Cuban Crisis

The irreverent spirit of Pedro Alvarez lives on in his paintings

ASU's "Landscape" exhibition affords us a sweeping, but well-balanced overview of mature work Alvarez produced in the early part of the millennium. In his Romantic Dollarscape series (2002-2003), executed entirely in shades of dollar-bill green, Alvarez appropriates images of American historical figures appearing on U.S. currency in the denominations of one, five, 10 and 20 dollars (okay, so I had to look up who appears on what). Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson make cameo appearances in tropical, palm-tree studded settings into which he has interjected familiar American monuments, like the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. Co-starring with these archetypal American symbols are stereotypically costumed, hyper romanticized representatives of various ethnic groups who landed, voluntarily or otherwise, in Cuba at various times -- Africans, Chinese, Arabs, indigenous peoples, Spaniards and, yes, Americans -- all of whom look like lost time travelers from other centuries. Dead center in each painting is parked a big-finned American-made car from the '50s, cars predating the Cuban Revolution which are still in operation in Cuba today, despite a woeful lack of component parts thanks to el bloqueo.

In The Triumph of Spanish Art: Homenaje a Ortega y Gasset (2000), Alvarez reproduces, in his own fashion, a quasi-kitschy 19th century Spanish bullfight painting, complete with skewered bull and gallant toreador presenting a lace-draped señorita with the doomed bull's ear. This is the painter's homage to José Ortega y Gasset, the exiled Spanish humanist philosopher, publisher and politician, whose writings, including The Revolt of the Masses(1930), brought Spain into contact with Western culture and served as anti-fascist inspiration during the Spanish Civil War. Close inspection of the audience lining the bullring reveals odd pentimento: we see traces of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, Keith Haring baby paintings and Gustave Klimt touches, as well as immediately identifiable figures from a variety of 18th through 20th century art works. Alvarez sums up the upending insanity of this cultural miasma with a joke that appears in the painting: "Two friends ran into each other . . . at a psychiatrist's office. 'Are you coming or going?' asked one. The other replied, 'If I knew, I wouldn't be here.'"

Alvarez has no problem pairing early 19th century European military figures, which the painter lifted from old Cuban cigar labels he found in street markets and used bookstores in Havana, with the irrepressible Bart Simpson family in his 8-panel The Construction of Value (2003). The artist lined his canvases with pages from Simpson and other comic books (look for appearances by Chocopussy and El Hombre Radioactivo sandwiched between Homer and Bart), over which he then painted elegantly stylized swashbuckling soldiers and sailors of yore.

A piece from Alvarez's Romantic Dollarscape  series.
A piece from Alvarez's Romantic Dollarscape series.

"I love Bart. I love Homer. I love Marge. I love Lisa and Maggie," Alvarez told me in that last interview given two days before his death. "I buy my clothes in Springfield," he quipped, referring to the mythical town in which America's favorite dysfunctional family lives.

Alvarez's infatuated tribute to The Simpsons segues seamlessly with the cartoon characters' ability to parody the goofiness of American culture, while simultaneously taking on ponderous and controversial social issues. "I think [The Simpsons] represent the strangeness and craziness of everyday life," explained the artist. "I think of the United States as a magic realistic country, the way they used to think of Latin American countries," he says, alluding to the literary genre of magic realism with which Latin America has been inextricably linked. In the fiction of magic realism, just like in Alvarez's work, time and space become fluid and the common and everyday are magically transformed into the awesome and unreal.

"People used to talk about Cien Años de Solidad [One Hundred Years of Solitude] by Garcia Marquez, but I think we are living magic realism everyday," Alvarez told me.

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