San Ildefonso

Pedro Diego Alvarado: The Poetics of Painting

Robert C. Morgan

The paintings of Pedro Diego Alvarado carry a sense of immediacy in their ability to project an innate sensibility, an urgency that moves gradually towards poetic resolution. They are possessed by an astute mind, a lyrical imagination, in which the fundamentals of color, line, and shape readily communicate to the viewer. His paintings perform a kind of sensory cognition, whereby knowledge is transmitted through the act of seeing. Here we begin to grasp the contrasting elements of light and dark, the subtleties of texture, the inscrutably fecund shapes and fertile lines that move magically across his complex surfaces. Like any true artist, Alvarado welcomes influences from the past and embraces the cultural traces from his own history that beckon him forward. He relishes signs of life embedded in the soil on which he walks. Such inspired formal practices have been around for a long time. They were present among artists who inscribed and painted cavernous walls during the Paleolithic era. Several millennia later, the Egyptians and Persians refined these forms and took them to another level. Many centuries interceded before the painter Giotto invented a new matrix of systemic representation that would awaken the beginning of a Renaissance.

Frutas con fondo azul cobalto, 2012, óleo/lino, 130 X 154 cmThe sense of immediacy in Alvarado’s paintings leaves an indelible mark. Like an inventive form of handwriting or cursive script (escritura), they immediately tell a story, an allegory, perhaps. The vibratory color that inhabits these canvases functions on two levels simultaneously: It reflects the artist’s Mexican heritage as it delivers a sense of universal clarity. Within these paintings, Alvarado insinuates ideas and feelings that exalt and celebrate the brilliant geography of his homeland with all its enduring, yet paradoxical history. For the artist Pedro Diego, such concerns for history are woven into the plasticity and tactile sensation that remain possible without relinquishing the unique qualities that identify the medium of painting. As he paints, he transforms what he sees. It is not nature, but his perception of nature that are taken from ordinary life. It takes them somewhere else -- to a place in the realm of the senses, in another unmediated poetic universe, open to the vital source of our experience.

Alvarado is less concerned with recounting the revolutionary epic in the manner of his maternal grandfather, Diego Rivera, than in discovering a personal sense of lyricism, a special place for envisioning his own world. What he shares with Rivera is a sense of structure within his poetics, a classical approach to worldly phenomena that virtually defines the act of painting. Alvarado’s pictorial schemata are layered through a density of color as in the close-up still-life paintings (bodegones) of recent years as in Jitomates en canasta (2011) or the square-formatted Limones Amarillos y Verdes (2012). One may compare the confrontational aspects of Alvarado’s fruits with the hanging cuts of splayed beef by Chaim Soutine. These works impose themselves on the viewer’s consciousness in such a way as to extend, if not widen one’s field of vision. One might consider this point in relation to the artist’s early association with the eminent French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, which whom he made an important connection, indirectly through his grandmother Lupe Marin, when he was in Paris in his early twenties. Sandias, 2011, óleo/lino 120 X 180 cmThe process of perceiving and articulating forms as a composition, whether they are visual or poetic (or both), is often more complex than it may first appear. This interactive process between the artist and his subject (the perceiver and the perceived) often haunted the early proto-Cubist landscapes of Cezanne, as it more than likely has obsessed Alvarado as well.

Ironically, a related conundrum was expressed by the American Beat poet, Jack Kerouac during a visit to Mexico City in the summer of 1955, while living at 212 Orizaba Street. In an experimental, now famous book of verse, titled Mexico City Blues, written as an homage to the great jazz musician, Charlie Parker, Kerouac consciously filled a notebook with 242 choruses, one of which, the 107th Chorus, begins with the following free-form lines:

Light is Late

it happens after you realize it
You don't see light
Until sensation of seeing light
Is registered in Perception. *

Given Kerouac’s interest in Zen Buddhism and its relation to hallucinogenic experience (at the time) helped focus his attention on the intervals between seeing and the conscious impact of light as a defining attribute in perception. The question of what is meant as consciousness within the act of perceiving not only references phenomenology, including the works of Aldous Huxley and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but also prefigures much of youth culture in America during the late 1960s in which these concerns were paramount in expanding one’s awareness beyond the pre-fabricated limits of commercial culture in the northern hemisphere. Therefore, the ability to perceive nature in relation to the inner-self became nothing less than an eye opening, mind-expanding paradigm. For many young Americans, the use of marijuana opened conceptual doors to another level of perception. It became a catalyst to unlearning the institutional restrictions that had subjugated sensory reality to the rules and regulations of life in the corporate world.

