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Words by Dan Reiter | Studio portraits by Patrick Ruddy | Artworks courtesy of Bruce Reynolds
Light / Dark
Walking into Café Surfinista in Cocoa Beach, Florida, feels like sliding into the brain of a slightly tripped-out Reno Abellira, circa 1971. A pastiche of cork, porcelain, sea glass, brick, and pecky cypress lays backdrop to expressionist paintings, classic surfboards, midcentury-modern couches, and vintage posters for Rainbow Bridge and Morning of the Earth. An old Honda café racer leans to one side, seemingly just off a Mojave crossing. The Sunshine Sea plays on a cluster of five TV sets—five Keith Paulls surfing five perfect blue rights somewhere in the Bay of Biscay. Behind an elevated stage, an oracular vision of Duke Kahanamoku, in his white-lion phase, stares at you from behind giant sunglasses, like God or Dr. TJ Eckleburg.
If you arrive early enough, you’ll find Bruce Reynolds relaxing into a coffee at his regular high-top. The artist is trim, sunbaked, and well-salted, with muscled forearms and the rough-sanded paws of a tree carver or a lifelong surfboard shaper. He’s as local as they get here in Cocoa Beach. Reynolds takes slow sips, his motions all drawn out and casual, which is something of a contradiction when you consider the manic, nerve-splitting intensity of his artwork.
Take the portrait on the wall behind him: a warped ink rendering of the country singer Johnny Cash, distended, with one eye bulging off his face. Pencil hatchings, conceivably added by a mischievous child, are scribbled all over the canvas. A three-wave set rolls and pitches beneath a Dewey Weber–style logo for “Surfboards by Johnny Cash.” Up in one corner, the words “Folsom Prison Glassing Co.” are scrawled in chalk on a section of blackboard. The piece vibrates, shimmers with madness. What’s the message? Perhaps this idiom, scratched in all caps near the singer’s mouth, offers a clue: “I WALK THE NOSE.”
Pop-culture references, lines from well-known songs, Fibonacci spirals, defiant riddles: These are the ingredients in the Bruce Reynolds oeuvre. His work is nearly impossible to classify, since his medium is ever-shifting. Now a folk painter, now a collagist, now a found-object sculptor. Even this café—a collaborative vision with his wife, Diane—is an immersive art experience, an architectural study in lyrical abstraction.
“Someone came in yesterday wanting to buy that Johnny Cash,” Reynolds says with a chuckle. “I didn’t know what to tell him.”
Reynolds is averse to self-promotion and views the acts of creating and selling as antithetical to each other. Though his work has been exhibited in galleries and museums from Durban to Los Angeles, most of his art ends up, almost as if by accident, in the homes of private collectors. Surfers, in particular, are attracted to his pieces. John John Florence and Kelly Slater both own Reynolds originals.
His studio connects to the leeward side of the café and lays out like a hangar for light aircraft or seaplanes—soaring, corrugated ceilings. A faint sargassum small wafts in on the sea breeze. The space is cluttered with old bicycles, lifeguard signs, mannequin torsos, rusted tools, Cadillac hubcaps, tubes of paint, lantern bulbs, voodoo dolls of Mick Fanning. It’s like a Terry Gilliam or Jeunet and Caro movie. Everything is degraded, filthy, reckless, yet a meticulous sense of design and placement belies the chaos.
If it’s true, as some suggest, that a person’s psyche crystallizes in their 13th year, then Reynolds is an authentic product of 1968. Year of ’Nam, Nixon, and Nat Young, a country in upheaval, a spiritual awakening flooding the collective mind. It was the year all the kids grew out their hair, sawed down their longboards, and got involved.
Coming up at the Canaveral Pier, Reynolds watched local surfers like Dick Catri, Claude Codgen, Mike Tabeling, and Gary Propper go off and win major contests in Hawaii and California. “Surfing was everything,” Reynolds says. “It was every waking moment, every part of you. It was a real, true subculture. And it was secretive, parts of it. You were doing something so great that the rest of the world had no clue about.”
