The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue
Art In Conversation


“I never took the notion of representation or abstraction as a totally fixed idiom, a fixed condition.”

Portrait of Candida Alvarez, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Portrait of Candida Alvarez, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.
Monique Meloche
February 1 – March 21, 2020

After her first major survey Here at Chicago Cultural Center (curated by Terry R. Myers, April 29–August 6, 2017) representing nearly 40 years of painting, dating from 1975 to the present, which was followed by her recent publication Candida Alvarez: Here. A Visual Reader (with contributions by Elizabeth Alexander, Dawoud Bey, Coco Fusco, Kellie Jones, Elizabeth Murray, Terry R. Myers, Daniel R. Quiles, Kay Rosen, Daniel Schulman, Lowery Stokes Sims, Rebecca Walker), Candida continues to explore her hybrid space as a boundless pictorial expansion in every possible and direct intimation of art through lived experience. Whatever the condition of encounter, be it a past moment of personal history that shaped her early formation as an artist, a recent trip to Umbria to pay homage to Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, Sansepolcro, and Monterchi in Tuscany, or the fleeting moment of images that appear on her iPhone, Alvarez always seems to readily embrace the experience without hesitation, as long as it excites her uncanny visual appetite. In every series Alvarez has undertaken in her painting, the issue of memory and visual perception has always been a perpetual mediation between the inner and outer world, head and body, material and matter, among other coordinates. On the occasion of her current exhibit Estoy Bien at Monique Meloche, which included the publication of a digital catalog with an essay by the independent curator Melissa Messina, Candida Alvarez paid a visit to the Rail HQ to discuss her life, art, and more with Rail Publisher Phong H. Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): At our last public event at the Rail celebrating our two friends’ two new publications, Barbara London’s Video/Art: The First Fifty Years (published by Phaidon), and Eleanor Heartney’s Doomsday Dreams: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Contemporary Art (published by Silver Hollow Press), I was trying to describe how vast the interests and disciplines Joan Jonas has maintained in her work throughout her career, from painting, sculpture, drawing, film, dance, performance, poetry, political activism, and so on, and her response to my description was “How about just being an artist?” [Laughs] And you had similarly stated in a brief artist statement you wrote for the group show Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, “It’s hard to be accepted as an artist in this country without having a label.” Let’s begin with this disposition. Have you always known that you were and will be a person and an artist to whom the world cannot be boiled down in one single vision?

Candida Alvarez, <em>Vision Painting: No: 5</em>, 2020. Acrylic on linen, 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.
Candida Alvarez, Vision Painting: No: 5, 2020. Acrylic on linen, 20 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

Candida Alvarez: Even though I didn’t know what an artist was for a long time, I did realize I was a little different from most people. First of all, I was working at El Museo del Barrio voluntarily as a curator while going to Fordham University studying liberal arts and studio art. In fact, my first exhibition in New York was at El Museo del Barrio in the same year I graduated in 1977. The following year I was lucky to be part of the CETA Artists Project, a short-lived program (1978-1980) but essential. It was like the WPA Federal Art Project. I remember Ursula von Rydingsvard, Hunt Slonem, Willie Birch, McArthur Binion, Vincent Smith, Dawoud Bey, Herman Cherry, Rochelle Feinstein, and writers including Pedro Pietri, Judd Tully, and Bob Holman, and dancers like Blondell Cummings were part of it. We all were getting a paycheck.

Rail: I heard about it through Bob Holman and others. It’s amazing that it was a federally funded employment program for artists and writers, 10,000 or more were on the payroll nationally.

