Ceramics have featured prominently in recent paintings by artist RF. Alvarez
We spoke with him about his body of work and how vessels weave into a narrative of an alternate future.
In a recent interview, you mentioned feeling less like an individual in your art making and more a part of a greater story. Tell us about that a bit.
A lot of the work I do is world-building. I find myself trying to create artifacts from an alternate reality, from a world that doesn’t exist as we know it. It’s almost as if the work comes from another civilization that doesn’t exist, or maybe does in some parallel universe. It’s a place that feels safer, happier, more natural.
"The conversation I wanted to have was about the body and its relationship to its environment."
Can you describe the function of the silhouette in your work and how essentialism is essential to your imagery?
I think that the silhouette along with any kind of graphic simplicity or essentialism allows for the conversation to be about the idea of the thing. The Deseo series featured a lot of silhouettes. The conversation I wanted to have was about the body and its relationship to its environment. I wanted as much universality as possible. I think any kind of iconographic dialing-down can help do that. In my opinion, abstraction is about streamlining, a way to drive conversations.
Would you describe the majority of these figures as women?
I try to remain objective. They do have feminine features. If [in fetal development] becoming a male is the diversion from the norm, when you dial it down we all come from female origins. So much of what I’m interested in – desire, being more in touch with your emotions – society has deemed feminine things.
" So many cultures across time have used ceramics. I think there is something so basic and human about it being one of the first tools we developed. It is an extension of us."
In Garden of Trees and Consideración, the figures are engaging with some sort of handmade vessel such as a ceramic bowl or different types of dinnerware. In these works, the pottery seems representative of a gesture of offering or receiving. In other works, such as Festival of Neptune or Perdido Pelado, I almost see the pottery and the figure growing out of one another. Maybe they're holding each other, or they’re actually both things at once. I'm really curious to hear your attitude about how you understand humans to be relating to ceramics in this way.
I am really interested in this idea of asking what is at our base human level by stripping away the excess. So many cultures across time have used ceramics. I think there is something so basic and human about it being one of the first tools we developed. It is an extension of us. At the same time, I’m trying to depict bodies as vessels – vessels for offering, vessels for receiving things. I can’t deny there is a sexual nature underneath the work that I do, because that is so intrinsic to being human and the way we relate to one another.
Oferta is an interesting example because it is an offering, but there's no one else depicted. A lot of the time I depict a figure alone in an environment, but with the idea of a relationship to something not there. Calypso and Circe are other examples where I've taken actual characters from the Odyssey and depicted these two different versions of what longing can look like. In both cases, the body has a relationship with something, whether it's there or not. I think representing a single piece of dinnerware, like a bowl or jug, can be a way to simplify the feeling of aching for someone who is absent.
I also reference forms and images that are present on handmade pottery from antiquity. Painted pottery is such an interesting way that we've been able to preserve art forms, because as a material ceramics endure, whereas a painting on canvas maybe won't last centuries or even frescoes weather. I think there's something really interesting about the vessel being a vessel for our culture.
Pottery seems like an amazing confluece of your interest in classical forms and then the simple forms that support life. In the context of your work, I see this stoneware as being humanistic in this really basic way, as if these forms have and continue to be relevant for thousands of years.
Ceramics are an ongoing theme. I like the connection between the body and its relationship to earth. The Greeks believe we were crafted out of clay. I love that. The Chinese believed it as well. There’s something that feels right about that.
I love that your figures seem simultaneously at rest and active. Their gestures are simple: lying down, drinking water, offering nourishment to others. Like the vessels they carry, they are alive in their intrinsic capacity to hold and to give. Culturally, I think we devalue rest and caring for oneself or others. I appreciate that you seem to instead celebrate these acts and recognize their power.
I am very much concerned with depicting a world that is better. Someone at the opening of Deseo recently said to me, “One of the things that's really interesting to me is that all these women look safe. They're in a calm, relaxed space [in your paintings].” That person imagined they could be sitting nude on a beach at total ease. I really like the idea of command over an environment in this way. Even while lounging, Calypso [pictured above] for example has sharp edges and is physically assertive. It’s an interesting confluence of power, because real power is just about feeling safe. I hope that someone looks at these works and recognizes the juxtaposition between what they're seeing and how it feels to live in our world. This is one of the most important conversations we’re having today as a society – it’s as if we’ve been ignoring the fact that women haven’t been safe forever.
I feel so much of my own personal vulnerability comes from feminine sides of myself, and that's wrong. That should be a place that I find strength, but I feel like those parts of myself are something that I have to care for and worry about. In the world that I hope to depict, it's not an issue. It’s also really important to note that the safety created in the paintings is not coming from an external factor. It's coming from this kind of divine power of the forms themselves.
" A part of why I started making art was to wrap my head around understanding my experiences and my senses of longing or identity and trying to use art as a way to convey experience and relate to others."
There’s this latent desire in the work that feels very subtle. The word that came to mind was a nostalgic quotidian: a feeling of safety that might have existed for some people in their childhood, or in past intimate lives that they may or may not have access to now. It made me wonder about the places in your life where you felt safe, or about the people in your life who carry this feeling of intrinsic power, rest, and offering.
I think at the core of what you're asking is about my own childhood and if elegy is a part of the work. There is a safety embedded in childhood – I think it is so intrinsic to human nature to ache for being back in the womb. I had an interesting childhood; my dad's family is Mexican, and my mom's family is white southern cattle ranchers. There was always this tension or juxtaposition between these two different cultures. I never really felt like I was fully embedded in either of them – “never both, always neither.” I am now, but as a kid, I wasn't fully fluent in Spanish. My sister and I have a slightly darker appearance than the rest of my mother's family. While we have really grown into our sense of identity together, at the time these experiences made it challenging to connect with either culture. Recently I had a conversation with a lawyer living in Mexico City who also has a mixed background. She was talking about the right of self-determination in statehood, and expressed the desire to be able to claim statehood for herself, to claim her own identity as something specific and different. I loved that. I believe this identity tension is really embedded in my work.
The moments that I have found belonging have often been within relationships with individuals rather than a group. I had a very close relationship with my great grandmother who was a watercolorist and artist, and our point of connection was that we both liked to make things together. My sister lives in Mexico City now and is a very strong person. She's extremely independent and completely marches to the beat of her own drum. My mom similarly has a very strong personality; she’s built her own business and is self-sufficient. On both sides of my family women I grew up with have a propensity to subvert normal expectations. So the individuals who most demonstrate those qualities in my life you mention tend to be women. I think a way to claim belonging can be to react against a sense of normalcy.
A part of why I started making art was to wrap my head around understanding my experiences and my senses of longing or identity and trying to use art as a way to convey experience and relate to others. I feel so much more settled as I've gotten older; you accept things you can't control, you move on from things that have hurt you, you forgive, you just try to carve out your own space in life. Now I'm asking how these experiences that I've struggled with can apply more generally.
In terms of these two different cultures converging in your household, I would love to hear a little bit about the material culture that you grew up in, especially around the kitchen or dining. Were handmade objects like pottery or ceramics things that you remember or that you cared about as a young person?
I don't tend to have a strong connection to things. I don't know if it's because my parents divorced when I was young or I just gave up on it or what. My sister is the opposite. She still has pins from things that we did together when we were eight. I move on from things.
I think for me it's more about what we leave behind. It's about memory. It's about the idea of creating something that says, look, I was here. I think there's something really profound and interesting about connecting with someone, seeing something beautifully crafted, and maybe being brought to tears by something someone did thousands of years ago.
Interview by Serena Caffrey. See more of RF. Alvarez's work at rfalvarez.com