The waves are fickle in Florida, and for every one day the offshores, tide, and swell coalesce into groomed warm-water lines, there are 100 days of side-chop, mush, shorepound, and wind-slop. An insatiable feast-or-famine mentality germinates in the soul of the Florida surfer at a very young age.
In 1974, inspired by the travel articles of Naughton and Peterson, Reynolds and three friends loaded their boards into an old green Econoline van and drove through Texas and the Sierra Madre. They posted up near Mazatlán, where they made camp and rode hard until their money ran out. Instead of heading back to Cocoa Beach, they bolted up the West Coast, and the Econoline ended up in San Clemente. “There are periods in your life where all you do is surf,” Reynolds remembers. “Some times were higher pitched than others.”
For the next ten years, he sought the pure line, surfing the most consistent breaks on the mainland Trestles, San Onofre, Salt Creek. When Cocoa Beach shaper Rich Munson returned from a stint on Kauai spinning tales of the mysto breaks west of Hanalei Bay, Reynolds packed up a couple of boards and hitched a flight across the Pacific. He set up a tent at Haena State Park and, marveling at the rights breaking over the outer reef, took the long paddle out to Tunnels by himself.
“Surfing the raw, big, exposed waves of Hawaii that season changed the direction of my surfing,” Reynolds explains. “For me, it wasn’t real radical. It was always trying to be as smooth and as long as possible.”
In the mid 80s, looking to lay down some roots, Reynolds returned to Cocoa Beach, where he started salvaging discarded furniture from the side of the road and cobbling the fragments together into high-end studio tables and architectural cabinets. He’d gleaned some woodworking and trim carpentry skills in California, and by blending woods and metals with rivets, beads, and burned-in accents, he fashioned curios that sold well on the craft furniture circuit.
His experiments soon became more absurd, his colors starker, his boxes more free-form and visceral. Recurring images—the Vitruvian Man, Einstein, Elvis, the Bronzed Aussies—would pop up inside these early constructions. His artistic technique was untrained, naïve, outsider. But the composition was intuitive and effective, and Reynolds’ pieces were commissioned by Laguna Beach art galleries, architectural firms, museums in Florida, and Disney’s Festival of the Masters.
Many artists would have continued mining this vein, but Reynolds, loath to repeat himself, abandoned the 3D structures altogether and pivoted to a new form of expression: photomontage. “I think Oscar Wilde put it best,” he says. “‘Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.’”
There is a theatrical sensibility to his collages, the players lined up on the stage, projecting their voices to the back of the house. Photos of characters culled from old Life magazines or children’s picture books are adorned with dunce’s caps, eye patches, or crosses, affixed to Lucky Strike boxes, and placed on the vertical sections of breaking waves. Whimsical or subversive text—the protean slips of the surfer’s subconscious—sometimes accompany them: “Let my people surf.” “No wankers.” “Locals only.” Fastidiously crafted, replete with hidden detail, the best of these evoke the sardonic, nonsensical works of Dada artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Raoul Hausmann, and Hannah Höch.
Next came a series of neo-expressionist paintings introducing the “Surfinistas,” a gang of mythic revolutionaries whose singular purpose in life was, according to Reynolds, “to take the drop, set the edge, and let the rail run.” Fauvist-styled skulls, off-kilter eyes, bared teeth, and rippling sea-blue skin channeled the strung-out energy of true surf addicts, either jonesing for a wave or in the euphoric thrall of the first ride of a dawn patrol. This phase coincided with the 2007 opening of Café Surfinista, an oasis for core Cocoa Beach locals and a much-needed foil to the plastic kitsch and commercialized kook culture of Ron Jon and the tourist traps to the north.
