The oil paintings of L.A.-based artist Red possess an otherworldly quality. They are at once dark and vibrant; their figurative subject matter—goldfish, Buddha, demons and dragons—is spiritual, psychedelic, eerie, Eastern. These images seem to suggest a lifetime enmeshed in the natural and philosophical crucible of Southeast Asia. But the inscrutability of these works is matched by their creator’s effort to obscure his own biography. He refuses to reveal his real name or age for “personal reasons.” On the phone, he offers unhelpful details such as: “I’m just a regular Joe like anyone else. I have a mind, body and soul. That’s how people are by nature.”
The artist’s publicist is a tad more helpful, but not by much. Still, the details, when slowly pieced together, offer some insight into Red’s remarkable journey from the rainforests of Indonesia to the neon art market inside a Las Vegas casino.
Born in the jungle of Borneo to indigenous parents, Red grew up speaking Chinese before immigrating to the United States as a teen. He settled in California and worked blue-collar jobs, including junkyard manager, then found work as a tattoo artist.
“I learned a lot about life from my bosses and co-workers in these jobs,” he says. “There’s always something to learn from people, and that’s what I try to express in my paintings. When you’re willing to learn, everything feels new.”
Eventually, though, Red felt he’d exhausted his self-teachings—and himself—in the States. Southeast Asia was never far from his mind. He moved to Thailand in the early ’90s, where he lived for several years.
“Nature is the core of truth,” he explains. “The jungle offers simple knowledge about life. It’s a like a reset button for me when I step in there, and it touches me in a deep way. Today I can take a breath and recall what I touched, what I learned in there.”
But Red refuses to say that industrialization, that a Westernized lifestyle, is a source of discontent. In his view, the choice of living a positive or negative life exists in a person’s soul. One must see the dark to find the light of the soul, he says.
“It’s about whether you make it back from the darkness that matters,” he says.
Red grapples with darkness and light in his Northridge, Calif., studio, where he says he paints every single day. The images he conjures are dream-like, hard to shrug off. They often seem to glow and pulsate even against a nighttime void.
“The darkness is meant to represent the world,” he says. “I paint with enough light to reveal the subject. It’s the interplay between darkness and light that I’m after. The contrast is the end product.”
So how does Red justify bringing his spiritual paintings into the carnal environment of a Las Vegas casino?
“I am going from a quiet place to a loud one,” he says. “I didn’t plan this; I follow my heart and do what it tells me. If the truth happens out in a crazy place, then so be it. I’m going to let the truth handle it.
“Vegas is a great place,” he says. “It reminds me of Thailand, a heaven to some and a hell to others. Vegas is the ideal battleground for the truth.”