Studio Visit: Abel Alejandre, Into the Fray
By Gary Brewer
“I am human, I regard nothing that is human alien to me.”
Terence, Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor)
“Art is a weapon that penetrates the eyes, the ears, the deepest and subtlest human feelings.”
David Alfaro Siqueiros
Male identity – masculine archetypes – conflict and reconciliation; themes of primal engagement and of the existential facts of survival through physical struggle have been present in the work of Abel Alejandre for many years. Early in his career Abel became unsatisfied with the paintings he was making. They were bold colorful works that he came to regard as flashy, demonstrating his exceptional painting skills but missing something unique and genuine to his own experience of life.
He took two years off from exhibiting to lock himself up in his studio to experiment. With a process of reduction – subtracting inessential elements from his work – he was searching for something that rang true. First came color, he reduced his palette to mostly black and white. Then the themes became focused on male figures. He started using his family members; his brothers, and friends to pose; wrestling, fighting, physically engaged. The intimacy of using people close to him made the work more personal, though the themes of the images were meant to speak to larger geopolitical struggles.
After some time and through feedback from artists and friends he came to realize that the works were really addressing concepts of male identity; of what it means to be a man in a nuanced language where the good the bad and the ugly of masculinity were explored in dramatic, psychologically powerful works whose graphic force have a visceral impact. He said about this transition, “I had a lot of support for my earlier work but there was always this disconnect between my intentions and how people interpreted the work. I would be expressing an idea or an emotion and viewers would see something entirely different. It was as if when I said yellow someone would say blue. After I weeded out the inessentials and found my style and vision, my audience was smaller but more serious. People who connected to my work were connecting in a much deeper way.”
He shifted from painting to drawing but missed the record that the bristles leave in the paint – the vivid physical impression left by each hair in a brush of the movement of the paintbrush through the pigment. He began developing a technique of cross hatching where the bold curvature of the hand articulating volume brought the drama of expressionistic form into his depictions of men. David Alfaro Siqueiros is a hero of Abel’s and one can see the influence of Siqueiros’s purposeful power of form to convey emotions within Abel’s work.
Abel then changed to woodblock printing and found that it added a richness and power to his images. He also loves the work of the Mexican master José Guadalupe Posada whose lithographic prints satirizing politics and speaking of life and death, communicated in a universal language that Abel was striving toward. It was a good fit for Abel’s narrative to use the graphic power of wood block printing, where each line is carved into wood – the feeling of the muscle strength and control giving the marks an added urgency.
The rooster has been a continuing theme in Abel’s visual vocabulary. Its association with machismo through cock fighting combined with its beauty, the movement of its pattern of feathers, the prominent ‘Coxcomb’ a sexual attracter to woo the hens and the fierce eyes, give it a symbolic power that Abel uses to communicate aspects of the male psyche. He mentioned, “I keep thinking to myself, ‘that is the last image of a rooster that I am going to make’ but it keeps coming back, it is strong and keeps finding its way back into my work.”
We spoke about his interest in a universal language that communicates outside of specific racial or cultural ‘types’ and addresses human nature in a global context. Abel spoke with some frustration of experiences with people, often Anglo, who are constantly putting a ‘Latin’ cultural context into the work that he creates, “If I make a piece that is of an Anglo friend in a setting without any reference to Latin culture, I will often get a response that someone loves the way I ‘celebrate’ Latin culture. Or if two men are fighting, whatever race they may be, it is often interpreted that there is a widespread tendency toward violence in Latin culture. I am speaking of the human condition in broad terms and that conflict and survival are conditions all people are faced with. Sometimes I get reactions from people who look at my work and act as though they would never be drawn into violence, I am expressing this existential fact that faced with certain circumstances we are forced to fight to survive.”
His newest works have a leaner technique, he is using tools from his early days as a graffiti artist employing cans of spray paint and small acrylic paint markers used to tag and create street art. The backgrounds are a low-sheen black on wood panels. He is using the acrylic paint markers in different shades of light grey and white to draw in a lean suggestive style a portrait of a person, usually an artist friend. The faces are fully articulated in Abel’s bold graphic style, each crosshatched line – giving fullness to the volumetric contours of their faces, his likenesses are true and clear. The clothing is rendered in a clean, linear, minimalist approach, the line looking like a 3-D wire sculpture in its articulating space and volume with the least amount of information, they have a somewhat ghostly quality to them. He has added a new feature, flat shapes that occupy the negative spaces between figures, or a cap or hat someone is wearing, or some other feature that is left as a bold flat form that breaks the illusion of space and brings it back to the surface. He is also creating lighting effects that animate the black satin fields from which these apparitions emerge. A few spots created from the spray can look like blurry car lights in the distance of a ‘film noir’ urban scene, or they are suggestive of the stars above ones head in the night sky. It is a suggestive technique that brings Abel’s past to the present. “I am always trying to bring everything I have done into my work, it is a way to make your personal history as an artist a part of your language.”
In his last solo show at Coagula Curatorial, Abel dealt with the frustration he feels with the political turmoil of our time, of the rampant conspiracy theories that people adopt wholeheartedly without any sense of skepticism, of adopting an opinion without any facts to support it. “I feel that we are living in very irrational times, that the truth is lost in these conspiracy theories and that many people, including my friends and family, are willing to believe the wildest theories without any need for facts to substantiate them. I created a group of paintings, a constellation of ‘safe’ friends, people who are close to me with whom I share a value for facts and who are not being drawn into these crazy stories. In the gallery I also displayed a group of painted baseball caps, with images and text that represented different conspiracy theories. The hats, each with a different image was a metaphor for what was going on in someone’s head. At the opening I could see people who would be drawn to the hats that represented the conspiracies they believed were true. It was a way to clear my head of all of this craziness and to create a boundary between people I feel safe and connected to in these dangerous times.”
Art is a way to examine oneself and the world. It is what humans at their best do, to take an honest look at the forces that affect us, some good, some bad and wrestle with the complexity of what it means to be human. Abel Alejandre is on this journey, looking through different lenses at our world and how it shapes and impacts us. It is a powerful story and not always beautiful, but it is beautiful to see an artist with a deep soul and a big heart looking into the mirror and sharing with the world the truths that he sees.
“The Chicano Experiment”
Moorpark College Art Gallery
October 11 – November 9, 2017
Museum of art and History Lancaster
Opening November 11th 2017