Alvarez: And several hundred in New York City. I evolved into the artist I am over time. I was raised in the Catholic church and found all the stories about sin troubling, especially the idea that I had to go into this little box and talk to a priest in the dark to reveal my sins. I remember thinking years later about how the church never made me feel like I could be honest and say, “Well, I just don’t have any sins, will you bless me anyway?” So I used to make up my sins. It took years for the sense of guilt to go away. I was a rather shy child, and so I spent a lot of time looking at things, rather than interacting. I was in my head a lot, but I was even more in my eyes. Happiness was dancing and working on school art projects. So little by little I got to understand that there was also a community of people like me and they called us artists! They thought about things. They wrestled with norms, and they were creating or assembling an idea for me that was more about being creative. Which is a combination of fact and fiction and also an exploration, an identification. I was probably the youngest in the CETA Artists Project, and when we met as a group, the buzz in the room was electrifying. I was part of the writing group, so it opened up the conversations about what art could be, outside of specific mediums. There was no room for shyness. I was like “Woohoo!” Looking back now, what they gave me was a permission—just by hearing their stories and how they talked about their work—to continue with this mystery of being an artist, who is this animal that keeps moving inside. Sometimes I recognize her and sometimes I don't. It’s this flirtation with this mysterious “her” that gives me the pleasure to absorb all kinds of experiences that feed my paintings constantly. Painting for me is about an adventure, moving through time and place.

Candida Alvarez, <em>A Wing, A Halo</em>, 2019. Acrylic on linen, 80 x 68 inches. Collection of Beth DeWoody. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.
Candida Alvarez, A Wing, A Halo, 2019. Acrylic on linen, 80 x 68 inches. Collection of Beth DeWoody. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

Rail: Kellie Jones, in her essay suggested that your deployment of abstraction is not a withdrawal from reality but part of it, partly from what you saw as a child from the 14th floor window of the Farragut Housing Project on Bridge Street in DUMBO. Kellie wrote specifically about one painting titled Her only fantasy was looking out of windows (1985). Were there any specific instances or free associations that transported you to that particular memory?

Alvarez: Yes, absolutely. Growing up in the projects and as a Catholic, our social life was tied to the church. We had to go to mass on Sundays and confession on Saturdays. We three children had to help out with my father’s part-time cleaning job after school. The neighborhood was very dangerous then so we didn’t go outside much. You can imagine my expanded worldview was created through looking out the window. I just love the idea of creating an architectural structure, a domestic space within a rectangular form that stacks on top of one another, and to be on top gives you this bird’s-eye view where you can see the clouds, the water, the horizon line, the highway, the street below. It was just this wonderful feeling of being on top looking out and down and everything is so small that you could hold it in the palm of your hands. So this micro/macro relationship in space, where the big things become small things and the small things become big things. The need to free and to explore the imagination, and a dimension that had no name became very important to me. There was something about this special time for daydreaming but also for reflection.

Rail: That’s at the top panel. The bottom has another narrative!

Alvarez: That’s right! That painting on paper is a diptych. The bottom half was built up differently than the upper part. I think you are referring to the collaged cloth on top of the textured paper surface. It was my painting cloth, and the pattern came from the bricks that composed the apartment building. But as I mentioned earlier, we all were going to one Catholic school: my sister, my brother, and I would walk home together partly because it was kind of dangerous to walk alone. One day we heard the news that one of our classmates was shoved off the roof of one of the surrounding buildings that she lived in. I remember the intense smell of oil emanating from a parked delivery truck, which was nearby when we heard the sad news. So, yes, somehow that image of the girl flying is complex. It is about my freedom, but it is also about a painful memory. In some ways, I was trying to imagine that young girl falling down all those floors. I thought about it again when Ana Mendieta died. In many ways, time and space are inseparable from one another.

Rail: Your father, Maximino, had served as a soldier in the Korean War so he knew how to speak English. He came with your mother, Celia, to the US from Puerto Rico in the early ’50s. He had a modest job, working in a mailroom at a hospital nearby where you were born. But how did he and your mother manage to put you and your two siblings through private Catholic school?

