Cuban Crisis

The irreverent spirit of Pedro Alvarez lives on in his paintings

Trust me when I say that "Landscape in the Fireplace: Paintings by Pedro Alvarez," an exhibition of 40 large mixed media paintings by the Cuban artist currently on display at Arizona State University Art Museum, may be your very last opportunity to see so much of Alvarez's work -- particularly new work -- in one place anywhere in the world.

And that's not just overblown P.R. puffery or obnoxious art world hype. The truth is that five days after his show opened at ASUAM on February 7, 37-year-old Alvarez, a native of Havana, Cuba, who had been temporarily living and painting in Spain, jumped from the fifth-story window of his room at the Twin Palms Hotel on Apache Boulevard in Tempe.

According to Tempe police, the Maricopa Country Medical Examiner concluded the artist committed suicide, after finding no evidence of drugs, alcohol or foul play and taking into account eye witness reports of Alvarez's fall from the window onto the hotel parking lot below. Alvarez left no suicide note, so the reason he decided to end his life will always be a matter of pure speculation.

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

Alvarez's untimely death, a genuine shock to people who had interacted with the artist just hours before it happened, has spawned the usual messy issues of legal ownership of his work, putting the brakes on ASUAM's plans to tour "Landscape," Alvarez's first solo museum exhibition in the United States. Collectors here and abroad who stood in line to buy work from Alvarez also have been left empty handed by the fallout.

I was personally shell-shocked by news of the artist's death, since I had been lucky enough to have him as a guest in my home on a number of occasions, had flown to Santa Monica to see the opening of his first U.S. gallery show and had promised to fatten him up with a great dinner before he left the States to go back home. Though I finally made it to Cuba last November for the Havana Biennial, I wasn't able to see Pedro there, since he had been working in Spain at the time. Little did I know that a recorded interview I did with him at a noisy ASUAM press function just two days before he died was the last time I, or anyone else for that matter, would capture him cracking jokes and talking animatedly about his irreverent, politically incorrect -- though absolutely dead-on -- paintings, into which he threw everything including the kitchen sink.

It's unfortunate that the tragic manner in which Pedro Alvarez died may color appraisal of the art he left behind as a lasting legacy of his aesthetic and philosophical vision. Suicide and self-destructive behavior are known occupational hazards for the creative soul. Painters Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Vincent Van Gogh wrestled with the death demons and lost, as have a number of literary figures, including writers Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. To cast the creative output of those who, for whatever reasons, have chosen to end their own lives solely in terms of some overly dramatic desire to die does a disservice to both the artist and his work. Viewers and critics alike will have to wrestle against the urge to play shrink and avoid reading possible portents of Alvarez's anguished psychological state or an underlying death wish into his most recent paintings.

Because, for the most part, the Pedro Alvarez I knew was a pretty funny, gregarious and compassionate guy, universally liked and respected both as a person and as an artist. The lanky, bespectacled painter, who looked a little like a young Elvis Costello with a buzz cut, was blessed with a wonderful gift of wit that swung from wry to wacky, a regular guy who loved to joke, laugh and hoist a few brews among friends. Because he was able to spend a significant amount of time in this country, as well as in Spain, where his work was shown frequently, he also had a solid grip on the American psyche.

Alvarez had a longstanding connection to Arizona. His work had been included in ASUAM's 1998 "Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island," a groundbreaking show of Cuban art curated by museum director Marilyn Zeitlin that toured the U.S. to rave reviews. Part of a group of young, upcoming artists working during Cuba's "special period," Alvarez had lived through the very real privations Cubans suffered in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew financial support from the island nation -- deprivation unconscionably compounded by the U.S.'s continuing embargo. The painter's humorous take on serious issues engendered by Latin America's centuries-old colonization by foreign intruders, including racism, cultural servitude, stereotyping and globalization spread by capitalism's most enthusiastic entrepreneurs, was forged in the fires of food shortages and the lack of basic necessities, like toothpaste and painting supplies.

Pedro Alvarez was an accomplished painter who was not only technically proficient, but well educated both academically and pop culturally. His lushly layered paintings unselfconsciously blend jarringly different art historical and pop references (one of my personal favorites is one with fabulous '50s-style American Coke drinkers toasting against the backdrop of a well-known marble monument to Cuban hero José Marti, at the bottom of which lies a rum-swilling peasant in 19th century garb). The artist used his technical and intellectual skills masterfully to make gently mordant statements about universal social foibles and political imperfections. That subtly irreverent humor infuses every last one of the paintings appearing in "Landscape in the Fireplace" -- and, despite the manner of his demise, his incomparable wit and abiding sense of the magical are the real legacy he has bequeathed to us through his art.

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.

"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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