Much of today's Conceptual art seems to be about spectacle. In the past, some of D-L Alvarez' work has fallen into this category (or pit). In general though, his work displays a subversive intellectual rigour and a refreshing attention to technique.
Alvarez' oeuvre often conjures the spirit of his Conceptual predecessors. In an installation a few years ago, What I Was Wearing (1997), he wrapped a balustrade with shreds of his clothes which he had daily ripped from his body, like a live-action, slo-mo performance of Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912). He is also known for his elaborate, hand-drawn paint-by-number scenes, in which numbers correspond not to colours but to words such as 'weapon' or 'white lies'.
In this show, which was entitled 'Chorus', Alvarez - using objects, drawings and videos - addressed the absurdity of humankind's attempt to mimic or alter nature simply because we think we can. Like a refrain or a chorus, two images recur throughout the show: the pantomime horse (a two-part costume worn by a team of actors) and realistic bird portraits, à la Audobon.
One handmade horse costume is titled Patches (all works 1999), the sort of cutesy name a young, horse-crazy girl might call her steed. Hung on the wall in two deflated halves, however, this 'dead' pantomime horse embodies a sense of sadness and defeat, like the hide of a hunter's kill (or a preserved carcass by Damien Hirst), displayed as a macabre trophy.
In the video Sugar two people wear the costume and flail about with slapstick movements. At one point, they jump into a swimming pool. We watch, laughing, when it dawns on us how difficult it must be for the costume-wearers to breathe. Indeed, as they struggle to escape one of them nearly drowns.
Other objects relate to the pantomime horse, including Model, a miniature, clear-plastic, anatomically-correct cross-section of a real horse's body, half-clothed in a knitted sweater. A series of horse drawings display Alvarez' impressive rendering skills, although he makes sure to include visible erasure marks and often only half-completes the images, overlaying a sketch's raw outline with another. The dizzying visual effect of these layered drawings recalls both the slow process of downloading images on a computer screen, as well as the half-baked, yet oddly complete, nature of Alvarez' earlier paint-by-number drawings.
Alvarez' series of bird portraits recall traditional Chinese paintings of birds in which artists attempted to capture the essence of a creature rather than its anatomical correctness. The birds are dandified, wearing human accessories such as a brocade vest or a bowler hat; although cartoony, the drawings imply that materialistic references are the only way to understand a creature's 'essence'. Because Alvarez leaves these drawings unfinished, he also infuses them with a pervasive sense of unrest and unease.
The show includes other unsettling elements: a delicate, folded skeleton of a bird and an outline of a horse, both meticulously hand-cut from paper, as well as fragile cobwebs spun out of granulated sugar and placed under glass on the gallery floor. A bleak, black and white Super 8 film, Nothing is Easy, documents Alvarez's parents being admitted as patients to a working-class hospital. The film's soundtrack of cheery, chirpy showtunes juxtaposed with disturbing images of suffering expresses a profound sense of irony.