Pedro Diego’s manner of painting is a bold assertion that not only eulogizes his culture but also incites reflectivity on the quality of life -- a term that is often ignored in recent discussions about the world crisis in economics. One of the major problems in these discussions is that economics is discussed autonomously as if there were no cause and effect relationships outside the principles of investment and exchange. What I sense in the work of Pedro Diego is a special sensitivity as to what is ultimately important to human beings -- how they see, what they see, and how they live. I hesitate to give his paintings a message that extends beyond the formal principles of his work, which are his guiding light, so to speak. In comparison, we might recall the Bauhaus painter Josef Albers -- that even the rigorous “Homage to a Square” series, a series of in-depth color experiments that began in 1949 and continued for the remainder of his career had social implications. While viewers were often curious as to the theories of color that stood behind Albers’ work, he would often astound audiences by demonstrating how color functions in his paintings as a parallel system to the way society functions.

Paisaje de los Tuxtlas,Veracruz, 2012, óleo sobre lino 200 x 113 cmFrom a somewhat different angle of vision, Pedro Diego Alvarado’s bristling color matrices and solid pictorial constructions appear as if they were built into the picture plane. This is the result of two distinct approaches: form and metaphor. I see these approaches in Alvarado’s paintings not in opposition to one another but as complementary. Pedro Diego does not work in the Puritan way of giving the viewer an abrupt either/or proposition. Instead he is closer to the complementary sense of the yin/yang in Taoism and found throughout East Asia. Instead of analytical antipodes in his work, Alvarado gives us vividly rendered structures faceted in color and delineated through easily identifiable shapes. Through a unification of these approaches, the artist enables a feeling of holistic wonder through his manner of representation. From another perspective, I would rather say that Pedro Diego offers a way of seeing the world, rather than simply representing it. Rather than separating form from metaphor, they are linked to one another through interwoven clarity and a desire to transmit clarity through the medium of painting. For Alvarado, painting is his way he remembers what he has seen and understood in relation to his world. He is a proud Mexican who carries the weight and the lightness of his culture on both shoulders.

Since meeting Pedro Diego at his studio in Mexico City, within the past year, I have reflected on Pedro’s resemblance to the great Mexican critic Octavio Paz, who was a frequent intellectual presence to New York. Paz was also an artist of supreme clarity. Whether in lyric form or his profound ability to analyze the cultural and political histories of his complex homeland, Paz was also a transformer capable of taking his readers into the realm of the spirit, less in terms of religion, than through his example as a poet ineluctably and vitally connected to the human race. Alvarado’s paintings offer a similar potential through a directness and energy that usurps any doubt of what his role as a painter makes irrevocably clear: We are living in the world today.

Having long admired the paintings of the great Mexican muralists of the early twentieth century, concomitant with the early developments of the Revolution in 1910 that would sporadically evolve until 1950, I grasp how a metaphorical reading of painting may appear connected to the intelligence of the Mexican people. While metaphors imply a poetic reading of art, symbols may be closer to science, and therefore less open in their ability to transmit feeling. Still, as a northerner of Welsh heritage I cannot help but understand the formal basis in the paintings of Pedro Diego Alvarado. Having said this, I recognize that the separation between a formal language in painting and the incitation of a metaphorical reading is often false, if not misleading. I expect this may been the case for Alvarado over the course of his career – that somehow the formal language is separated from the artist’s ability to conjure poetry through his vision of Mexico. In studying the still life paintings of the past decade, it is clear that both the formal and metaphor aspects of his work are intertwined and function interactively with one another. One may argue that they constitute a new way of thinking about the painting through the recent history of painting in Central America.

