Manuel Reyes: Sculptor, Painter and Renaissance Man From the
Mixteca Alta, Oaxaca
warrior with trophy penis belt
Artist Manuel Reyes aspires to exhibit his work in art galleries
in Oaxaca and Mexico City. Give him that exposure over the
next couple of years, and theres little doubt his genius
will be known in New York, Chicago, and further abroad. American,
Canadian and European art collectors are already tapping their
Mexican networks to figure out how to make their way to his
modest home and workshop in the village of Yanhuitlan, an
hour and a half outside of the city of Oaxaca, to marvel at
and buy it up.
Reyes was born in Mexico City (d.o.b. 20/12/72) to Oaxacan
parents. He balks at any suggestion that he is not pure Oaxacan:
My parents are from the Mixteca Alta, right in this
region of the state, and Ive always considered myself
a Oaxacan. Thats my heritage, my birthright. I just
happen to have been born out of state. While Ive had
training from some of the grand masters of Mexican art, Ive
developed a large part of my artistic style from watching
and speaking to local artists right here in the Mixteca.
Reyes began studying art in 1990. He attended the Escuela
Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Xochimilco, Mexico City.
He moved to Cuernavaca in 1995, where he was mentored by the
likes of Roger Von Gunten, Joy Laville, Francisco Lastra and
Juan Soriano. He studied predominantly seriography, sculpture
and painting. In 2003 Reyes returned to the Mixteca, and has
since then re-established his roots. The lessons I learned
through my formal training have been invaluable, but I gain
inspiration and have adopted techniques not solely from my
maestros, to whom I owe a great deal, but also from the artists
and craftspeople of the Oaxacan district of Nochixtlán.
Reyes works together with his wife Maricela, a gifted artist
in her own right. In fact their six-year-old daughter Natalia
does ceramics with her mother, and painting with Manuel. Some
of our pieces are not only inspired by Natalia, but she actually
participates in their creation. Look at this oil mixed with
sand on canvas, with its fanciful and childlike figures. Natalia
actually began the piece, and I just brought to fruition what
was in her mind and she had already begun to put to paper.
My main influences are Rufino Tamayo for my painting,
and Maribel Portela for my sculpture, he continues.
But what Ive learned from the people of my culture
has been invaluable to my work the use of a wood-burning
kiln made of mud and brick, about the different kinds of clays
for sculpting many of which are available in Oaxaca
and how to mix different kinds of soils to create a
broad range of paint colors and tones, and textures. In the
end my pieces are products of my local environment, or at
times made from materials Ive sourced from other parts
of the country.
While Reyes obtains his clays from many different areas, most
are from four main locales: a riverbed about a kilometer from
his home, upstate at Huajuapan de León, the town of
Santa María Cuquila, and from Zacatecas, northwest
of the nations capital. Each compound has different
qualities. His Zacatecan clay is strong and has a sandy texture,
making it suitable for sculpting his large, almost life-size
human figures; more utilitarian pieces such as plates and
cups are made with earth from Cuquila; pieces which he intends
to burnish are sculpted from clay from Huajuapan de León;
and he mixes local soil with the Zacatecan earth to yield
a more malleable and easily workable clay.
For colors, Reyes often looks to other parts of the nation
so as to enable him to obtain the variety he needs. That
painting hanging in our kitchen provides a good example of
the range of colors I derive from combining different earths.
Many of my paints come from the environment. I brought a kilo
of clay from Chihuahua and used it to make paint for that
male figure looking skyward. That white is an oxide.
Indeed the breadth of colors he is able to create for use
on both his sculptures and his paintings is remarkable.
Manuels canvases are generally mixed technique
as he refers to them, a combination of oil, acrylic and natural
earth. Depending on the inspiration for a particular work,
and the imagery he seeks to convey, the order and manner of
application and the texture and origin of the soil applied,
Reyes goes on to explain the sexual imagery captured in many
pieces from his current crop of sculptures: Ive
been doing a fair number with nude males since 2005, not initially
by specific design, but rather because thats what is
often depicted in pre-Hispanic art and representations of
day-to-day activities, and thats the kind of work that
Ive enjoyed doing over the past three years. When you
look at the earliest Zapotec clay figures, and in fact those
dating to Olmec and earlier times, thats what my ancestors
were creating. A number of sculptures portray hope and prayer
as well, so much a part of ancient times, with head looking
upward to the heavens and hands raised. When questioned
about the over-representation in his figures of males with
dangling phalluses, Reyes points to a couple of female pieces:
Look at that female warrior over there. But notice the
belt I made for her, with penises hanging from it, her trophies.
Reyes readily acknowledges that this is still a business,
his livelihood, and when gay male collectors began taking
an interest in this phase of his artistic development, it
motivated him to continue with it and further experiment with
the theme of male sexuality as depicted in the codices and
sculptures of earlier civilizations.
But Manuels work also reflects his personal interests
and passions, his reverence for Oaxacas present day
rich cultural traditions, and his eclecticism whereby hes
prepared to push the outer boundary of whats traditionally
considered art, at times combining aestheticism with pure
functionality: I know a really good carpenter here in
Yanhuitlan, and thought of combining our two trades, sort
of as a fun project. I asked him to make me a cabinet with
shelves and doors. I painted it and then put six mask tiles,
each with a fair bit of relief, on the door panels. It came
out really funky and a collector bought it within a couple
of weeks of when Id finished it.
Reyes has begun experimenting with masks as an art form. Their
use at fiestas and for parades is common practice in Oaxaca,
the tradition dating back perhaps 3,000 years, when permanent
settlements were first established in the region. He pays
tribute to the ritualistic use of masks with one of his sculptures,
a marcher holding a mask in front of his face, still a common
sight at Oaxacan celebrations today.
On a recent visit to Reyes home, the music of Lou Reed
was playing. Rock, blues and other genres of the 60s
and 70s are included in this extraordinary mans
list of delights. And of course, they are reflected in his
work. Hes created clay painted figures of John Lennon,
Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, simply as a way of paying homage
to some of his rock idols. Led Zeppelins Stairway to
Heaven was the inspiration for one of his more traditional
sculptures, with four men each climbing up a rung of a ladder
made of reinforced steel covered with twine, each step framed
by horn-shaped clouds.
More recently Reyes has become interested in depicting vestiges
of the material culture of his indigenous forebears, combining
his gift as a skilled artist with the work of an applied archaeologist.
For example he recently found a potsherd with a painted design,
and through extrapolation has created an entire, accurately
crafted three-footed vessel.
Through his art, Manuel Reyes is continually looking for new
modes of self-expression, while at the same time reflecting
on diverse cultures, both present-day and of the near and
distant past. Hes a true renaissance man whose golden
touch will undoubtedly, over time, become appreciated by an
increased following. The exhibitions of his work in Huajuapan
de León and at the Museo del Arte Popular in San Bartolo
Coyotepec where one piece remains on permanent display, pale
compared to whats in store for Manuel and art
aficionados around the globe.
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