Cocoa Beach is an insular community, and it was only a matter of time before Slater strolled into the café and struck up a conversation with Reynolds. The two had played tennis together during the prodigy’s high school years, and they rekindled their intergenerational friendship. “We’ve got a similar sense of humor,” Reynolds says. “Kelly has an analytical mind, and we’re both fascinated by innovation.”
Slater became an admirer of Reynolds’ artwork, and in 2015, when the presidential primary races turned into a shark feeding frenzy, he suggested the artist document the contentious election cycle with a show. Reynolds agreed, and turned to the medium of assemblage. All the junk he’d hoarded over the years—from redneck flea markets, garage sales, plucked off the roadside—came together to form Apolitical Process, a poignant burlesque of the circus freakshow of Republican and Democratic candidates.
“Found-object stuff, it reminds me of stonework,” Reynolds says. “The best flagstone masons never put down a piece once they pick it up. They invite the right stone into their hand. There’s a serendipity to it.” One notion that springs from this method is that the work cannot fail to astonish because the artist himself is constantly being surprised.
The centerpiece of the show, The Great Wall of Trump, invokes a trinity of personality cults: Adolf Hitler in boxing gloves, Donald Trump in shepherd’s robes, and Chairman Mao with the body of a cow. The trio spars and poses over color fields of red, white, and blue. A naked woman, her eyes blacked out, sits atop the rod of Trump’s frayed American flag. Below these strongmen, in a miasma of oppressive darkness, are blades, disembodied baby doll heads, Black muscle figurines, mousetraps, wires, and the Mexican flag slung through with coil nails. Looking at it now, years later, you get the feeling that the line between farce and tragedy has grown finer and more tenuous than ever before.
A good number of the assemblages took aim at Trump, but Reynolds didn’t spare the opposing side.
In Another Quality Job, he painted Bill and Hillary Clinton in the deranged mode of the Surfinistas, a nightmarish portrait boxed in by nude Barbie dolls sealed in amber. A miniature VW bus called the Free Ride—built out of bowls, bamboo sticks, cabinet knobs, and multicolored fabrics; up on blocks, it looked like a Marcel Duchamp ready-made—lampooned the socialist mores of Bernie Sanders.
PM Tenore, founder of RVCA and curator of the exhibit, which opened in Venice Beach and was later displayed at the company headquarters in Costa Mesa, says, “I find myself getting lost in his multilayered sculptures as I explore all the nooks and crannies, always discovering a new element which augments the overall message of the work. Bruce’s art amuses, holds your attention, and can change your perspective on the state of the culture, if not the world.”
Hometown Groundings By Kelly Slater
Bruce calls me Mr. Literal. It stems from the fact that I (we) enjoy dissecting the origins of everyday euphemisms while expounding on the literal nature of their meanings. We sort of become different characters around each other as a release from our regular lives. We work on our golf swings, talk politics, and chase alligators on the golf course. We theorize a better world and figure out ways to say what we think and feel through our mediums.
I live a busy life traveling the globe, meeting interesting people, experiencing endless cultural differences, attempting to comprehend and take in as much of this life as possible after having grown up with big dreams in a small town. When I’m home in that small town of Cocoa Beach, most afternoons are spent with Bruce. Although he lived on the West Coast for a period of time, he’s spent the bulk of his life in this place, enamored with the simple pleasures a predictable small town affords a person. He’s got his restaurant he runs with his wonderful wife and a regular clientele, most of whom he’s on a first-name basis with. His son has dived deeply into Brazilian jiujitsu and quickly gone froma shy kid without a real direction to an unassuming assassin in a few short years. You’d never know Bruce was his father while watching his aggressive offensive attack. It’s quite literally the opposite of Bruce’s good nature and willingness to give anyone the stage before himself. Bruce’s martial art is displayed through his mixed-medium art pieces, provocative and heartfelt, wittingly expressing a more worldly experience and view than one might think a quiet family man might have living in this place.
