Historian Essay

 


When René Alvarado was just four years old, his desire to create art was ignited. Alvarado recounts that while at his grandparents’ farm in Mexico, he was drawn to a photograph of a young woman who he later discovered was one of his aunts, pictured weeks before she passed away at the untimely age of twelve. Although too young to understand it at the time, Alvarado was enraptured by the “courage,” “peace,” and “dignity” she exhibited in the face of death. He explains, “My aunt was the inspiration for me to want to draw women who had something haunting within their eyes and soul. The face was the origin of why I am fascinated with telling stories.” The photograph now hangs in his studio as a reminder of the beauty and complexity of the human condition. The haunting beauty Alvarado found so evocative in his aunt’s portrait permeates throughout his art. His ability to express personal emotions and memories, while capturing the human condition, is remarkable and ever-present in his works.

Alvarado’s unique upbringing and background is represented through the conceptual complexity that is characteristic of his paintings. He spent the first seven years of his life in the small Mexican ranching town of El Manantial, Coahuila, just outside of Torreòn, before immigrating first to Wyoming, and later to San Angelo, Texas, at the age of ten. Although unable to return to his birthplace because of the recurring violence from drug cartels, he says he “often returns to Mexico in my mind,” and remains in contact with his large extended family still living in the region. His creative process is dependent upon his rich hybridity of backgrounds. Moving between Mexico, Wyoming, and Texas, Alvarado found solitude within the familiar environments of his family, his cultural heritage, the ranching communities that remained a constant feature of his life, and, ultimately, his art.

Alvarado’s paintings also carry psychological depth. His works, rich with symbolism and emotive expression, celebrate the joys and trivialities of life and death. This harks back to his reverence for his aunt’s portrait. He emphasizes that the expressive quality of his aunt’s eyes inspire the way in which he renders the eyes of his figures, which are notable for their passion, soul, and realism that convey the essence of the human condition. His ability to find beauty in both life and death relates to his Mexican heritage. Alvarado explains, “I am not afraid of death. I am not afraid of celebrating death. All those things are part of my culture.” Later in life, Alvarado’s interest in psychology inspired him to study the subject in school. This interest culminated during the time Alvarado spent working as an art teacher for the San Antonio Housing Authority. Alvarado would visit houses in the projects to encourage children to take advantage of creative centers where, through art therapy, social workers and psychologists would learn about the children’s’ psychological environment and hardships. Although ultimately Alvarado’s career as an artist took precedent, he tries to apply psychology to his work. Alvarado has a gift in his ability to find beauty in raw human emotions, enabling viewers to develop a deep connection with his works.    

Alvarado often depicts his subjects within an anecdotal narrative. As a young boy in America, unable to speak English, art became an instrumental form of communication for him. Alvarado singles out one teacher during his first year of school in Wyoming who, upon discovering his inability to speak English, nurtured his creativity through art assignments, giving Alvarado a form of self-expression that transcended speech. Alvarado emphasizes that “from doing that for a full year, I have carried it with me.” To this day, Alvarado’s art acts as a cathartic form of self-expression that enables him to communicate what words cannot capture.

Alvarado attributes the dreamlike essence in his work to a childhood in which he was daydreaming and enraptured in fantasy, unaware of the hardships that burden adults. His childhood curiosity and desire to create remains his “base for inspiration,” and is represented by the spiritual and ethereal quality of his paintings, which are often compared to surrealist dreamscapes. Alvarado’s paintings are conceptually layered with symbolism. These symbols bear a mixture of both personal significance and iconographical meaning. For Alvarado, the roses integrated within his canvases represent a romantic offering, while the thorns act as a defense mechanism, and his inclusion of fish symbolizes a sacrifice. The mermaids that often fill his canvases personify the sensation of yearning, which he explains is derived from the direct Spanish translation of the word “mermaid,” which is “siren.”

Many of Alvarado’s paintings, despite their seemingly abstract subject matter, are inspired by people and their stories, underscoring the genuine emotion that emanates from his work. Often Alvarado’s subjects pay homage to the women who have had an instrumental role in his life. Growing up among five sisters within a matriarchal Mexican town where the men usually worked abroad to support their families has impacted the direction of Alvarado’s art practice. Alvarado explains, “When you’re from a pueblo you see women who are so hard working and so giving from the minute they wake up to the minute they go to sleep.” Alvarado depicts these women with dignity and beauty. They are not romanticized or a mere adornment within a painting, but are celebrated for their resilience amidst hardship.

