Amanda Verwey interviews D-L Alvarez
Catch D-L Alvarez at the RADAR Reading Series on Jan. 9th! You can see Amanda Verwey’s illustrations in the upcoming adapation of Michelle Tea’s novel, Valencia.
D-L ALVAREZ is a true Renaissance man!!! He first caught my attention with his meticulously rendered graphite drawings in MATRIX 243: PARENTS’ DAY at the Berkeley Art Museum. These depictions of climactic scenes from Halloween (1978), entirely set in mundane domestic space, had me HOOKED on all things D-L. It was one of those exhibits that leave you bummed out you didn’t think to make something so awesome first. After that, I studied his catalogue like it was my job (even before it actually was my job) and found him to be not only a prolific visual artist, but also an accomplished fiction writer and filmmaker. I’m so looking forward to his RADAR reading and was fortunate enough to chat with him during this last holiday-crazed week.
Verwey: You make drawings and sculptures, and for many years you have also been writing fiction. Both have elements of the autobiographical and humor, but they’re much more subdued in the visual work. Can you talk about the difference in tone between your writings and the static work you show in galleries?
Alvarez: Sure. First: I’m primarily a visual artist, even when I write, and viewing writing from this perspective—literally looking at a page full of text—it is already formal and ordered. The typeface is legible, everyone knows what direction to read it in … visually speaking any open book, from a classic like Jane Eyre to Jokes for the John is going to have the same layout, save for illustrations. So I view writing as a medium that is so conservative in appearance that you can explode the content more.
This is evident in my early drawings, which incorporate text. The drawings look like paint-by-number templates: contour lines in blue pencil on white paper, unassuming birds and countryside views. But in the legend, where you normally have a list of colors, I inserted narrative fragments: a time of day, an emotion, an event. So while the images had this banal appearance, the stories were dark, funny, and usually sexual. The pedestrian appearance of a sentence let me be more racy with its content.
But perhaps too, my writing remains verbose because I don’t have the same skill level that I do with the visual work at paring it down. I dedicate great amounts of time to make things sparse, more time and energy than seems logical given the results, but this is my way of evoking craftsmanship. Unfortunately, I’m not as practiced at the craft of writing. I think I’m a “good” writer, but it requires more sweat, thought, and time than drawing does at this point.
My aesthetic has a lot to do with the work ethic my father valued, combined with a queer love for minimalism: minimalism being the escape hatch. You know? I grew up, gay, in the house of a garbage man who savaged things other people had thrown away. Upward mobility for me was Bauhaus.
It’s ironic, but that’s how Bauhaus manifested in the States. Gropius said Bauhaus intended to erase class distinctions, or at least the class distinction between the craftsman and the fine artist. But by the time it got to the US, Bauhaus meant modernist buildings in rich neighborhoods, with servants dusting clean lines.
As an artist who started out referencing paint-by-numbers, which gives painting to the people, I’m interested in this original Bauhaus ideal of reducing ornamentation, in a way that links to socialism: sparse design absent of class distinction: the IKEA version of Bauhaus. But at the same time I also like that failure of Bauhaus ending up with a huge price tag. I knew early on that even if I drew workers struggling in the field, the drawing would be stuck in an expensive frame and sold to wealthy collectors.
That’s part of art’s narrative. The pictures hang in a gallery, where anyone can walk in and construct meaning; then, they hang on the wall, or in the storage unit, of some wealthy person, becoming invisible except as an object that appreciates or loses value.
To bring it back to the different tones, mainly it’s about where I see each of these works going: the drawings and sculptures versus the fiction. The visual works are looked at as one-of-a-kinds and assigned a market value. The more delineated these images are, the better the chances that they’ll resonate over time, because they remain open to new interpretations.
Writing on the other hand is social and in the moment. It is the interpretation. I do it expecting no financial recognition. If it’s printed in a journal or posted on the web, it can wind up in any hand. It can be in a chic apartment over-looking Central Park, or in the free book bin at the public library. What’s more, I can pick up that story and rework it without rubbing anyone the wrong way.
That’s another reason the writing is free to say more, and say it louder; it’s not immediately archived. Even when it is, it’s archived in one incarnation as a voice of its time. People forgive more of a dated text than they do an artwork that seems trapped in an era. The text, at least in how I use it, lives outside the frame and so becomes a type of frame: an ever-changing frame for what would otherwise be completely static work.
Verwey: What are you working on currently?
Alvarez: Too much. Ha. Let’s see, where the visual work is concerned I’m gearing up for a solo show in New York. It was going to take place last November, but the gallery was hard hit by Sandy, so now it looks like we’ll mount it in March. One of the works in that is this video scripted by Kevin Killian, a writer I very much admire who is a key figure in Poets Theater. We did a half-live half-video version of the piece, The Visitor Owl, at SFMOMA this past summer. Now I’m trying to rework it into something that can hold its own in a gallery setting. It’s been exciting, because it requires me to dive into a new medium headfirst. I’ve always made little films, but shooting landscapes alone. This is a narrative with actors, a crew, a beautiful script, and many attempts to raise funds. I love risks and stepping out of my comfort zones. It keeps the work fresh.
As a writer, well, I’m doing a guest spot on the SFMOMA blog starting in February.
Oh, and as an in-between project: there’s a possibility that I’ll be working with filmmaker Donal Mosher, illustrating a book project he’s doing, but that hasn’t been fleshed out, so we’ll see.
Verwey: Are there any emerging artists that you’re into right now?
Alvarez: Yes, many! I used to be a real Luddite. I thought seeing a film only counted if you saw it projected in a theater. Likewise I refused to pay attention to art unless I was in the same room with it. Then something snapped, and now I find myself following all kinds of artists via the Internet, the majority of which I’ve never seen in real life. I just surrendered to the fact that, sure, the experience will be different in person, but for now I’m responding to the reproduction. Ironically it brings me back to how I first experienced contemporary art, which was through photos in magazines.
There are so many cool artists out there, emerging and established both, that I started curating little albums of them on my Facebook artist page (D-L Alvarez). Some I love and some I’m on the fence about, but if I post a work, it’s because it got my attention one way or another. Off the top of my head, some artists I’ve liked lately: Kitty Kraus, Lynne Harlow, Thea Djordjadze, Shahryar Nashat, Fredrik Söderberg, Amba Sayal-Bennett, Antoine Catala, Heather Cook, Angela de la Cruz… seriously, this only scratches the surface. I’m not sure if they are all emerging, since the online art world is much more equalizing. For San Francisco, I advise people to look towards the upcoming installations that will be part of SFMOMA’s 2013 SECA exhibition. One of the recipients is Josh Faught, whose work I am mad for.