Alvarez: My father worked two jobs. During the day, he worked in the mailroom at Cumberland Hospital. At night he cleaned offices. Oftentimes, we would all go to help him. We all went to St. James Parochial School. My parents worked really hard because they felt it was really important for us to have a good education. And we all did really well in school. My sister ultimately ended up getting a PhD in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania where she studied with William Labov. My brother worked freelance jobs through BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) doing stage production and design. What’s so crazy is that we’re all born the same month, each a year apart and we currently live in three different states. But my father’s work ethic was impressive. He never missed a day of work. It’s like that with all of us. My mother did a really great job of taking care of us, but eventually she also went to work at a local factory, Boorum & Pease, which was great for her pride and spirit.

Rail: What was the decision going to Fordham instead of going to art school?

Alvarez: I didn’t have the confidence of being an artist at that time. One of the best things that I’d experienced was the Fresh Air Fund, where every summer we would all go to different homes and stay with different people of means in upstate New York. So we learned about being in the country. I learned how to ride a bike. I learned about horses, motorcycles, embroidery, and most important of all, I learned about painting by numbers, which I loved.

Rail: You still do as we can see in the paintings, for example Again (2002) or A Man Waved (2005).

Alvarez: There’s something very relaxing and magical about following the instructions of filling in the colors by each number, and once you’re through, it’s a new world you’ve created. This magical feeling also applied later on when I look at other paintings made by other artists also. I was reminded of that in the Andy Warhol exhibition that recently closed at the AIC. I enjoy numerical systems, but most of the time, I run into a glitch and the patterns sway like in the painting Wonky.

Rail: Like Francisco Oller’s paintings, which you saw in the important survey of Puerto Rican art, The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico: Pre-Columbian to Present (1973), co-presented by the Met and at El Museo del Barrio.

Alvarez: Yes. I was mesmerized by Francisco Oller’s paintings, which left a strong imprint on my mind. He has this beautiful painting that’s called El Velorio [The Wake] (1893) which I’m referencing now actually for a show that I’m doing in New York at the Independent Art Fair. There’s something about getting to know paintings by really, really looking at them. By using them as beginning points for your own paintings you start to understand some of these compositions and how they were put together, similar to how words are put together to create a poem. I actually have quite a few paintings that I haven’t shown that are text-based. I’ve always loved the sound of words together. The exhibition included 18th and 19th century paintings and prints, modern and contemporary Puerto Rican artists, Taíno artifacts, wooden santos, and musical instruments. It was such an influential exhibition for me as a young artist. It was culturally rich, and vital.

Installation view: <em>Candida Alvarez: Estoy Bien</em>, Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. RCH Photography.
Installation view: Candida Alvarez: Estoy Bien, Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. RCH Photography.

Rail: I know in the interview Daniel Schulman did with you and Dawoud Bey, your former husband, about New York in the ’80s, even though Dawoud mentioned young artists of color were making works with the support of organizations and institutions that were independent from the mainstream art scene—such as El Museo del Barrio, the Cinque Gallery, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Exit Art, INTAR Gallery, and a few others—it must have been hard to ignore the scene of the Neo-Expressionism, which was stacked up by almost all male artists!

Alvarez: That’s true about the ’80s. I looked at Seurat and of course Richter and Baselitz who was really pushing the boundaries within abstraction and representation, met Milton Resnick, Al Loving, Vija Celmins, Rafael Ferrer, Ronald Bladen and Alfred Leslie at Skowhegan. It was also the decade for expanded programing around Hispanic artists—His-Panic art, was how I saw it. So it was troubling. I could not see myself represented in all of that because it was not my “panic.” [Laughs]

Rail: It’s like Sun Ra saying, “History is his story. My story is not his story.”

