Updated: May 7
"I challenge myself to find interest in 'uninteresting' subjects." Chris Alvarez
If you were to ask the typical American for a symbol of the American West, the answer would surely be the horse. It is the creature that best fits into every romantic dream of vast spaces, high mountains, and the ultimate sense of freedom. Not surprisingly, it became the emblem of a classic American car, the Mustang. Then there is reality, which like gravity, keeps us earthbound. We look around and what do we see - trucks. The most common mode of transport through the rough vistas of the southwest is the truck, a flatbed pick-up truck, like good old Gila Blue, featured in the painting above. But that is not a romantic image, you say. Well, let's take a closer look.
The first thing is that wonderful blue. It looks like part of the sky fell to earth and shape shifted itself into this terrestrial being. Parked off road in what looks like an old gully, it leans comfortably into its environment in full knowledge that once started up, it will drive ahead and pop back up onto the road as nimbly as any horse might. The bright sunlight only makes its glass and metal shine more. It's a star. It has personality. It holds its own as the centerpiece of this extraordinary painting of an ordinary scene. There is nothing exceptional about this common view of a distant ranch, the mountains, clouds floating by in a blue sky, and a foreground of scrub brush, weeds, and dirt. However, it is all in the presentation.
The scene as a landscape, even without the buildings and the truck, would make a fine painting. The way the shadows dip in and out of the curves in the mountains, the variety of greens in those spike-like bushes, and the pinks and violets in the dusty weeds along the roadside create the feeling of a hot day in the middle of nowhere Southwest. Yet there is a comforting unity as the pinks and violets in the foreground play off the same colors in the ridges of the mountains, the colors of which are reflected in the flat bottoms of those cirrus clouds. Most comforting of all, even more so than the houses and buildings in the distance, is Gila Blue, that trusty many-horse-powered steed that can carry one safely off to the next destination. And that is part of the magic that Chris Alvarez creates in his paintings of the "ordinary." He takes what is commonly overlooked, really looks at it, and turns it into a romantic vision of life in this locale, a scene of an emblematic dry southwestern landscape with a marvelous blue truck in the starring role.
"I love to find interesting arrangements of shapes. What I like to do is look at a scene and simplify it to two dimensional abstract shapes, without identifying those shapes. If I can make an interesting design then I can work with it. "
When looking at the painting above, High Country Double Wide, the "interesting arrangement of shapes" must certainly involve those mountains. Their angularity, sharp changes in pitch and slope, the way the shadows fall upon them, and how their forms seem to continue into the shapes of the clouds, have to figure into that idea of interesting arrangement. The counter balance to the onward march of the mountains is the flatland in the foreground, buttressed by the double wide trailer home, which crosses the foot of those hills the way a meager doorstop blocks the forward swing of a heavy door much larger than itself. The painting makes a telling commentary about man and nature, and the battle between them over how to occupy the space. The double wide is the modern pioneer home, the easiest way to create your presence on a piece of land. This one is placed so close to the base of the mountains that is like a STOP sign. It bears the colors of the flatland that sits before it. The glass of its windows reflects blue sky and matches the mudflaps on the truck. Is this perhaps Gila Blue's twin, Colorado Red? Certainly it serves the same function.
Chris Alvarez was born and raised in Silver City, New Mexico, and as such is a true son of the Southwest. His work shows a sensitivity to the cultures of the area. This piece, Stone Face, is more than just a decorative element on the side of a building. The set of the jaw and the uplifted tilt of the chin indicate strength and pride. The eyes given to this figure are not carved stone eyes. They are dark in color as a real person's eyes might be. They stare out of that rugged face with a worried look of concern, as if knowing disaster looms and having to face it head on. The feeling that Alvarez puts into this face turns it from a decoration into a figure from an urban Mt. Rushmore.
Alvarez says that he first started to draw at the age of about ten when he saw a cousin of his drawing and asked her to teach him. He never looked back. He continued drawing and growing better until by the time he was in Junior High, he thought of himself as an artist. However, living the life of an artist did not come so easily, as he was told that it was not practical financially. Of course, one of the wonderful things about art is that all of life's experiences can feed into it. Alvarez has been a bartender, a service member in the U.S. army, an ophthalmic assistant, and a social worker dealing with at risk youth. With that rich background, he decided at age 37 to become a professional artist. He got a BA in Fine Art degree from University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and taught drawing there and at Cottonwood Center for the Arts (Colorado Springs). In 2010 he opened the Alvarez Art School and in 2018 added the Alvarez Gallery. The school and the gallery have become well-known places for increasing one's perceptual abilities, developing technical skills in drawing and painting, and giving a listen to his fine collection of record albums.
"I hope that people will be able to find interest and beauty in their day to day lives, where they hadn’t seen it before. Maybe they’ll notice colors in places they didn’t expect...I want people to learn to really see the beauty around them."
The desire of the artist for people to see what is around them and to see the interplay of colors, and how that shapes the way we actually see things is readily apparent in how the painting below presents itself. Woodlands is a painting of a tree and some surrounding plants and shrubbery. Once again it is an ordinary thing to see, but Alvarez uses paint and his refined sense of how color works to make the viewer see this tree and these plants in a completely different manner.
In these woodlands, the colors are alive, yet subtle. The yellows of the plants are mixed with pastel pinks and soft half-tone blues. We don't normally think of them this way, yet perhaps if we really tune in and squint our eyes a bit, those subtle variations in color become more apparent when we look at the actual shrubbery. Those pinks and blues go right up into the tree trunk indicating a bark that is more vibrant than expected. The leaves of the tree share the same soft yellows of the shrubs brought forward by their deep blackish green companions. The theme of soft pinks and yellows carries on into the more distant background, and a pale blue sky, with an indication of white clouds, peaks through the branches of the trees. But what is it that makes this painting of subtle colors seem so vibrant and alive? The artist has used a particularly heavy impasto technique to put action and movement into these plants. That tree sways; those plants rustle in the breeze; the painting comes alive.
"When I work I focus on the process and not the product. I don’t try to make a good painting, but I try to paint well." Chris Alvarez
Don't think that Alvarez limits himself just to the southwest. In recent years he has also been making painting trips to the New England area, where he focuses on harbor and sea paintings. Had the COVID-19 crisis not hit, he had talked of maybe arranging for a painting workshop, where those from the mountains of Colorado could go to the sea and into a completely different environment in terms of themes, settings, and colors. In Harbor Master we see yet another mode of transportation, a local trawler as a sea-going mechanical work horse. This old red boat stands out in its environment of the toned-down browns of the wooden pier and its pilings, and the grays and whites of the water. The sky seems to have clouds with a touch of red to them, and both the boat and the side of the building are highlighted by low rays from the sun. Ambiguity floats through this painting, piquing the viewer's imagination. We do not know if the sun is setting, meaning that the old trawler's work is done, or if the sun is rising, meaning that it will crank itself up and go out to sea to work yet another day. That all simply adds to our engagement with this painting.
"It’s all just practice, whether I am just practicing, painting a commission, producing art for a show or doing a demo. It’s all just practice." Chris Alvarez