Henry Riekena Conveys Feeling and Emotion Through Art

The artist is a synaesthetic — music and strong emotions cause a visual response in him beyond what most of us would normally perceive. His paintings, he explained, are not exactly an attempt to recreate the things that he sees under synesthesia, but rather, its effect.


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Photos courtesy Henry Riekena

Oakland artist Henry Riekena wants to make you cry. He wants to be a conduit for transformation and engage people in experiences that challenge and change them. “My work is an attempt to communicate feeling and emotion in a way that is novel, interesting, and ideally powerful,” Riekena said. The artist is a synaesthetic — music and strong emotions cause a visual response in him beyond what most of us would normally perceive. His paintings, he explained, are not exactly an attempt to re-create the things that he sees under synesthesia, but rather, its effect.

Aligned with the values and intentions of abstract expressionism, his canvases swirl with color and movement, creating a hypnotic, meditative effect on the viewer. “When people walk out of one of my shows and say that they can’t remember what they were thinking about when they walked in, or are in a different emotional state, that’s a success for me,” Riekena said. “It feels like a positive push on the world.”

Riekena moved to the Bay Area in 2004 after graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans with engineering and fine art degreees. He found home in Oakland’s art community in 2012. From his live/work studio at The Hangar in the American Steel Studios in West Oakland, Riekena makes marks on canvas that blend traditional brushwork with methods and materials more akin to graffiti and graphic arts while moving in a kind of kinetic flow. He describes it as “dancing with the painting.”

Riekena has been doing this his whole life. He recalled an early memory when he was 3 years old, making abstract “lines and vines” in crayon all over his parents’ living room in Pueblo, Colo. “My mom was in the kitchen and didn’t realize what was going on until I’d marked on almost every surface that I could reach,” he said. “Which is pretty much the same thing I do now, but I don’t get in trouble for it anymore.”

Paintings, as small as 2 feet by 2 feet, serve as independent pieces and studies for bigger work. These contrast with larger endeavors like his painting on the internal, circular walls of a yurt measuring 7 feet high by 18 feet in diameter, which took 11 months to complete. Initially working fast, Riekena applied multiple layers of color and pattern in paint marker then let the final details fill in slowly and carefully, tying the composition together to completion. “The velocity and spontaneity in that earlier part of my process is so critical to making the paintings feel like they are alive. It’s more playful and organic than if I had tried to plan the whole thing down to the last mark,” Riekena said.

Experimenting with sensory additions, recent work involves working under color-changing lights that integrate into the art making. “It opens up a whole new set of influences and inspirations from that world,” Riekena said. Taking that a step further, adding programmed light and sound to the final installation begs the viewer to linger and experience the work longer, an intended immersive effect by the artist. In another painting, called Collapse No More, Riekena provided ChromaDepth black-light glasses that made the image appear three-dimensional under some lighting conditions. “If someone is just going down a row of my paintings, saying, ‘Oh, that one looks like a tree,’ or ‘I really like the pink in that one,’ then they really aren’t experiencing the work in its real power,” he said.

Riekena is also interested in collaboration and community as an artist. He and his partner, Liah Grace, are developing a property near Ukiah, called Cosmic Honey, as a combination art installation, campground, permaculture site, and collaborative event space where he hopes to take the installation side of his work to its full scale potential. “It looks like I’m going to be spending a fair bit of time planting trees, building spaces, and driving a tractor for the next year or two,” he said.

Henry Riekena teaches product design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He is primarily represented by Slate Contemporary in Oakland. For more information, visit his websites at Hel10s.com or CosmicHoney.buzz.

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