The common themes of human emotion, home, and family that are integral to Alvarado’s art universally resonate with viewers. His work remains remarkably enduring. He acknowledges that this is deliberate, stating “I want my work to seem timeless, I want it to be about the work, not about me.” Alvarado often depicts his figures as androgynous, explaining, “Sexuality and gender is just one aspect or component of who we are.” He hopes to transcend societal labels and current trends in popular culture through the universal and human qualities his figures portray.

All of these elements are conveyed in Alvarado’s seminal painting Mi Familia. The work depicts Alvarado’s family in its entirety, including his two siblings who passed away as infants, and his adopted brother. The work is indicative of common themes throughout his art. Although Alvarado does not depict his family’s features with technical accuracy, he suggests that it is “the sentiment that went into it” that is important. Painting each family member was a meditative process for Alvarado. He explains, “It made me pay attention to who those individuals were as people, as I remembered them growing up and as they are now. I bonded with each one in my own mind.”

Alvarado’s works are also stylistically sophisticated. The style of his art has frequently been labelled as figurative surrealism, or more broadly, as imagist, meaning the adoption of images to convey a particular narrative. Although Alvarado accepts and welcomes all these labels, he maintains, “I am not fixated on them because I am still developing and growing.”  Alvarado’s canvases are visually impactful due to both their large scale and bright colors. He explains, “I let the work speak for itself, but I try to make sure that the painting has a really loud voice.” Despite the large canvas size, Alvarado utilizes acute technical precision in handling of line and color. Sudden yet seamless changes in the depth of field, from three-dimensional to silhouetted figures, instill his paintings with a nuanced rhythm, while lines of dripping paint and twisting vines carry the viewer’s eyes through the composition. Alvarado’s incorporation of mixed media elements add texture to his paintings. Often he lays lace across a figure, or inlays glass eyes within the canvas.

Alvarado’s artistic method is as intriguing as his paintings. He conducts his practice in a ritualistic manner, insisting that the lighting be perfect, and requiring a playlist of music selected for a particular painting before he can begin his work. He says that the atmosphere he creates for himself is imperative, and that he is inclined to “world music,” preferring foreign lyrics that allow him to attach significance to the emotions evoked through the music rather than becoming distracted by a lyrical narrative. Instead of pre-planning his paintings, which Alvarado says feels insincere, he fills his canvas with acrylic paint until he begins to see forms within the abstract color fields, at which time he transitions into oil painting. By adopting an “automatic” painting process, the emotional resonance of his art is heightened. He describes painting as a cathartic experience, explaining, “I don’t hold my emotions, I express them. I cleanse and filter myself.”

The setting in which Alvarado works is similarly fascinating and unique. In 2005, after longing to buy the structure for many years, he purchased the Trinity Lutheran Church in San Angelo. Built in 1929, the church was converted into a studio, gallery, and living space by Alvarado, which he currently inhabits with his dog, a Doberman named Quincey. The 32-foot high transept and bright lighting provide a sanctuary for his art. The walls of the space are filled with numerous canvases and objects that Alvarado has collected. His fascination with these objects provides inspiration for his art. Their mystery evokes wonderment about their origin and history, filling his studio with a creative energy. It was not until he completed the remodel that Alvarado recognized the symbolism of living and creating art within a church. Not only is his art imbued with a spiritual quality, but as a child he was baptized into numerous religions.  Alvarado remarks that the former church he now occupies has brought many people to him, ranging from curious visitors to art patrons, and has even been the site of marriage of two of his family members.

Alvarado’s conceptual and technical skill are underscored by the recognition he has garnered as an artist. Significantly, in 2009, he was the recipient of the Texas State Art Award alongside poet laureate Paul Ruffin and musician Willie Nelson. He has also held numerous solo shows throughout Texas, and has been included in exhibits as far away as Peru. Despite his evident success, Alvarado maintains that, on a personal level, the most significant award he has been granted was the San Antonio Art Institute Scholarship Award, which was taken away just months later, following the school’s closure. He explains that the loss and confusion he experienced following the annulment of the award facilitated “my true breakthrough to be an independent and to start making decisions for myself.” It was the pivotal moment in which Alvarado determined his destiny to become a painter.

Alvarado’s passion for painting is unparalleled and inspirational. Within his canvases life and art intertwine. Alvarado pours his heart and soul into the compositions he creates. He explains that each painting is a “self-portrait,” a piece of himself. For Alvarado, painting is “the most beautiful place in my life,” and through his art he is able to share this beauty with the world.