieronymus? You went medieval on us there. What do you see in an artist that died 501 years ago?

Dean: Bosch is an artist whom one can invite much conjecture about his work. There is little that we know of him in terms of his work and his ideas behind it. We can only really surmise about the work by itself and the time frame in which it was made. He was a person of the Gothic mind even though he was alive at the same time as artists like Da Vinci and Durer. There is the enclosed world of the Medieval mind in his work. The rigid Catholic ideas of the world, its fixed systems and hierarchies, the divine arrangement of punishments and rewards. Within that rigid world-view comes the most spectacular visual inventions. The almost joyful imaginings of the punishments of hell, the tragic sense of the shortness of life, and the stage built for the drama of divine and demonic forces.

Detail of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights [495–1505]. Here people are depicted as indulging in the pleasures of the flesh.

To many people today the hell section of the Garden of Earthly Delights is akin to a horror movie populated with vampires and werewolves, just not as cool. Bosch, like other artists of the Gothic mind, sees this less as an entertainment than an eternal reality after death for sinners. It is not all fun and games: not a little scare to make you laugh, but a pronouncement of how the world works and how cosmic forces respond to our actions and thoughts. If you look closely at the Hell section of the painting, there’s a Blue Bird Man sitting on the chair eating a man, and shitting another. He wears a pot on his head, and if you look at the reflection on that pot it’s the shape of a window. Hell, to the mind of Bosch, is a giant room where there is no escape. All his work has the careful attention to details, to the symbolism, motifs, and narratives of the world he lived in.

Detail of Bosch’s “Hell”, with the Blue Bird Man. Note the window-shaped reflection on the pot.

Eric: Max Beckmann is another pleasant surprise for me. In a time when people are taught in college to value conceptual and political art (I was), you rank a German Expressionist as #1. What attracts you to Beckmann?

Max Beckmann Self-Portrait with Cigarette [1933].

Dean: Beckmann is another artist whose work does not look like mine. His clunky and almost crude figures belie a deeper substance. I was moved two decades ago upon seeing his work in a large show at LACMA (the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art) . It was a Surrealist/German Expressionist show. All the heavy hitters were represented: Dali, Magritte, Tanguy, and there were two of Beckmann’s triptychs, including “Bird’s Hell” 1938. What makes me go to his work is that he considered mythology: using images, symbols, narratives and figures as a way of making paintings within his own time. Those mythological stories have a brutal honesty. The Song of Roland, Beowulf, King Arthur, the Greek Mythos are primal materials. The artist is translating or using something larger than himself to communicate, or connect with others.

How could Beckmann visually speak about the 1930’s, Nazi’s, WWII? Through using older and primal images and narratives. There is a larger connection that humans have: war, tribalism, aggression, and the misuse of power are tales that are very old and run very deep. Carl Jung addressed this in his theories about the collective archetypes, that each may have different forms but are based on universal truths. Beckmann was using those forms, narratives, stories, and symbols that may be old but have great truths that cut through the flotsam of the affectations of social conventions.

Max Beckman “Bird’s Hell” 1938.

Eric: Is there some common ground between these three artists that resonates with you?

Is there cross over with these three artists? You might say a little, but the main interest is in their work and what they were thinking. Van Gogh is a spectacular artist, whose work is beautiful, stunning in use of color, and the brush work is voluptuous. But it’s not all for the sake of that. He was a man driven by deep feelings and a hungry mind. If one reads his letters you get the sense of a man who was difficult, stubborn, even monomaniacal, and a voracious reader. He was compelled by the ideas of his time and his own inward journey. By way of contrast, I find Andy Warhol generally dull and lifeless, though Rauschenberg is engaging. Wayne Thiebaud’s work is both delicious to look at (literally) and he is an artist engaged in the act of painting: the issues of light, space, form and color. He is being honest, he is not bullshitting me.

Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes [1963].

Eric: So the overlap is not necessarily style, but rather the artist’s attitude towards art and the struggle of existence. I gather Thiebaud is an example that art need not be dark to be honest, and thus serious. This relates to my next question.

For you specifically, what is the purpose of art?

Dean: I will say that the purpose of art is to create a connection between artist and viewer, to connect the viewer with a catharsis, a transformation to a wider perspective of themselves and their place in the world (both the viewer and artist). Discovery – the artist discovers something in him or her and the viewer discovers something in themselves that was not there or was hidden.

Art is getting at a truth, that all is true, but one must often be reminded about the nature of life. It’s a reminder that we are mortal, we all are concerned with the future and that we are all connected to something larger than individual concerns.

It cannot be just about the current problems, be they political, social or economic (temporal circumstances that will always change), but about more the elusive and yet constant truths of being alive. It is the duty of the artist to dig deep, or look longer, at their lives, through their experiences and perspectives. As the poet Octavio Paz wrote about, to listen to the other voice, the voice not of reason, but of that which is not logical or practical, the voice that speaks beyond money, status, and fame. It speaks for understanding, for connection, that we are not alone and that we need each other.

