From its earliest documented days, still-life painting has been a source of conflict for art historians. Regardless of its presentation, or re-presentation, these ensembles of daily objects have continued to befuddle viewers, impeding them from agreeing on a code for understanding this deceptively simple genre. In the end, either through misunderstanding or ignorance, still-life painting has ended up marginalized and relegated to the lowest level of art.
Xenia, as the genre was called in antiquity, referred to those objects put aside to provide a particular form of generosity for houseguests. Pliny the Elder recorded dramatically the earliest description we have on the subject: “Purple figs dripping with juice are heaped up on vine leaves and they are depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking to disgorge their honey, some split apart they are so ripe…”
Indirectly, the Church was responsible for generating the still-life concept during the Middle Ages. Until the devastation of the Black Death, no one had questioned the Church’s condemnation of the love of objects, as it might detract from loving God. But watching the brutal destruction of the body by the effects of the bubonic plague made one reconsider faith in eternal life. This new eagerness to attach to the temporal was named vanitas, and it gave birth in Italy, in the second half of the 15th century to still life painting. It began with the inclusion of isolated elements within portraits of saints, particularly of Saint Jerome: a memento mori, such as a skull or an hourglass on his writing table, to reflect on the brevity of life. At first, still-life compositions focused solely on groupings of symbolic objects to remind us that life, as precious as it is precarious, hides death in all its recesses. As the genre spread, so did confusion about its meaning. The French called it nature morte, meaning dead nature, a misleading name, as nature is associated with life. The German term was Still-Leben, meaning motionless life, because the subject does not move.
Mexico, under Spanish influence, referred to the still life as bodegón because it portrayed objects from the pantry or the kitchen, places traditionally considered part of the feminine space. During the 20th century, three Mexican painters, all women, made a radical contribution to the ever-broadening genre. Without looking back, each artist, very different from the others, walked away from the home, the feminine space, to explore a place of her own. Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), to explore her internal space; María Izquierdo (1902-1955), to recreate it as landscape and portrait; and most recently, Olga Dondé (1935-2004), to conquer the regions associated with men.
All this historical background is useful in understanding Pedro Diego Alvarado’s not-so-still lifes, which, by reframing the traditional meaning of still life and the concept of personal space, stand as visualizations of the time-space continuum. Rather than offering philosophical meditations on the brevity of life, he reflects on his own mortality, exploring directly personal uneasiness in the face of danger, and his need to shield himself from impending destruction. When studied as a group, one cannot help but identify the common thread that binds them together and to empathize with his fears as well as his way of confronting conflict. Overtly, Alvarado’s still lifes speak of valor, a recalcitrant determination against surrendering; he will not be subdued nor will he compromise in the face of adversity. Silently, they repeat the mantra: “fear must be looked at in the face…fear must be looked at in the face….” Meanwhile, subliminally, his disquiet imbues the work with emotional content as well as an obsession with establishing a comfortable distance between himself and his subject, which shifts in each work. One may even interpret his need to photograph his subject prior to painting it as a protective device, to remain once removed from its intimidating immediacy.
Although the absence of the human form is a characteristic of still life painting, Alvarado manages to project personal attitudes onto his still lifes, either directly by including objects belonging to him, or in his arrangements of fruits or vegetables. In Large Prickly Pears (2005), a mingling of prickly pears, plum-colored, toad-green, green-yellow or brown-spotted-yellow is gathered from different cacti. Delusively inviting to the touch, their brightly polished surfaces contrasts against their dry, hardened ends, which once connected them to a life-giving plant. Their misleading shine belies a smoothness that beckons, making one forget that throughout, small clusters of microscopic thorns will prick even the most careful. If in Large Prickly Pears (2005) Alvarado considers temptation, but is put off by danger, in Tangerines (2005): he abandons himself to earthly desire. Seduced by their promise of Ambrosia, Alvarado portrays 33 perfect, ravishing, and desirable tangerines. Some are still connected by the dry but still green leafy branches that linked them to the tree that nourished them. His luminous arrangement that reveals every curve and the range of still-ripening colors plays with the viewer’s senses making it impossible to choose one over the others. Painted luxuriously and larger than life size, their distance is stunning. They are too close to the viewer, because for Alvarado, their immediacy is larger than life; he dreams of losing himself in their promise of light, perhaps in the nectar they barely conceal. One wishes to touch them too but cannot, as ultimately, they are unreal, a mirage that exists in another region - on the threshold of his need. In Bananas (2005), a dull nimbus outlines a maelstrom of bananas clustered in various stages of maturity, their hard blackish tips pointing toward the viewer from every which way. Like combatants fresh from the war, each bears injuries to its skin. Quiet Still Life with Fish, Limes, and Vegetables (2005), Alvarado’s largest easel still life and the closest to a traditional one, is as monumental in scope as in size. Objects in the back rest on the same Afghan Kilim that appears in previous works, those in the front on banana leaves. After circling the composition, our eye settles on the center where, sticking up between two irregularly shaped talavera plates – holding fish and fresh tomatoes – a kitchen knife rests on its side. Each of these sensuous objects is subjugated by the power of the knife: the effect of its sharp blade warns the viewer. The cut head of a fish is separated from its missing body; of five yellow, green, and red peppers cradled on a smaller plate, the red ones are halved, exposing their sliced hearts and seeds; and of nine onions in the center, the purple one, also halved, remains barely attached. Alternate purple and white rings mirror each other and circle protectively around the heart of this onion, which is split transversally and top to bottom. The fish, a reference to death and transcendence, brings to mind a traditional still life interpretation. In Christian symbolism, the initial letters of the Greek word for fish IXOIC formed an acrostic, which would be read as ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God the Savior’. Hence a fish on the table in early depictions of the Last Supper would represent Christ.
As a respite from his still lifes, Alvarado reaches toward the sublime by painting landscapes in which distance is no longer a concern but a promise of safety. The early artists of topographical paintings were attracted to gardens and roamed the countryside in search of coigns of vantage from which to capture an emanating sense of serenity. In this respect, Alvarado’s are modeled after traditional landscapes where artists sought sights only for their beauty. In the panoramic Tuscany, South of Siena (2005), the sun at its apex lights the sky’s patches of indigo and white. A cold air can almost be felt despite light flooding evenly over the carefully tailored scene: a spectrum of taupe velvet patches of land, sometimes separated by greenery, awaits planting. In the faraway left, barely visibly, a two-story mansion rises within an enclosed garden, and in the lower right center a winding road leads toward a larger though humbler abode. Dividing the scene in half, a wall of spring-green trees traverses the elongated landscape from left to right. Eagerly green, the fields in Vineyards of San Lorenzo (2005) are split by a terracotta dirt road that travels from the lower right corner of the painting to the planted field at the foot of the mountains. Windswept clouds, dark and heavy with rain, fill the white-stained indigo sky, turning it gray and, dropping shadows over the purple and olive mountain range, a bridge between heaven and earth.
Pedro Diego Alvarado’s attitude toward nature provides the dichotomy that fuels his painting. The two contradictory emotional states - disquiet and respite - form an invisible loop that hooks viewers in wonderment about his meaning. Endlessly shifting attention, one is unable to settle comfortably anywhere between these two parallel readings. Pedro Diego Alvarado, by providing no discernible clues, sustains their secret.