Alvarez: Yeah, but what about “her” story or “our” story? It was very male dominated. There was all this money being channeled through these big shows and I was always left out of them because I wasn’t working at that moment representationally. I saw many artists that changed their styles to fit this paradigm: the cache of what it meant to be working as an artist in the ’80s. There was this idea that you have to lock me up into a box that says “Look at me. Yo soy Puertorriqueña. This is what I do.” I felt like there was more of me that I needed to be working with. I didn’t grow up in Puerto Rico—I’m a New Yorker. So the idea that the urban environment is one that’s inside of me. Pushing the button to take the elevator up, having a little space to live in, not having a balcony, not having a park right outside my building. I didn’t grow up with a leisurely life. So for me, painting became the park I can escape to and contemplate. But the ’80s also brought a lot of conversation about what representation was and what abstraction was. Those territories, those regions, classifications, those ways of thinking about work, were really strong. I’ve always felt, and I’ve written about it, that abstraction and representation was really found in life itself, certainly in my life for sure, where I don’t see the separation between the two. It’s all one thing, really. I wanted to embody my total self, within it this hybrid space. My lived experience was always fundamental to my practice. I always felt that I embodied my own politics, it was me making the choices that I needed to make in order to make sure that my imagination was safeguarded. Because for me the biggest gift of all is the activation of imagination you can get in a space where it gives you permission to explore the questions that you need to explore to get to something that you’re seeking. I felt very lucky because my inwardness and my oral history were solid. My parents were really clear about who they were: they were Americans here, but Puerto Ricans at heart. I remember very specifically them telling me, “You are Puerto Rican,” so we learned the culture, we ate, slept, and danced the culture, with salsa music at the core. I just knew I embodied something that was bigger than me. It gives me a reference point to always be myself.

Rail: You and Amy Sillman have something in common. You both were born in 1955 and you went to graduate school later in life at the same time, when you were both in your 40s. Amy told me the reason she went to graduate school at Bard College was simply to sharpen her studio habits in order to actualize the routine into a lifelong practice as a painter. What were your reasons for going to Yale, Candida?

Alvarez: The reason was simple: the stock market had crashed and it seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the moment, to take care of our son and go back to school to enrich ourselves. Dawoud applied, he got accepted, and we had to move to New Haven. I also remember a few days before we left, my baby son Ramon was in my arms, and I saw this bullet shell in the window, and that seemed like a sure sign—it's a good time to leave right now. After Dawoud graduated I applied and I, too, got in. At first I was a little bit intimidated because I had been out of school for so long. But I wanted to expand my pictorial language and I felt that it was the perfect time to have conversations that widened my perspective about being an artist. It was great to work with these amazing artists like Frances Barth, Mel Bochner, Rochelle Feinstein, Richard Lytle, David Pease, Howardena Pindell, and David Reed, among others. We lived in New Haven for seven years before moving to Chicago, where Dawoud’s family was living, and where I was offered and accepted a teaching position at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), and where I’ve been for 21 years.

Rail: You succeeded my friend Susanna Coffey.

Alvarez: And Ray Yoshida as the school’s F.H. Sellers Professor in Painting, which I’m very grateful for, partly because it was empowering to think that I had potentially this skillset to mentor, to share my experiences.

Candida Alvarez, <em>Popsicle</em>, 2019. Acrylic on linen, 80 x 68 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Palm Beach, LA. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.
Candida Alvarez, Popsicle, 2019. Acrylic on linen, 80 x 68 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Palm Beach, LA. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

Rail: Some of us have to be mindful of passing on the baton one way or another.

Alvarez: Yes, like a relay race.

Rail: What else can you share with us about the ’80s besides several important group shows you participated in, including Surplus in 1985, curated by Papo Colo at Exit Art, and New Visions in 1986, curated by Kellie Jones at Soho20, for example?

Alvarez: April Kingsley’s 1980 Afro-American Abstraction at MoMA PS1 was a groundbreaking show. It was wonderful to see the work of Mel Edwards, Houston Conwill, William T. Williams, Howardena Pindell, James Little, Al Loving, Ed Clark, Jack Whitten (who was my professor at Fordham University, Lincoln Center), Maren Hassinger, David Hammons, Martin Puryear, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sam Gilliam, Tyrone Mitchell, Senga Nengudi, Charles Searles—

Rail: Who was my professor at PCA (Philadelphia College of Art, now called University of the Arts).