Poet, Octavio Paz.

Eric: I’m paraphrasing you. You said the purpose of art is to transform people and reveal truth. I think we both know people make art for all sorts of purposes, so we are talking here specifically about your purpose. I think you are also talking about what you look for in other art. What kind of transformation are we talking about? And what kind of truth? Before you mentioned “the nature of life”. What about it? What is the nature of life? Is this art as a substitute for religion?

Queen of vision. Oil on canvas, 35″x22″, 2011.

Dean: I live in a society that seems very lifeless or rather dead intellectually and spiritually. No one has any interests other than in earning and spending, what can be bought and sold. The techno-gadget obsession and infotainment complex constantly rains in its corporate created imagery of money, status and appearance. This is not to say that I have the answers, that I have any great wisdom or intellectual acumen, nor spiritual insights.

I am being too harsh. I have been thinking about how I can live my life.

I realized I didn’t want the American Dream, the consumerism, the suburban existence. Is life just about work, earn, buy? Can there be something more or different?

The Roman writer and philosopher Seneca wrote about the shortness of life and that if we occupy ourselves only with vanity, possessions, power we fail to realize how quickly our lives go by and to live with greater purpose within that short time.

Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger.

Being a banker, a lawyer, a football player, any occupation, it sustains us but it is not why we are living. So much of life (in the United States) is so commodified, commercialized, and simply produced in disposable mass quantities that the individual is lost in this madness. Human beings seem as replaceable as piston rods. Money: that is all people seem to talk about.
I wanted to create and do, to think and be in a way that was trying to be true to me.

If making paintings and drawings that in some small way is the individual trying to make real connections however transient or ephemeral then it is worth giving ones limited time to.

This is not saying that art, painting or what have you replaces Religion. Books, music, paintings, are just means, devices, modes of communicating. Then to communicate what? The nature of life, which is what? What is my purpose for doing any of this? I am not so presumptuous to think that my work will change anyone’s life. Nor that I am communicating some profound spiritual idea. I go to those who I find comfort, inspiration and continuous insights. – Carl Jung, he is difficult to read, but I enjoy the challenge of his thinking. We all share a common dreams and drives. – The Surrealists, to look beyond the conventional and to think in new ways. – Joseph Campbell, the scope of the human mind about the world, the narratives we create to understand the mystery. – In the insights of religions, Eastern practices especially.

Carl Jung: the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology…

Life is more than yours or my obtuse theories about it. Life is full of wonders and pain. Life is infinite in its creation. Life is more than the sum of its parts. Everything, all things are connected. We share our DNA with every living being on this planet, with those who have come before us and those that will come after us. Life cannot be explained in words alone. We as individuals can know the sacred and the profane, the solemn and the silly, what can be measured and that which we will never be able to grasp. To open the mind and the heart to possibilities. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

Joseph Campbell: mythologist, writer and lecturer.

This is a verse from The Man of La Mancha:

“Life as it is? I have lived for over forty years and have seen life as it is: pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief. I have been a soldier and a slave. I have seen my comrades die in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I held them at the last moment. No glory. No brave last words. Only their eyes filled with confusion wondering why. I do not think they were asking why they were dying but why they had ever lived. When the world seems lunatic who knows where madness lies. Perhaps to be too practical this may be madness, to surrender dreams may be madness, to seek treasure where there is only trash, too much sanity may be madness. But maddest of all, to see life at it is and not as it should be?”

Eric: When and why did you start seriously pursuing art?

Dean: I had drawn and painted before I ever thought of attending any kind of university while living in LA. The artwork was just for myself. Abstracts with acrylics, scribbles and doodles in journals, and I began a few ink drawings that had a surreal influence. I remember I bought a large coffee table book of Dali’s work. I would often flip through it, being drawn to the strange imagery. I was interested in things of the otherworldly nature in a peripheral way.

Bacchanale, 1939 by Salvador Dali

I had been wrestling with far more stronger issues in my life then. I was a very angry man then. Angry at the death of my dad in his very early 50’s, and I was 21 at the time. The emotional divide I had with my mother, the guilt that comes with the death of a parent. With that I also became disillusioned with the “American Way of Life” that I had grown up in. I felt there was something more or at least different. I began reading a great deal in my late 20’s. I was voracious in the consumption of books. Fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry. Dickens, Tolstoy, Moliere, Melville, Balzac, Steinbeck. Ancient histories, contemporary non-fiction about political and historical issues, and the science-fiction of Heinlein, Bester, and a great deal of Philip K. Dick. I also was seeing a therapist about these emotional issues. A great deal of despair and depression that I could hide through routine.