The modernist idea by which an artist pays close attention to accentuating the formal elements within a painting began to appear in the late nineteenth century. Painters ranging from Manet to Van Gogh – from Gauguin to Cezanne --were doing it years before art historians had acquired a capacity to recognize this tendency or to develop analytical methodologies, generally called “formalism,” to articulate it. The abstract elements within the picture plane considered the use of line, shape, color, tonal variation, texture, and composition, as formal because they signified the presence of a form. What was form exactly? We might consider it a distillation of something elusive, which retained a sense of its own completeness, a quality as difficult to describe, as to obtain. To paraphrase the early twentieth century Bloomsbury critics, Clive Bell and Roger Fry,El acueducto del Padre Tembleque, 2010, óleo sobre lino 108 x 180 cm “significant form”—as they called it -- rarely, if ever, happened the same way twice. Essentially it was a unique quality that prioritized a feeling of structural consistency within a work of art and thus, gave it a coherence that ran deeper than any surface resonance.

Cezanne knew this before Bell and Fry could articulate it. Whether his subject was up close or distant, whether a bowl of fruit or a view of Mount St. Victoire, Cezanne understood how to focus and concentrate upon his subject, and how to expose the form through line, color, and shape. There was a certain density in his paintings –- specifically, le tableau mort, from the 1980s and early 90s, where he employed thickly woven applications of paint. Once the elements came together, the resolution became clear. In his case, the resolution was a solid, nearly architectonic means of composition.

The use of proportion between various fruits and vegetables is a formal attribute particular to the still-life paintings of Pedro Diego. The proportions are what exist between things, as one shape reclines against another. This is apparent in a recent painting, titled Frutas on Fondo Azul Cobalto (2012), where the mostly sliced and exposed fruits appear suspended against a tacky synthetic drapery dyed in cobalt blue. Again, Alvarado’s color is typically direct – in this case, perhaps, too direct -- as if he is proposing to transform the appearance of the fruits into a simulacrum. The artist has found another approach to the problem in Sandias (2011), where the use of drapery has been eliminated, thus leaving a neutral darkness in the background that not lowers the overall brightness, but lends a superb dramaturgical evenness to the painting. Just as light may give relief to darkness, so darkness may give relief to light. In Sandias, the large oblong, striped green fruits have been exquisitely choreographed as a still-life with registers of light and darkness shadowed against the freshly sliced sections. The foundation of uncut sandias is judiciously poised beneath, thus revealing the contrast in color between the green and the red, the outer and the inner surfaces of these gargantuan and sensuous fruits. In either case – whether in Frutas con Fondo Azul Cobalto or Sandias, the engagement of proportion within this composition reveals the pictorial syntax. In either painting, the form becomes evident, primarily due to the internal aspect of proportion that depends on the external visibility of scale. Once the syntax has been achieved, the color becomes more vivid, more saturated, in some instances, lingering on the verge of a kind of signature style.

While Cezanne has been credited with giving form to nature, Alvarado has taken this further by transforming the way it appears more than a century later. His proportionate fruits are subject to scale as they become inseparable from the impact of color. Whereas color was given less emphasis than form in Cezanne, the opposite was true of Matisse, the artist who Alvarado appears to admire most not only for his directness of color but for a variety of other complex reasons. In Alvarado’s paintings since 2006, color is either divided or modulated between hue and value, and thereby obtains a maximum optical syntax. Light is produced not only through the variation and manipulation of formal effects, but through the looking glass of the artist’s imagination. It has been suggested that his paintings borrow to some extent from the light and dark contrasts found in De Chirico’s pittura metafisica (1911-16).

