One of the most noteworthy aspects of Pedro Diego Alvarado’s painting is the fact that it happens to be painting at a time when this medium’s legitimacy is being questioned. The clear rift between abstract and figurative painting that occurred during the first half of the twentieth century eventually evolved into a critical controversy between two-dimensional painting and conceptual art after wwii and especially during the 1960s. It is true that—with the exception of a few notable cases—conceptual art practically eclipsed painterly practice during the 1960s and 70s; however, in the 1980s and 90s it once again became prominent and consequently acquired primacy in the art hierarchy. It is obvious that the most significant shows of the last twenty years have featured a substantial amount of painterly works, whether their content was primarily figurative or clearly formal and inspired by the discourse on abstraction. But how many times has it been insinuated—often with bated breath—that painting is dead? I believe that only the apocalypse-minded can assert such a thing, as the history of art obviously renews and rejuvenates itself, strengthens its foundations and thus allows painting or other media to reappear, forever seeking to reassert their artistic supremacy.
Even though heated debates regarding the validity of painting continue today, in an era when practically any object can be represented—in photography for instance—or else invented—on the computer screen—, Alvarado keeps his distance from such diatribes and reveals his predilection for the brush. This artist’s technique, working method, talent (whether inherited, acquired or achieved through study), the forms he invents and the skill with which he works and of which he displays the results make him an important component of Mexico’s contemporary art panorama. Alvarado observes nature, grasps its splendor, abstracts its essence and captures it on canvas. Antiquated? It has been said that the art world would be boring and sterile if it were not for the “ins and outs” dictated by fashion; there has been talk of avant-garde art which challenges viewers’ expectations; fingers have been waved at those who ignore the import of concept in a work of art; and, in spite of the lucid arguments of “anti-painting” writers, when exactly did the tradition of painting die? For each vanguard there is a rearguard as Clement Greenberg once stated. For each mainstream work there exist alternatives. And if conceptual codes were the alternative in the 1960s and 70s, today they appear to have been more like a fad which has been yielding ground—in terms of the quest for the intangible, the unreachable and the innovative—to painting.
Figurative painting has always been tied to the concept of representation. Nowadays, it is hard to establish a hierarchy of representation since practically our entire cognitive universe is bombarded by images. As Baudrillard warned, the sign has taken power over the signified. The sign’s underlying meaning no longer matters as long as the sign itself is well represented—indeed, meaning has become irrelevant since only that which we are able to see is true. We see images, representations, icons and simulacra which mean nothing: Baudrillard calls this “the perfect crime.” And in a world where representation has taken the place of ideology, the irony of history has kept a paradox in store for us: it is precisely now that the issue of representation is most important.
A representation, like a symbol, has a meaning, but unlike symbols, its meaning is transcendent. Alvarado, besides working on the problematic of representation, problematizes reality by transmuting it. What he considers problematic or, to use a gentler term, challenging, is not the representation in and of itself, nor its signifying process, but reality itself. Alvarado’s painting can be seen as an attempt to solve problems, as a quest to transform a reality that has become unsubstantial in a meaningless universe of representation. If images are simulacra of reality, then Alvarado’s paintings are transmutations of it. What do you do in an image- dominated world? How do you transcend the here and now to thus be able to behold the substance of representations? Through abstractions of reality? Or, as Alvarado’s paintings indicate, through formal transmutations? His painting clearly points out that one can gain access to a wide range of interpretations based on the schism between the real object and its representation. This is expressed in most of his series: prickly pears, agaves and organ cactus, vegetables and flowering trees, landscapes, fields and skies full of clouds. The breadth of his repertoire is not only evident in the finished piece as a whole, but also in the individual treatment given to every little detail that makes up Alvarado’s canvases. How can one make seemingly trivial paintings at a historical moment when any attempt at dialogue is thwarted by violence? Alvarado answers promptly, but not unthinkingly: he makes paintings which he himself enjoys, so spectators might also enjoy themselves, at the precise moment when what we need the most is time for meditation. Gillo Dorfles called this fragment of time—into which the artist hurls us so we may experience aesthetic ecstasy—”the lost interval.” Without this “diasthematic pause,” all thoughts and considerations are eradicated when an action is performed. And then art would be useless. We need silence to be able to process everyday chaos, and Alvarado’s paintings grant us this period of quiescence that is a fundamental strategy of survival.
