Mind Games

Seeing sounds with the synesthetic brain of Reyes Padilla

Imagine for a moment you can see every sound around you. The clink of a coffee cup produces a burst of blue triangles, a passing car is accompanied by rolling yellow polka dots and a barking dog emits bright red rectangles. That's Reyes Padilla's reality and, for part of his life, he thought everyone saw the world that way.

"I remember saying, 'Oh, this song is blue,'" Padilla says. "People would be like, 'What?'" One day, he snuck into his friend's music appreciation class at University of New Mexico and heard a lecture on synesthesia. The neurological phenomenon occurs when one sensory or cognitive pathway triggers an involuntary response in another. For synesthetes, numbers and letters might trigger flashes of color, or certain sounds evoke tactile sensations. "I was like, 'Holy cow, that's what I have," Padilla says. In his new exhibition at the Beals & Co. Showroom, Reyes Padilla: An Introduction, the artist will recreate the synesthetic experience through an immersive art installation.

Padilla was born in Santa Fe in 1988. In the '90s, Canyon Road was his shortcut on the drive to school. He started drawing in kindergarten and spent his early teen years playing guitar in garage bands. At 17, he took up painting. "I liked the independence of it. You didn't have to organize people to do it," he says.

Padilla's uncle is the well-known contemporary santo sculptor Luis Tapia, and his aunt, author Carmella Padilla, encouraged his early exposure to the arts. Still, the surrealist and hyperrealist imagery he was turning out didn't seem to have a place in Santa Fe's art scene. "We'd drive through Canyon Road and I remember looking at the sculptures," he says. "I wasn't really drawn into it, but as I got older and started thinking about what I was going to do with my life, I realized that my uncle was a successful artist. I knew it was a possibility."

Just a few weeks after he graduated high school, Padilla moved to Albuquerque. "At a certain point as a teenager, you're like, 'I've got to get the hell out of here,'" he says. "I had no idea what I was going to do." His sister convinced him to enroll in painting classes at Central New Mexico Community College, and he got his asssociate degree in 2010.

The next year, Padilla rented a studio at The Factory on 5th Art Space in Albuquerque. That's where he made an artistic breakthrough with his synesthesia. After finishing a series of particularly grueling hyperrealistic paintings, he made an impromptu abstract painting on his studio door. "I needed to get something out of my system, so I just started painting whatever I felt," he says. As his brain fired off synesthetic shapes to the music he was playing, he worked them into the composition.

Friends who visited Padilla's studio responded enthusiastically to the exploratory painting. That was about two years ago, and it was the beginning of a brand new body of work.

Using synesthesia as a painting tool allowed Padilla to reap the benefits of an experience that can be painful. "I see every sound," he says. "I can kind of block it out in a way, but if I'm having a conversation and cars are going by in the background, I see every car." Occasionally, Padilla will get intense migraines, and any sounds around him produce "bright, chaotic" visuals that are agonizing. The artist started honing his ability to capture his visions by listening to different types of music: rock from his high school days, electronica, jazz. He found that hip-hop's clear beats were particularly effective at stirring up distinct forms.

It's a sunny Friday morning on Canyon Road, and Padilla's show is partially installed at the Beals & Co. Showroom. Canvases filled with bold abstract forms, all in a palette of black, white and gray, line every wall of the space. Some of Padilla's squiggles recall the exuberant street art of Keith Haring. His style is more painterly, though, with forms layered one atop the other and at times vanishing behind hazy veils of pigment. "He chooses to do it in black and white, because he wants to emphasize the movement that he experiences," says Bobby Beals, who founded the space in 2016. "He paints with headphones on, and it's almost like a dance." Beals met Padilla through another Beals & Co. artist, David Santiago, and swiftly offered the Santa Fe-born artist his first- ever Canyon Road show.

Beals describes the next step of the installation, which will place viewers in Padilla's shoes. "He's going to paint directly on the wall to intertwine these canvases," he says, strolling through the space and into a small adjoining room. "Then he'll cover every surface of this room with a mural." A hip-hop playlist compiled by Padilla accompanies the room, giving gallery visitors a complete synesthetic experience.

"I think to give people the closest understanding of what it's like to have synesthesia. That's my goal," says Padilla. "I hope that this room will give people this feeling of being separated from the world. I'm interested in making paintings that really suck people in."

Reyes Padilla: An Introduction Opening Reception
5 pm Friday March 24. Free.
Beals & Co. Showroom,
830 Canyon Road,

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