In this context, Alvarado’s still-life paintings are related both to the color and the formal organization within the composition – whether they are contained or amorphous, focused or ambivalent. One may compare earlier paintings, such as Platanos verdes, Sandia y Mameyes and Pina, Calabazas y Melones (2002) with Jitomates en Canasta and Sandias (both 2011) to see the different perceptual approach. In either case, apply within the context of a still life. In either case, Alvarado’s paintings offer a vast repertoire of ripened fruits and vegetables wither in a public venue as in the outdoor market in Mexico City or in a most traditional studio setting where the imposed relationships of the fruits and vegetables vary another meaning, perhaps related to the vanitas paintings in Flanders at the outset of the eighteenth century between the era of late Baroque and Neo-Classicism.

El predicamento de San Gabriel, 2010, óleo/lino 86 x 200 cmThe landscapes function differently as the emphasis is less given to the excitement stirred by the indigenous color or intensity of colors absorbed within the fruits and vegetables than by the direction of the linear motif, whether angular or contoured. In the second case, as shown in Paisaje de Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz (2011), the line moves steadily across ridges of mountains into grassy slopes and valleys the shapes of one hilltop in relation to another are clearly evident. In another painting (also from 2011), titled El Acueducto del Padre Tembleque, the movement of the line is different as it reveals a human cultural trace, an architectonic structure from an earlier history. Here the water-bearing structure runs diagonally through the painting from the left margin into a clump of desert brush just short of the right margin. The overall composition relies less on curvaceous contours than on the rectitude of a diagonal that literally slices through the landscape. In Paisaje the vectors are different. Rather than an obtrusive diagonal cut, the landscape is filled with dense greenery with tonal variations and dark lines that further intensify the presence of each brush, furrow, and treetop. Here we get a frontal plane that resides perpendicular to the viewer’s gaze. Thus we are able to scan the line across the mountain peaks in the relative distance and work forward to the slope of the valley fraught with greenery as seen from the artist’s angle of vision. The optical logic applied to the manner in which the artist has determined our point of view is both sensible and sensuous. There is no interference. Our consciousness travels in company with our gaze. There is little separation between the two. Perception is never static but actively engaged through our experience.

While the promotion of merchandise may appear global, if not, universal, the concept of material is more likely to shift meaning from one culture to another. As a painter, Alvarado is somewhere in the middle of this. Like his grandfather, he presents a populist idea in his paintings, yet clearly more indirect in its leaning. Also like Rivera, he shares a certain fascination with popular culture. Yet the unique attention that Alvarado gives to the material world symbolically by way of nature is -- I dare say -- more interesting. In many ways, Pedro Diego Alvarado is more in keeping with the times as a citizen not only of Mexico, but as someone who lives and belongs in the global environment. Magueyes en secas, 2012, óleo sobre lino 150 x 290 cm

Having said this, it is clearly within the artist’s purview to hold fewer qualms about painting drapery in relation to the excess and abundance of fat pulpy fruit. Given the continuing role of excess in globalized culture -- ironically in the hurricane’s eye of a world financial crisis – human beings are no longer defined according to a class structure, but according to media. In the midst of this, Alvarado manages to hold his claim on the tactile and visual qualities of painting, which is both a defense of humanist values and a positive assertion as to what the future might bring. In such a hypermediated environment, so distant from any clear or refined understanding of human emotions, it would appear that we need to see the work of artists who can still represent the poetics of feeling and in this way appeal to our consciousness -- in relation to ourselves and to one another. This kind of poetics is the ontological side of Pedro Diego as he responds to the material world. This is side that nourishes our ability to recognize how form, shape, line, color -- and proportion -- play an necessary role as we reflect on a world temporarily out of balance.

*Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove Press, 1959; p. 107

Robert C. Morgan is an international critic, writer, curator, poet, and painter, who lives in New York City. He holds an advanced degree in sculpture (MFA) and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history, and is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and currently teaches a the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Morgan is the author of Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge, 1996), The End of the Art World (Allworth, (1998), Bruce Nauman (Johns Hopkins, 2002), The Artist and Globalization (Miejska Galeria Sztuki w Lodzi, 2008.) In 1999, he received the first Arcale award for International Art Criticism in Salamanca. In 2005 Professor Morgan was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in the Republic of Korea. He is Consulting Editor to The Brooklyn Rail and Contributing Editor to Sculpture Magazine and Asian Art News. In 2011, he was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg