Rene Alvarado at the Latino Cultural Center

Rene Alvarado: Memories from El Manantial

Latino Cultural Center (May 12 – August 20, 2011)

Walk into the east gallery at the Latino Cultural Center – into the Rene Alvarado show – and it seems immediately obvious Alvarado is a portrait painter.  Spend some time really looking at these paintings, though, and you see that the magic of Rene Alvarado’s art is that he is a consummate visual storyteller, decorative artist, and beautifully technical painter as well.

“Memories from El Manantial”  (lit. the spring or oasis) is a colorful powerhouse of a show.  These are very large paintings – as large as 8 and 10 feet – and every inch of painted surface is carefully drafted and rendered like a virtuoso.

Rene Alvarado is a San Angelo artist who spent his early childhood in Coahuila, Mexico.  In 2009, Alvarado was honored as Texas State Artist.  How would I describe his work based on this show?  I’d say he’s a figurative painter who paints with whimsy in a magical style that reads at once very Latino, very Catholic, very metaphorical, and very personal.

My first walk through the gallery, I looked at each face in each painting.  There are a series of five Madonna paintings that are particularly interesting.  They are smaller paintings (24 X 36 inches), but hung in a row on one wall they make a big statement.

Madonna with Fish Offering

First you look deep into the peaceful faces.  Then you notice the various repetitive decorative motifs.  There are fish, roses, and vines – always fish, roses and vines.  You’ll notice these elements here where they are prominent, but then you’ll see them repeated in all his work – sometimes right up front but often almost hidden in the background or obscured because they are painted just slightly lighter or darker than the area they’re painted upon.

Other common elements in Alvarado’s work include wildlife – whether birds or animals (with a propensity for horses and zebras – more on that later), Gauguin-in-Tahiti tropical plants, and colorful science-fiction flowers.  There is something very magical in how he moves these elements so elegantly from foreground to background, from two-dimensional silhouette to three-dimensional realism.  This movement from realistic to decorative happens without you even realizing it – it’s seamless and looks natural, but it is genius how he does this.  Foreground becomes background that becomes pattern only to be an object in the foreground again.  Positive and negative space trade places without missing a beat.

Rene Alvarado uses vertical stripes a lot in his work.  Some of these stripes appear to be dripping, running paint but wait, no; they can’t be - because here they become the stripes of a zebra or the cables in a suspension bridge.  See how cleverly he weaves these elements together?

Texas Family

This painting, Texas Family, displays many of the peculiarities of an Alvarado painting.  Notice the portraits first – I imagine these taken from old sepia toned prints, but combined with the vertical stripes and the colors – the gorgeous colors – these usually dour prints take on a whole new life.  They sing!  The baby blues, the yellows, the chartreuse, and the whites!  There are rich deep watercolor-like washes in parts of the background.  There’s a wonderful purple to orange gradient.  Here a shape painted in checkerboard pattern – there a dog with a moon behind him.  But look, the moon has Alvarado’s signature rose motif wallpapered there, reversed out in white-on-red.  See the fish with a vine and pods growing out of its mouth – only to be swallowed above by a member of the family?

Texas Family (detail)

A detail of this painting shows the highly stylized lemonade (how many places can you find this lemon-slice shape repeated?) and the fantasy flowers found in many of these paintings.

Several of the large colorful paintings have a circus theme.  Presumably, these are memories from Alvarado’s childhood in Mexico.  The profile figure of a horse is prominent in these and other paintings.  In another tribute painting to his family, the profile figure of a horse is on wheels, like a child’s riding toy.  In another, a ballerina twirls behind a large cactus, but in front of a sleek black steed.  And here, the horse itself is decorated with pink gingham and pink roses.  And finally, in a really great paining, the horse is blue on white with a delft pattern on his hindquarters and a flower painted on each knee.

What does all this mean?  Who knows?  Likely these are personal images from his childhood – favorites that he likes to explore over and over.  These large paintings have a dream-like quality that allows for the odd juxtapositions and relationships to appear perfectly natural.  And on that other level, they are like beautiful and unique wallpaper – appreciable just as decoration.

I eventually came to the conclusion that I won’t think of Rene Alvarado as a portrait painter.  He paints faces in his paintings, but instead of proclaiming, “this is me” they look at you, the gallery viewer, as if to say, “Look at the interesting scene I’m in!”  They are actors in a visual theater about family history or the circus or religious iconography.

This is a strong show by a very capable and gifted showman.  It is not uncommon for the Latino Cultural Center to hang shows that leave me wanting to see more.  Add this one to that list.