being friends with multimedia artist Rene Garcia Jr. in college? When we were students at UC Santa Cruz, there was no such thing as a simple keg party when it was time to invite the masses over. Together with his roommates, Rene concocted grand art installations around themes (Willy Wonka, heaven and hell, James Bond), where every room was transformed into a movie set with handcrafted props. Guests arrived in elaborate costumes to finish out the fantasy. Very early on, it was clear that Rene’s imagination was only limited by the amount of space he had to work in. Now, he creates his art in one of the grandest, most fascinating historical “studios” I’ve seen in the city — but I’ll get to that in a moment.
After we graduated, Rene and I both moved to San Francisco, and he continued spinning pop-culture iconography into imaginative works of art. There was the year he sewed a 2001 monolith costume for Halloween, the Lite-Brite installation that spread across his bedroom, and the ’70s Mick Jagger silhouette I commissioned him to make in shades of tan and brown. My beloved rock ’n’ roll portrait is larger than life, made out of plastic upholstery vinyl, and the pièce de résistance in my apartment.
I was fortunate to start collecting Rene’s artwork early. For the past 10 years, he’s had a steady stream of commissions from people all over the West Coast — at the rate of one to two new requests a month. Although he works in whatever medium he can get his hands on — wood, sand, photography, T-shirt design, screen printing, a latch-hook rug of a mushroom cloud explosion — 90 percent of his contacts want one of his glamorous glitter paintings. Using Elmer’s Glue and old-fashioned glitter shakers, he crafts giant, dynamic portraits of strong, sexy babes as well as the random dazzling celebrity or sports hero, reimagining his subjects with Warholian flair.
Rene and I were talking about his art recently, and he told me that his favorite commission, of a girl jumping out of a helicopter, hangs from the ceiling of a Seattle dentist’s office. Imagine that sparkling view as you get your choppers cleaned. And you may have seen his portrait of a woman in erotic repose with a scorpion tempting her outstretched tongue hanging at Project One, which hosts regular solo shows of his work.
We’re both kids of the ’70s, and there’s an inviting nostalgia to the curvy females and freaky pop stars in his work (he has quite the Michael Jackson obsession, and his massive glow-in-the-dark Thriller zombie watches visitors with creepy cat eyes). Rene lives for that bridge with the past. “I want my art to connect on a fundamental level,” he tells me. He works in what he calls “established kindergarten techniques” of glitter and glue on wood as a way to grab the attention of people from a certain crafty classroom generation, our generation, right off the bat.
Given his methodology, it’s very fitting that this eternal adolescent works in a former school. He’s the sole occupant of the Painted Gentlemen building, a massive mansion that’s located next to the Painted Ladies across from Alamo Square. It’s photographed by tourists nearly as much as its female counterparts. Like Rene, this space is charming, iconic, and has an eccentric history.
The main building of what is now called the Painted Gentlemen was originally erected in 1895 as a single-family home for a silver baron. It’s three stories tall with amazing 360-degree views of the city and a gigantic kitchen. Three different schools later owned the property, and over the years additions were made to the original home. The lot was expanded into an impressive, interlocking campus. It’s vast enough that owner Ted Bartlett is now in the process of subdividing the lot into four parcels: the historic mansion and three new single-family home lots on the school building land.
Rene lucked into being the sole tenant using this gem as an art studio through Ted's generosity. The two became friends after their kids went to preschool together. Ted became a fan of Rene’s work and offered to let him use the space as a workshop until the school building is demolished, an amazing offer of arts patronage that never happens in this town.
I’ve been inside Rene’s Alamo Square labyrinth multiple times – once for his wife Holly’s karaoke birthday party – and seeing his imagination spread out into the very back corners and the intimate classrooms is inspiring. In a room facing Alamo Square, he has hung enormous lightboxes containing photographs of demolition derbies. In another room hangs his “self portrait” — Evel Knievel as a chicken, made out of glitter. (As if you needed to be reminded that Rene takes his art, but never himself, seriously.) Poke around past the chalkboards and courtyard, and there’s Rene’s screen printing setup, where he drafted gold and black Obama campaign posters that made it into coffee table books about art inspired by the President’s first run for office. I also love the Herculean 3-D spider woven into a back room, suspended in an actual web large enough to capture Rene’s wife and two kids. Rene’s magical workshop, like the art it houses, is a time capsule back to innocent ’70s and ’80s iconography. Sure, there are boobs all over his glitter pieces, but in their vintage Playboy way, the naked Amazons seem more playful than porno.
Stop the clock on a young Rene — growing up in the “horse country” outskirts of Riverside, a little dude obsessed with motorcycles, hot ladies, and Star Wars —give that scene a little wink and a lot of sparkle, and you have his collection in a nutshell. I think he and I get along so well in part because we’re both sweet on pop culture icons and imagery from our youth. Well, that, and we’ve also embraced adulthood by never letting go of seeing the world like we’re excitable teenagers.
You can check out more of Rene’s work
, and visit his next solo show at Project One on December 6.
The theme this time? Adult novelties — peekaboo ties and pens, tri-fold magazine gags, and other stylistic subversions.
To learn more about the Painted Gentlemen, visit http://www.thepaintedgentlemen.com .