Comics, politics, and pop culture all figure in the paintings of the late Cuban artist, Pedro Álvarez, whose work is currently at the UC Riverside Sweeney Art Gallery. The Signs Pile Up addresses the legacy of this artist who died prematurely in 2004 at the age of 37. Álvarez had garnered some attention and had his first one man show in 2004 after being included in a group show at ASU in 1998. At the time of his death, his career was just beginning to take off.
Signs is the first re-examination of the artist’s work in a comprehensive show since his untimely demise. It’s accompanied by the first monograph published on Álvarez in the US, which happens to be the very first scholarly publication of this caliber to come from the Sweeney. Track 16 Gallery in Bergamot Station, which represents the artist’s estate, provides assistance—financial and otherwise—for the publication.
Álvarez’s work is rich with content, and his paintings oscillate between an illustrative approach and a pastiche of collage and painting. He engages questions of the political and social structures of colonialism and the racism embedded in the legacy of slavery; he’s preoccupied with Cuba’s difficult past and its identity. Álvarez tirelessly appropriates and quotes other source material, from old Cuban cigar packaging to the films of Walt Disney. Yet he seems torn between art that is its own subject and painting in service to political ends. The illustrative painting in this show is executed well enough, but nothing really pops.
In one of his three distinctive styles of painting, which overlap chronologically, Álvarez covers canvas in a ground of collage, using pages torn from art history books. Reproductions of European and American paintings can be seen under thin layers of paint or between brushstrokes. Some images appear numerous times, leading one to believe that Álvarez cannibalized multiple copies of the same book to fuel production.
The Triumph of Spanish Art reflects the artist’s struggle with the legacy of European painting. The title suggests a concern with the giants of Spanish painting, Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Pablo Picasso; however, Álvarez quotes a number of other painters, including Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Morris Louis and Chuck Close. It’s the work of Matisse and Close that Álvarez renders in his own hand as the image of the underlying collage and the brushwork on the surface briefly coincide. This approach is also taken in The History of Cuban Painting has now been told, where the underlying collage refers to Joan Miró, James Rosenquist, Paul Cézanne, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Álvarez’s approach has the effect of quoting the whole history of painting as the backdrop to his work; it also suggests an artist struggling with his place in the context of painting.
The struggle against colonial influences is examined in Café Table, also painted over a patchwork of art historical images. A crocodile seated at a café table, napkin around his neck, fork and knife poised, is served the head of a man. A wait staff of animals attends him. This vignette and others in Álvarez’s paintings derive from old Cuban cigar packages. The “man bites dog” quality of the scene in Café Table turns societal order on its head, while The History of Cuban Painting has now been told is painted in similar fashion. A number of the scenes depict Afro-Cubans disparagingly; a man in a drunken slumber, spent rum bottle to the side while his female companion continues to drink, her breasts exposed. Or they portray the social realities of service to white landowners. Álvarez’s concern with racism and the vestiges of colonialism can be seen in African Abstract (version II). Painted over a collage of Tintin comics—Tintin in the Congo, The Sharks of the Red Sea, and The Crab with The Golden Claws—are bank notes from African nations.
Four paintings from the Romantic Dollar series allude to Álvarez’s admiration for Mark Tansey. Each painting represents a different denomination of US currency: one, twenty, fifty, and one hundred. The paintings convincingly render George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin in Washington D.C., against the backdrop of the capital. The latter three appear surrounded by groups of Native Americans, suggesting a dichotomy of democratic ideals versus the reality of manifest destiny. Washington’s head appears as the sphinx against a backdrop of the Giza pyramids.
The Flower of the Revolution features a dashboard and steering wheel as a backdrop to four flitting heads named after the primary characters in the Simpsons television show. Álvarez seems to ask if this is what has come of the American and Cuban Revolutions. Yet he ends up, finally, concerned with the colonization of the mind.