Arts & Theater

Jack Alvarez explores his cultural roots in poetic images

"Varnished Buffalo"  by Jack Alvarez.
"Varnished Buffalo" by Jack Alvarez. artspace1616

I've long been a fan of Jack Alvarez's artwork so I was pleased to see an announcement of his current show at artspace1616.

Titled "Fragmented," this exhibition of poetic and powerful works in acrylic and mixed media moves from "Sweet Dreams, Flying Machines," a large fanciful painting on canvas of a magical hot air balloon, to haunting works on canvas and paper that explore his Mexican American heritage and artistic influences from Swiss artist Paul Klee to Mayan codices and Native American petroglyphs.

These works, Alvarez writes in a statement, reflect "inner conversations" with himself drawing on "random sources" that range from ancient indigenous American peoples to some of his favorite artists. Clearly Klee is a major influence in most of these but one can also see affinities with Mexican master Rufino Tamayo and Native American artists, such as Fritz Scholder and Rick Bartow.

In "Passing Through," a richly imaginative work, he gives us a piece that brings together many of his signature images. At the center is a steely rendering of a funnel with bees spilling over the edge. The honey-makers swarm up and out into a magical atmosphere activated by soaring paper airplanes and floating geometric shapes, letters of the alphabet, and numbers.

What appear to be finger or thumb prints that morph into images of human skulls or tiny portrait heads, a motif that is repeated in several works, appear in this work, as well as "Codex #081352," a gridded panel on a warm brown ground, that hangs next to it. The numbers seem to refer to a date, August 13, 1952, perhaps an important one in his life, or the number of a document.

The inky prints are a symbol of identity, yet each is slightly different and they are interspersed with black and white triangles, red numbers, and arcane symbols perhaps from the four remaining pre-conquest Mayan Codex folding books whose hieroglyphic texts are thought to relate to astronomical tables and almanacs.

Alvarez uses this format in several other works with different colored backgrounds and varying numbers of squares, including "Identically Different," a grid made up of 214 numbered squares containing fingerprints/portraits on a green background.

While these works are meticulously done minimalist metaphors for cycles of life and death and the competing human impulses to blend in and set oneself apart through making art, I liked better a series of scratchy, searching drawings that blended Klee's quixotic surrealism, Cy Twombly's scrawling mark-making, and what might be petroglyphs from outer space.

"Captivus" is a raw yet sublime image of a blue bird in a domed cage surrounded by flying symbolic markings in a hazy yet luminous gray atmosphere. "The Juggler," which calls up strong associations with Klee, is a playful line-drawing of a juggler with eight balls in the air riding on a unicycle perched on a tight rope. Despite the figure's precarious position and rudimentary lines, it's a charming, uplifting image.

More complex is "Village of Hope," a witty drawing of petroglyph-derived figures with mid-sections that suggest washboards, and several images that might be space capsules. Similar in feeling is "War of Man," a constructivist outer space city with Piranesi-like stairs.

Returning to his indigenous roots, "Strange Bird" resembles a feathered Aztec dancer in the form of a funny duck-like king doing a ritual dance, while "Varnished Buffalo," rows of red rubber-stamped bison, some fading away, over a single row of white crosses, references an American Indian tragedy brought on by the killing of their primary protein food source by U.S. soldiers and scouts.

Two works stand out as anomalies - "Tormented Bliss," a Tamayo-like image of gape-mouthed fish trying to escape from a bowl, and "Rana (Alter Ego)" a gorgeously rendered image of a large green bull-frog (perhaps the artist's spirit animal) and a small red rain-forest frog against a celadon green background broken by white crosses in squares.

A trio of found and mixed media images on cardboard, two menacingly bordered by black and yellow caution tape, venture into the realm of ad hoc constructions that, on a small scale, remind me of works by American Indian artist Brian Tripp.

Works by Gar Ugalde, Julia Faulkner, and Nelson Loskamp are also on view at the gallery this month.

If you go

Jack Alvarez: Fragmented

Where: artspace1616, 1616 Del Paso Blvd.

When: Through July 8; open noon to 6 p.m.Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Free

Info: (916) 849-1127