Alvarez: That’s amazing! I had a studio there as well on the third floor in the old bathroom space, which was right next to the Alan Saret light piece, and created my first installation in the third floor auditorium before it was remodeled. I saw the work of Joseph Beuys for the first time there and in 1989, the work of Hilma Af Klint. A few years later I was an Artist in Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, with Maren Hassinger and Charles Burwell. That was the year before I met Kerry James Marshall, who was in residence the following year.

Rail: Which now makes sense to me when I look at The Hybrid Series (1982)—they’re an alphabetical deployment of a minimalist framework to explore maximalist gestures. Quite opposite of what Kellie Jones observed of Jack Whitten’s work being a mixture of maximalist and minimalist gesture.

Alvarez: That’s beautiful. I love being in between those two polarities. There is something so gratifying about allowing the interior skeleton, the interior space, and the body of the painting to coalesce. In a broad sense it’s a form of storytelling or self-portraiture, which can take a form of representation or abstraction and vice versa. I never took the notion of representation or abstraction as a totally fixed idiom, a fixed condition. I see them as a perpetual collaboration that comes from real time, real life. It doesn’t matter if I hear voices from other artists in the studio, Francis Alÿs is here, Elizabeth Murray is there, Jack Whitten is somewhere in the middle. It makes me think of the quote by John Cage: “When you start working, everybody is in your studio—the past, your friends, your enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas—all are there. But as you continue, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”

Rail: Which is what John told Philip Guston.

Alvarez: Yes. That’s right. I also love what Paulo Freire says about art, that the artist cannot escape from the social dimension of his or her work. In the last analysis the artist, in silence and intimacy of the studio, is in a social space. So there is a constant negotiation between the public and private in silence or not. Sometimes, I go deeper when the music is playing loud, and sometimes, I need total silence in the studio. Some paintings get me emotional, while others make me laugh. I don’t know why I have to paint all the time, but I can’t stop. There is something powerful about a soft liquid turning into hard matter. I’ve been teaching it for so long and I’m always asking the same question, why do I continue to make paintings? And what does it mean? Even though I know it gives me the opportunity to have this journey in my life, which is huge.

Rail: And the opposite of going through life as a series of short and long trips.

Alvarez: How can a life be interesting when it has no mystery?

Rail: Exactly! How would you describe also the space between your homeland in Puerto Rico and the mainland here in the U.S.?

Alvarez: Right now, it feels fragile but hopeful. The island is filled with goodwill overall. But the government is a mess. Mother earth is dealing with all of this abuse, and it's in overdrive right now, so people are scared. When the ground does not stop rumbling, you don’t recognize your home turf. You become lost as the walls crumble. Overall, there is lots of tenacity and creativity. Overcoming fear is just part of who we are as human beings. We have to stand up for something, we have to love something. Death and life are so close together, and when we suffer trauma we are pushed in different ways to remember that there are ways in which you can find and be reminded about what is right and what is wrong and still be the individual in the room without losing our commitment to community. My feeling is that if I can empower one more human being in my lifetime to do the work they love, I’ve done good. I never think that I can find wisdom in the work that I do, but if I aim high with it and don’t take it for granted, I’ll get the opportunity to have empathy and support people to get close to how they can activate their dreams. There’s deep anxiety in this in-between space that feeds tremendous energy. It gives meaning to life.

Candida Alvarez, <em>Let's Be Friends</em>, 2019. Acrylic, enamel, and collage on linen, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.
Candida Alvarez, Let's Be Friends, 2019. Acrylic, enamel, and collage on linen, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Tom Van Eynde.

Rail: I couldn't agree more! So for you, being a teacher and being a working artist are both simultaneous and equally invested conditions?

Alvarez: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think I’m different from anyone, my artist friends and my students. My humanity is everything to me. I was lucky to have learned about love from my family. My parents love me and my siblings, so I saw the power of love very early on. Just having the ability to listen to somebody’s story, just looking at them in the eyes to say, “How can I help you?” is a gift. People just want to be listened to. Teaching has taught me a lot about communication, about listening, and also about having opinions, and how to speak clearly. Understanding that clarity is not what you always think it is, it doesn’t mean that I have to understand everything, but I can understand that I can have questions and still be clear. This idea of clarity is not about providing the only and absolute solution,

but in our lifetime as we get older we’d hope to get a little bit wiser about the things that we don’t need. I have grown to value my humanity and to understand what my passions are in life, knowing that spending time, and making work in the studio is my necessary solace. I recognize you can’t live alone in this world, mostly because it’s not fun, so teaching and spending time with my fellow artists is a profound pleasure. Both conditions are a perfect unity for me.

