Albuquerque artist Reyes Padilla, born with synesthesia, paints visual representations of music in artworks that have appeared throughout New Mexico and on Better Call Saul.
Thick paint brushes stained with solid golds, muted turquoises, and energetic whites are stacked on a shelf at Reyes Padilla’s Albuquerque studio, located at the Harwood Art Center near downtown. A large canvas, filled with soft-edged geometric shapes that contour like an interpretive dancer, hangs on the opposite wall of the two-room studio.
Padilla, in his words, paints music. His artworks, including the hanging canvas, are his visual renderings of sound. The artist experiences an intense sensation of synesthesia—he sees sound as shapes, objects, and colors—whenever he’s painting public murals, commissioned pieces, or site-specific installations. Padilla paints, often in an ad-libbed format, along with his favorite jams or someone else’s curated playlist, and translates his sound-provoked visual journey onto the canvas or a building’s wall.
“I definitely get into a meditative state of attacking something compositionally and finding the way the music is moving,” says Padilla, who wears a black tee shirt with a spot of white paint in the center, along with gray shorts and black and gray running shoes inside his sunny studio at the Harwood.
The artist paints music like a free improviser or experimental sonic artist might transmit sound to the audience. Instead of clusters of musical notes or experimental sound diffusions, Padilla—who chooses solid, high-contrasting colors partially because he’s color blind—builds his abstract works much like a musician. “If you look at my work, you’ll see that it’s layered. It’s like my visual layering of [music] tracks,” he says.
The results—which have been purchased by the State of New Mexico, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum in Arizona, and Albuquerque’s Explora science center and children’s museum—are helping to reboot the region’s long-held (and not totally representative) idea of Southwest and Latinx art.
Padilla grew up in Santa Fe where his dad, while shuttling Reyes to school, would take shortcuts down Canyon Road or detours through the Santa Fe Plaza (before some of the current barricades were installed). Seeing some of the art that’s often anointed as the city’s best left a lot to be desired for him.
“I spent so much time seeing the art and I knew that it wasn’t for me,” says Padilla. “Then I would see things that represented my upbringing, but as a Latino artist, I was always put in a box. People would say, ‘Hey, you need to do Spanish Market.’ Do you know how many rules you’ve got to follow to do that? It never clicked with me.”
A need for creative independence and autonomy also permeated. Padilla, at a young age, says he adopted an “I don’t want to work for anybody but myself” type of attitude from his dad, who owned his own business. “I noticed I was leaning towards creative passions rather than school so I wanted to find a way to work for myself,” he says.
After flirting with the goal of trying to get signed to a label as a musician, he pivoted to a style of Southwest art-making that snubbed the regional tropes of turquoise, Kokopellis, and desert mountains and landscapes.
A current example can be found at Plaza Don Luis in Albuquerque’s Old Town, where Padilla painted Lyrical Landscape on a building that houses the Luna and Luz boutique and Lapis Room, a contemporary art gallery and artist-made-goods shop. The mural showcases the artist’s soft yet rich color palette—Padilla chooses solid golds and pinks, blacks, whites, and turquoise—and a clean and contemporary arrangement of shapes informed by his music-as-visual élan.
Padilla’s 2021 piece, along with a 2021 mural by Jodie Herrera, were celebrated as injecting contemporary life into an area that’s often associated with outmoded tourist trappings. The City of Albuquerque disagreed and threatened to remove the artworks. However, following an outpouring of community support, city officials voted to keep the murals on May 11, 2022.
Because of his colorblindness, Padilla plans out his paint colors—he also works in mica and cochineal—before he tackles a canvas or an interior or exterior wall. Otherwise, it’s a completely in the moment and spontaneous process.
He translates sound visually while listening to jazz (Miles Davis, Charles Mingus), hip hop (Mac Miller’s Swimming and Circles, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt), and electronic/a (Bonobo’s Black Sands, Radiohead’s In Rainbows) through headphones, but he has also painted commissions where a playlist of unfamiliar music is provided ahead of time. Padilla will give any music or sound environment a shot—he live-painted along with a DJ set by Bryce Hample (aka Reighnbeau) at Sister bar in Albuquerque and installed a sound room in Santa Fe at the now-defunct Beals and Co. Showroom, a Canyon Road space now occupied by Hecho a Mano.
Padilla—who was awarded a SOMOS ABQ fellowship in 2017 to create site-specific installations throughout the city, and who received the distinguished alumni of the year award from Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque in 2019—currently has a mural on display at 12th Street NW and Bellamah Avenue NW in Albuquerque and in Braddock, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. Works have also appeared locally at Sister and the now-shuttered downtown location of Wine.Dive. Additionally, one of his canvas pieces is zoomed in on during the first episode of the final season of Better Call Saul.
The next solo show for Padilla is scheduled to be on display from August 4 through August 29, 2022 at Lapis Room. In December 2021, the art gallery displayed Santuario, Padilla’s dynamic and pensive show of canvas works and hand-carved retablos (devotional paintings often featuring Catholic iconography), but instead of a centering a religious icon, Padilla’s work sanctified his various states of mind. The exhibition also featured a ten-by-six-foot acrylic-on-canvas piece that he says attempted to illustrate the visual language of a hushed or muted sound environment.
“After years of deep-diving into sound and the way it influences daily life, I wanted to do a show that was more about finding peace and sanctuary,” says Padilla, who, due to his synesthesia, can be thrown off-kilter by the presence of too much sound. “The main piece was getting towards finding quiet, but even in quiet, I can see elements of white noise or silence. I think it’s finding that most peaceful point and then trying to hold it for as long as I can.”