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01 Feb 2016

Retro Reinterpretations: Modernism Week Artist Nat Reed Takes the Colors and Styles of the '50s and '60s and Makes Them His Own

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"Podvillion" by Nat Reed. "Podvillion" by Nat Reed.

You may have never heard of Nat Reed—but you’ve almost certainly seen his work before. The midcentury modern artist did the poster/cover for last year’s Palm Springs Pride, and he’s been written about in various publications.

At the Palm Springs International Airport, Reed is collaborating with Virgin America to create an interactive modernism exhibit at the airline’s gate that will be on display during Modernism Week, which this year is taking place Feb. 11-21.

During a recent interview, Reed discussed his art, which has an animated feel that includes various midcentury modernism elements: architecture, automobiles and even tiki. 

“It’s all referencing the period and things from that period,” Reed said. “Polynesian exotica and the whole tiki thing was popular in the ’50s and ’60s. … With the tikis, my grandfather was a Polynesian decorator and tiki carver, so I grew up with those all around. Those are really natural things for me to use. As I’ve used tikis in the work, (I’ve learned) they’re really good at distilling the graphic emotion in the piece. I tend to stay away from directly human figures, because for me, that blows the mystery of a piece. It’s just too direct.”

Reed said his childhood surroundings inspired him to do things his own way.

“I grew up in a family of artists, Bohemians, and everyone was always making something. I’m not really that formally educated and drifted in and out of art classes,” Reed said. “It was mostly just my background with my family, and everyone always making things. In a way, formal instruction was sort of: ‘Why can’t you just figure that out yourself?’”

Looking at the paintings in Reed’s gallery, I was curious about his process. The works are definitely computerized, but there’s a certain detail that looks like it could be hand-sketched.

“The pieces on pegboard that I do: Those are paintings. I’m not working through the holes on the pegboard; I’m working around them,” he said. “But after I do my concept sketches, I’m composing them digitally on the computer. I definitely want them to feel like they could be traditionally created, and I work really hard toward that.

“I do all of my own printing and saturate the inks really heavily during the printing process. They have a really rich surface.”

Reed explained what he has planned for the Virgin America gate at the Palm Springs International Airport.

“Marc Joseph at (vintage store) Wonderama is very involved in the retro community,” Reed said. “He was doing a vignette for Virgin Airlines. He asked me if I would put up some art. He asked, ‘What about doing the whole background on a mural?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’ What they’re showing there is digitally mocked up where they took my Palm Springs map and put it in the background. I’m working specifically on a piece that will be the background for his furnishings and vignette.”

Reed’s work resembles the work of modernism artist Shag. Reed said people often confuse their work.

“People often come in and ask, ‘Is this Shag?’” Reed said. “People say they’ve seen that before, and I have a lot of work around town, so people may have seen my stuff before as well. But generally, that’s what people are thinking. My work isn’t character-driven as much as his is, but it’s obviously referencing the same period in very colorful and graphic prints. But if you look at the work, it’s very different. I did the Palm Springs Pride poster, and that really got around.”

Reed said people generally respond positively to his work—and often make a pop-culture reference in comparison that itself is tied modernism.

“That’s what’s so gratifying about this: People come in and go, ‘Ohhhh, this makes me so happy, and it’s so colorful,’” he said. “The other thing that happens so often is people say, ‘It’s like The Jetsons!’ People will barely walk in and say that. They don’t exploit that brand enough. It’s so universal when they’re associating that brand with this style.”

Of course, the star of Modernism Week is the local architecture. Not surprisingly, Nat Reed is a fan—of both existing buildings and structures that have been lost.

“Both of the banks down the street, especially the Bank of America and the Chase Bank, are just beautiful examples of elegant modern architecture.” He said. “The old canopy at the Spa Resort Casino that they tore down, that was elegant and perfectly made. I was so sad to see that go. The liquor store at Vista Chino, too. I’m so mad because the ARRIVE hotel that they built right next to it—I don’t know what planners think, but they let them build it with that zig-zag roof line rising above the roof line of the liquor store, which ruins that beautiful roof line.”

Reed concedes that he’s surprised how big Modern Week has become.

“It seems like five years ago is when it started to explode,” he said. “Three years ago, it was even bigger, and I was so surprised.”

Reed is participating in Modernism Week in one more way: His home is part of a Modernism Week tour. If you check out his home in the Racquet Club Estates, expect to see both him and his art there.

“I really sort of restyled the house to be more themed with Modernism Week, so I’m on the tour, and I’m going to be there,” he said. “I’ll probably do some signing and have some artwork in the house. Event-wise, that’s what I’m focusing on.

“I might do something in the gallery for the airport piece and have a reproduction here. I’m sort of last minute on things.”

For more information on Nat Reed, visit his gallery at 333 N. Palm Canyon Drive, No. 108B, in Palm Springs; call 323-304-8822; or visit www.natreed.com. For information on Modernism Week, visit www.modernismweek.com. Below: Just a few pieces of art at Nat Reed's gallery.

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