Bruce tells me he lives vicariously through my travels and feels like he soaks up the experiences I encounter. He, in turn, grounds me back in my roots. We’ve got a good thing, me and Bruce. His art pieces are an ode to a bigger picture, one that defies small-town politics and mindset, subliminal messaging that’s hidden yet somehow glaringly obvious. It’s said that art is the expression of one’s soul. Bruce’s art probably looks a bit quirky, like his personality, but the deeper meaning keeps people wondering if they really know all of Bruce and what stirs in that mind of his.
Duchamp once said, “Works of art are intermediaries in a process that the artist begins and the viewer completes.” Just so, all of Reynolds’ creations are up for interpretation. Perhaps the most stunning ones from the Venice show were his facsimiles of AR-15s—croquet posts, cameras, augers, rolling pins, and harmonicas intertwined and elegantly connected to form instruments of murder. Each faux gun was mounted on a sheet of whitewashed OSB. With the blood of the Pulse nightclub shooting still fresh in the viewer’s mind, layers of meaning nested in the mock triggers and bullet chambers.
Bob Hurley, another surfer adherent to the Bruce Reynolds school, remarks, “What struck me most about Bruce’s artwork was the satire. It was intellectual, political, and comical, but without being mean. There was that provocative thought in there that made you consider your own values.”
For eight months, tinkering, hammering, and back drilling in the swelter of deep-red Florida, Reynolds summoned the energy needed to complete his ministerial gonzo show. But his investment in the news cycle left him feeling breathless, whacked out, dizzy. As if he had taken a couple of set waves on the head. “That political stuff was real taxing,” he explains. “I’ve since released myself from it.”
After the election, Reynolds returned once again to his essence, forsaking the workaday life and traveling with Slater to surf transcendental sessions at Cloudbreak, Margaret River, Little Dume, Lemoore, and Haleiwa.
One effect of dedicating yourself to a life of continuous evolution is that your spirit will grow younger even as your body ages. Reynolds’ central philosophy begins with a bottom turn. From there, it’s all about simplicity, the natural line, the frictionless path. Set the rail and let the water do the work.
When the pandemic shut down the galleries and art shows, Reynolds found himself spending more hours in the solace of his home studio, a little backyard hut under the shade of a gumbo-limbo tree. There he painted a series of folk portraits of iconic personalities—Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Greg Noll—alongside proverbs and surf-themed double entendres. In a takeoff of A Clockwork Orange, the “Tavarua Milk Bar” serves as precursor to “a bit of the old ultra surfing.” Another canvas has Clint Eastwood “going down to shoot the pier.” In Lost in Translation, a jumbo samurai head is placed atop the body of David Byrne, who holds his surfboard out like a katana.
Some of Reynolds’ most exquisite pieces have emerged from this latest period. The smaller collage/paintings present the spectator with beautiful puzzles. A tribal-patterned wave in Moondance seems to have landed there from the sky, rather than from the artist’s hand. In Purple Waves, a messianic Hendrix floats among words of diverse fonts: “And the Offshore Wind Cries, Mary.” The waggish triptych Celebrity Surf Check—starring John and Yoko, Hunter S. Thompson, and David Bowie with boards tucked under their arms—approaches, in its balance, color, and simplicity, the culmination of neo-modern humor painting.
“You’re teaching yourself a new language,” Reynolds says. “You keep speaking it. Not everybody understands. It’s a different form of communication.” Then, cracking a smile for the first time, the jester finally shows himself. “I always thought surfing was more avant-garde than it actually is.”
There is a moment, as the artist sets his brush between his fingers, when the universe vibrates, his sense of time and self diminishes, and every movement is guided by a cosmic rhythm. Bruce Reynolds, the Surfinista, is still out there, still doing it, still learning. The secret, he realizes, is pinioned between thought and action, just as in that instant when the sea rises up from behind, when nothing else matters but the drop.
[Feature photo: BEACH DAZE, 2018, acrylic, paper, and graphite on birch plywood, 32 x 80 inches.]