I do remember walking the streets late at night just to be around people and the life of the city. I got into the habit of drinking and then cocaine (it was the late 90’s, booming economy, and I worked at an upscale restaurant where I could afford such a habit). Well, that really didn’t help because it just made things darker and more despairing. I hope this does not sound like my life was a darkened hell of emotional doom. Things changed as they always do, and I found myself attending undergrad living with my mother (now retired) and my sister. Here I began my path there if you will. I decided I wanted to be an artist and I had the time to put all I could into it and I did. I was 34 when I attended undergrad.

I went to Grad school wanting to figure out what I was doing. I knew that I had developed skill in terms of the figure but was unsure that what I was doing in undergrad was enough, important enough, worth doing. I could say that the environment of Phoenix contributed. The constant sunshine, almost blinding and intense most of the time was far better than where I got my BFA. Cincinnati, Ohio was okay but three months of grey winters was depressing. The light of the desert seemed to have contributed to my opening up. There is no escape from it during the day, and the sunrise and sunsets become a spectacular display of contrast of warm and cool colors.


While in undergrad I painted with subdued colors. I did not use cadmium colors at all. It was figuring out the way of painting, creating forms, understanding how one created the illusion of space, all the usual stuff you could say.

It was getting to the desert that things changed. I changed the way I prepared the canvas. Instead of acrylic gesso I was now using rabbit skin glue and oil ground. There is something like a chemist, or rather alchemist with this. It’s a process that involves time, heating up the glue, waiting for it to dry, gauging the thickness of the oil ground when applying. Each canvas is an investment with rabbit skin glue and oil ground.

Eric: For me your art reads as very psychedelic and with definite spiritual overtones. I feel like I’m high as a kite looking at them. The happy floating head comes to mind. This could be LSD…, this could be Buddhism…, or both. Is your work about psychedelic and/or spiritual awareness/awakening? Or am I just projecting?

Flying Happy Face: oil on canvas, 20″x30″, 2013

Psychedelics? Did this have an influence? I will admit yes. For some years, I had been thinking about the world, my place in this world, and what does it all mean. During Grad school, I did partake in the use of mind altering substances. I cannot say with a certainty how and where it made me change. In my first year in grad school I made a large figurative painting that was like the work I had done in undergrad and felt it was not what I wanted to do. At Christmas break I worked on the painting “Demelza of the East”. Here I began to use bright colors, fantastical flora, the idea of something otherworldly.

Demelza of the East, 57″x41″, 2012.

During undergrad I had been very interested in the Pop Surrealist art work coming out of LA, shown in publications such as Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose, and this continued into Grad school. I admit that I did find the work technically interesting, the choices intriguing, and often there were pleasant surprises. There was a youthful play, an exuberance and attention to technical skill that was appealing. This may have been a reaction to the academic atmosphere of Grad school, and embracing Pop Surreal artwork was a sort of gesture of defiance to all that stuffy intellectualism. Still as time went on there was something changing with me, and I began to be less interested in the whole scene of Pop Surrealism.

Let’s get to that emotional stuff I had talk of before. I was still an angry man in grad school, a little less so but still wounded. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer before I was to complete my undergrad. We had a sort of difficult relationship, emotionally distanced but always cordial and friendly. We never talked about emotional things. Well, in the last year of my grad school the cancer had moved to her brain and that was it. There was nothing to do but let it take its course. This was in my second to last semester.

I traveled from ASU to San Diego where my sister had moved to a new job and our mother went with her during that time. It was a six week downhill journey for her, my mom, and I was there for her last week of life, and to see her basically die. There was my mother who was a body that looks like my mother but is not. It was not until the memorial service a little later that I broke down emotionally, and was exhausted for some time.

But I had discovered later that the anger had subsided. I was less angry, less intensive about things. It was then that I really began thinking clearly about spiritual ideas. It was then that clarity began to happen or rather the curiosity of something more than just the material. It was all slowly developing, and still is, but I was looking with a more lucid perception, and researching the writings of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, the Christian Mystics, Buddhists, and mythologies. For in time, I will be where my mother was, on my death bed waiting for death. How will I deal with that?
Yes, it is both drug inspired and spiritual. It is about something greater than myself, touching upon something larger. And it can also be your own projections too. I cannot discount what anyone may see in my work. I do not have the affinity with the monotheistic beliefs. Perhaps it’s the situation of being in the US where it, Christianity, has become dark and authoritarian. I digress, yes, Eastern ideas have come to me in a way. Buddhism has come to me, in some strange way – the sense that all of life is bound by invisible truths of something larger and like a great wheel always turning. William Blake famously wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”.

Nebuchadnezzar, 1805, by William Blake’

At the same instance, I must admit that I feel like I do not have a definitive answer. I am still just discovering things. Certainty is for the foolish and the demagogues.


Ends Part 1.

In Part 2 we will see what he’s working on now, and find out what it’s all about.

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