Rail: I appreciate what Terry R. Myers wrote in his catalog essay, “Recognition is a powerful experience. I don’t think there’s anything better than seeing something for what it is.” He also went on to point out the new work Comme des amigos forever (2017), made of adhesive vinyl and installed on the baseboard throughout the space. My question is, be it a pattern that is created in a variety of geometric formulations, for example the two paintings jive (2014) and wonky (2014) painted in a monochromatic palette; or the opposite with Rainbows on my studio floor (2016) with a very loud and vibrant color scheme; or in a subtle tonality such as Listening to Haruki Murakami while looking at a sunset (2016) and the irregular and biomorphic patterns in your reinventing paint-by-numbers painting DaDaDahlia (2005–08) or hi ho silver (2008), how do you know when to shift gears from one to the next painting?

Alvarez: I trust in my process and look for signs in lived experiences. jive came directly from an artist who sent me some images of Puerto Rican bumblebees, and it made me laugh because, well, I’ve never thought about Puerto Rican bumblebees. Painting Swarm (2014) gave me the opportunity to study and celebrate bumblebees, especially at a time when environmental pollution is endangering them. Listening to Haruki Murakami while looking at a sunset is exactly what the title suggests: since I don’t have time to read, I love to listen to audiobooks while working in the studio, and when I worked in my southwest facing studio I loved watching the colors of the sun setting flow into my studio. I love Murakami’s books. He usually starts from two endpoints and moves into the middle and it all either collapses or unifies. Two of my favorites are Kafka on the Shore (2002) and 1Q84 (2009). But while listening to 1Q84, something happened that was totally unpredictable. The painting was finished when the book ended. For my show at the Cultural Center, the work on the white baseboard came from an earlier painting I did, Best Friends Forever (2009). And thinking back to Comme Des Amigos Forever, it was part of a collaboration that was a significant turning point of how I relate to my work. A few months earlier, I received an invitation from the designer Rei Kawakubo to collaborate with her on the Comme des Garçons Homme Plus and SHIRT collections for the Fall Winter 2017 season. I curated a selection of paintings and drawings that she turned into clothing. The pattern of Comme des amigos forever was used for the men's couture line. I was excited to note that the artist Mary Heilmann also collaborated with Rei on the following 2018 SHIRT Collection. But I was humbled by the fact that it was my work that caught Rei’s eye, and that we shared an interest in what she referred to as the “new camouflage”. Rei does not see a separation between her clothes and the spaces they occupy. For me everything is fluid, and the color determines the speed with which my painting moves through time and space. I’ve always loved Vernon Reid’s band; Living Colour—I just love that term, so when people ask me about my favorite colors, I just always say, living colors.

Rail: Who was your friend in the ’80s.

Alvarez: Yes, I met Vernon through our mutual friend Greg Tate. We used to all hang out and go to each other’s shows, readings, performances, and so on. It was just a cool time to be in New York. The last thing I’d like to say about the show at the Cultural Center is that the whole space was so enormous, with a Neoclassical ceiling and right below hung the works I’ve made over 40 years. I remember thinking, “How do we and the paintings all live together in the now?” In Best Friends Forever, I referenced the relationship I have with painting. We are inseparable. So it made sense to include the collaboration with Comme de Garçons as an extension of a friendship, and also to include the curator, Terry R. Myers, who has been an incredible colleague and friend over so many years, to suggest the power of friendship and of community I’ve built all my life, hence the title Comme des amigos forever. So the way to tie almost 60 works of art together was almost like tying a belt around your waist. So the baseboard was one element that brought all the works together.

