New to America, Raised in the Tenderloin

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The Dreamer, 2010. Acrylic, & image transfer on panel, 48" x 32"  (Photo: Ramon Pintado)

Rea Lynn de Guzman's new show TL Dreams is a series of memories -- a mix of her imagined and lived experiences in the Tenderloin -- presented in a wash of bright acrylics and printed organza.

But more than anything, the pieces serve as a snapshot of all the different shapes liminality can take.

The earlier work in TL Dreams captures de Guzman's life mid-transition -- her immigration from the Philippines to San Francisco’s Turk Street, her shift from youth to adulthood -- in a chromatic palette that's more fever dream than true-to-life. Children are portrayed in model-esque forms, surrounded by jeepneys and other paraphernalia of a life left in the Philippines.

What Could've Been or Not, 2011. Acrylic & image transfer on canvas, 54" x 40" (Photo: Ramon Pintado)
'What Could've Been or Not,' 2011. Acrylic & image transfer on canvas, 54" x 40". (Photo: Ramon Pintado) (Courtesy of Rea Lynn de Guzman)

"I am interested in the perplexing nature of these in-between, psychological experiences that are often difficult to process or talk about but could possibly flow freely in the form of art," de Guzman says.

The show is inspired by a specific time and place: the Tenderloin in the early aughts, as remembered by de Guzman and fellow immigrant friends in the neighborhood.

Rea Lynn de Guzman stands in front of her work.
Rea Lynn de Guzman. (Photo: Lizzy Brooks)

“The Tenderloin holds a unique, special place in my heart. It’s where I ‘grew up’ in the United States,” de Guzman says. She recalls the neighborhood as a place where she developed friendships with other young immigrants who were similarly struggling to find their place in a new home. The Tenderloin was also where de Guzman began her foray into the arts, painting her very first piece during an art day at the former Tenderloin YMCA.


Yet just as present in her memories are the harsh realities of the Tenderloin and the violence that sometimes erupted in her neighborhood, which de Guzman says she revisits and attempts to work out in the second, newer part of her show. "I still have many questions and unresolved emotions about these experiences," she says, "and I have no single answer to it."

"Skewed Fusion," Image transfer on synthetic organza, 16" x 20" framed
'Skewed Fusion,' Image transfer on synthetic organza, 16" x 20" framed. (Courtesy of Rea Lynn de Guzman)

de Guzman opts for more muted colors in her recent pieces, her subjects less defined against the cityscapes image-transferred onto organza. They almost serve as a retrospective of both her previous work and her previous self, her restrained palette intentional in both mood and message (she says her move toward brown tones is an effort to question art's hegemonic whiteness).

Lots of changes have come since de Guzman's time in the Tenderloin -- she has long since relocated to the Castro -- but her love for the neighborhood and the memories that linger within it remain close to her heart.

“I think many people tend to magnify or focus on superficial stereotypes about the Tenderloin -- crime, drugs, seediness," she says, "but to me it is full of character, with a rich history, and a place to call home.”


'TL Dreams' runs from Jan. 12–Feb. 23, 2017, with a closing reception and artist lecture on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 7pm at the Tenderloin Museum, co-presented by Root Division. For more information, see here.