In a prior series from 1999–2000 entitled Still Geometry, the artist used as models the same figures as in the current show (primarily fruit, vegetables or plants) but his execution of the paintings was quite different. If, like the title indicates, he placed objects as in a still-life, in the current exhibition Transmutations, the effect created within the painting is that of unhurried movement—elements are much more free of a certain stiffness that existed in Still Geometry. Indeed, the canvases are just as well composed but have lost the rigidity of the earlier work. They are more obviously permeated with a particular atmosphere, in the same way that the “transmutations” reveal a texture—in the tactile as well as visual sense—which speaks of a much purified technique. The refinement, visible at first glance, is due to the laborious persistence of someone who knows his craft and who, at the same time, has evidently allowed himself greater creative freedom. In the apparently modest landscape Tequila Agaves, for instance, rows of agave plants in the foreground vanish into the distance, in a composition whose classic perspective is crowned by two hills with the sky as a backdrop. The piece’s stillness recalls de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings, though Alvarado does not allow himself to be absorbed by the aura of mystery prevalent in the Italian painter’s work. On the contrary, he gives shapes room to breathe: spaces allow waves of air to caress the plants; nonetheless, the viewer is gripped with a sense of deathly silence. In this same tone, Vertical Datura and Horizontal Datura are excellent pieces featuring close-ups against carefully rendered backdrops which permit the main figure to stand out and evince the smallest details. The space is more confined but does not seem to cramp the dancing flowers. The works Unripe Bananas and Watermelon and Pineapple and Grapefruit lend quite a different impression, possessing a “moving (as opposed to still) life” quality which the earlier work did not reveal. In the first painting, a bunch of bananas rests on a watermelon while in the foreground juice trickles out of the flesh of another watermelon, sliced open. In the second, the sliced fruit (melon and pineapple) are also dripping with juice, flesh and fiber. In both cases the texture is exquisitely painted, and what distinguishes these two pieces is the fact that they are at once close-ups and reworkings—appropriations and recontextualizations—of previous pieces of Alvarado’s, making them even more interesting in terms of form and conceptual structure.
Fruit Stand and Vegetable Stand are of a different vein and larger size, depicting fruit and vegetables the way they would normally be displayed: arranged in crates, rows or mounds in order to appeal to shoppers. Although these pieces are more conventional both in terms of their content and effect, their process of execution recaptures the flowing, dynamic movement of other pieces. Color, form and the general composition bespeak of an exercise in which the artist did not ignore a single detail in the painting in order to achieve truly outstanding results.
There is another series, entitled Emblems, that Pedro Diego Alvarado painted in 2001, between the two aforesaid series. Here the artist swore off geometry but did not leave out the deliberate tranquillity present in all of his other works. Prickly Pear from Teotihuacan, Oaxacan Organ Cactus, Plantains or even certain contrasting pieces such as Mitla, Spirit and Substance or Crucifixion are a foretaste of what the artist presents in Transmutations. Open spaces and flat backgrounds in subdued colors underpin soaring figures depicted in all their splendor, revealing every single detail filled with textures, waves, light, shadows, reflections and formal density. Recent works like Mameyes and Pomegranates are related to this series insofar as they are also close-ups of represented objects in which the fruits’ shadows blend into the canvas’ background, allowing the main figures’ shapes to stand out.
Transmutations also includes a series of works made in a square format. In a certain way, the images’ closeness distorts the viewer’s vision as the images’ proportions seem to grow; similarly, the artist depicts fragments of other elements—vegetables, fruit, baskets, shelves, etc.—which forces us to focus our attention on his exquisitely—crafted details, while the fragmentation also reveals his thorough knowledge of a given form’s structure.
Whether it is a nopals, pears, pitahaya or pomegranate, cauliflower, leeks or radishes, each form’s intrinsic elements are used by Alvarado as a pretext to represent them in their entirety and face the viewer with a prolonged “interval of silence” thanks to which we may allow ourselves a moment of aesthetic catharsis.