Installation view: <em>Candida Alvarez: Estoy Bien</em>, Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. RCH Photography.
Installation view: Candida Alvarez: Estoy Bien, Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, 2020. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. RCH Photography.

Rail: What’s your concept of the nowness of now?

Alvarez: I try to stay present. I try to capture the joy my eyes see with color. I love taking pictures everywhere I go. In fact, the first tool I ever bought was a 35mm Olympus camera. I thought I was going to explore photography instead of painting, but when I met Dawoud I said, “Here, you should use my camera!” [Laughs] But to this day I still take pictures everywhere I go, everything I see that is interesting to me. I just love having all of this information—these bits and pieces representing reality. Maybe it goes back to the stained glass windows that I first saw as a little girl in the church. Actually I created stained glass windows for a middle school in the South Bronx. The idea that bits and pieces of glass can create and hold something larger through light and shape has always fascinated me. I just came back from a trip to Arezzo to see Piero della Francesca’s frescos, especially his Madonna del Parto (1460) in Monterchi and Resurrection (1465) in Sansepolcro, his birthplace. Besides the magical power of his amazing use of light, composition, perspective, and so on to convey the story and the enduring image that stays in our mind, I’ve been thinking about how color sits on a support surface. Similar to how in Piero’s frescos color pigments sit on a wall, I’ve been remembering how Josef Albers painted his theory of color on the back of masonite panels. I realize the roughness of the surfaces could be a way to catch light and also slow down the viewing experience.

At the moment I’m exploring how to work with the beauty of raw linen on my so-called “Vision Paintings.” These paintings are a desire to communicate in ways that writing or speaking can not. I trust my eyes more than anything, yet I don’t have 20/20 vision. I don't wear glasses when I work, especially magnifiers. I trust my blurry eye and my clear eye to direct my hand. It is really my imperfect vision that leads the way through the paintings. Since my visit to Umbria, I can't stop thinking about how brilliant the colors in the paintings were, despite their age. When I returned to my studio, I bought new colors and made a decision to build stretchers 20 inches by 20 inches as a tribute to the new year, 2020. The color and composition for these paintings have definitely been inspired from the paintings of Piero della Francesca and Francisco Oller.

Rail: What about this new group of work, your so-called “Air Paintings,” which seems so assertive in their interplay between the physical and fragile nature of material, and how images can be transpired through opacity and transparency without being fastened by gravity or emotional brevity?

Alvarez: The paintings are gestural marks that are both body and material. The industrial tooth of the PVC mesh allows for light and air to flow through. The aluminum reminds me of the urban landscape, and the airplanes that hover in the sky. My parents met and fell in love inside a PanAm jet. It is also how we move to and from the island of Puerto Rico and also a symbol of what separates us. I think about the art of mechanical reproduction, as the surfaces are printed with images of several paintings I have made over the last few years. I like the transparency, and the ability to make the focal point grow in length. The ground plane changes depending on the light source and configuration of the space the paintings are installed in. The work lives through gesture, digital printing, and a 20 year old archive of my paintings. The aluminum structures feel commercial and urban to me. Like the lens of a camera, the works transmit light and record with transparency and detail what lives in front and behind the mesh. It is both a window and a screen. Like a walk through the forest, among the trees, there is texture and detail. The paint moves through gesture to armature.

I love surprises, I love getting distracted by something outside of the normalcy. I think that’s why having conversations with people is so important. That lunch visit that I had with you and the team at the Rail was so amazing! The idea that you have a poetry reading at the end of every lunch is so fabulous because it encourages us to be in touch with our imagination, and ways of thinking and feeling outside of the monotony of everyday life. To me, life is a mediation between the maximal and the minimal. Every one of us has to explore the minute degree that suits our vision and temperament as artists. The rest is about how to be in our moment, the nowness of the now, and be as honest as we possibly can. The rest belongs to magic and mystery which we have no control of whatsoever. Just be blessed that loving what we do in life is the key to what we do.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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