by Laura Harrison
My recent visit with René Alvarado in his home and studio in San Angelo, TX, gave me an opportunity to see what he is currently working on and to reflect on his path as an artist. His home and studio is an old Lutheran church that he renovated in 2005. He kept the structural integrity of the 1929 building—the lofty ceilings, heavy beams, arched windows—while transforming the interior into a comfortable space for living, painting, and exhibiting his work. Alvarado’s church is a drop of eccentricity in an otherwise very ordinary residential neighborhood.
Alvarado has always made his studio his home. Early in his career, he lived at the Chicken Farm Art Center in San Angelo, in a converted chicken coop, where he was surrounded by a community of artists who were always there to give support and feedback. It became a second family and included a “mother hen” who looked after him. Ultimately, René craved his own space where he could paint and live with more privacy. He misses the communal interaction, but being able to create a space entirely his own has allowed him to further explore his identity as an artist.
Alvarado says that it is somewhat ironic that he has chosen a church as a place to live. He has a deep respect for all religions, but as a young boy in Mexico, he felt oppressed by the strict confines of the Catholic Church, which he gratefully escaped at age seven when his family moved to the United States. Now he feels he is “inside the monster that tormented me, but I’ve reclaimed it and it is a beautiful embodiment of my soul.” His space now is a personal reflection of who he is. The church is filled with visual vignettes—objects that he has collected to use in assemblage pieces and which also serve as symbolic references in his paintings.
Visitors are asked to respect his space—artist studios are very personal and many aren’t open to the public. When your home and studio are the same, the boundaries become blurry. He recently began to reclaim space for creating since his living space had started to take over the art space. He has plans to set aside space to create three-dimensional works alongside the easels he uses for painting. His use of impasto and heavy textural elements in his paintings— including lace and found objects—suggests his desire to expand into more sculptural work.
While Alvarado’s work is continually evolving, he has recently begun to revisit earlier ideas and techniques. “Seeing my earlier work is like looking in a mirror,” he says. It also reminds him how naive, innocent and sweet he was as a young artist. He was once told that all work is a self portrait and was shocked by that recognition. He felt exposed and vulnerable. Now, though he sometimes feels exasperation when he sees his own face looking at him from the canvas, he continues knowing that each painting tells a part of his identity—a piece of the puzzle.
As he’s matured as an artist, he has had to learn to balance the pull on him from outside pressures with his innate emotional connection with his work. In the last few years, Alvarado has received much recognition, especially for an artist his age. He appreciates the attention, but also says that it makes him more self-conscious about his work. In 2008, Alvarado’s work was featured in the show Madonna as Muse: The Paintings of René Alvarado, curated by Jim Edwards and organized by the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts. Over the next two years, the show traveled to several other regional museums throughout Texas. In 2009, Alvarado was named the Texas State Two-Dimensional Artist by the Texas Commission on the Arts and the Texas State Legislature. In 2011, his work was the subject of From the Pueblo to West Texas: René Alvarado at the Ellen Noel Art Museum in Odessa, TX.
At the time of our visit, Alvarado was looking ahead to the show he is preparing for in June at Gallery Shoal Creek in Austin, which will feature paintings and perhaps three-dimensional representations of Madonnas. His current series includes five sisters, who are his aunts on his father’s side, presided over by the matriarch, his grandmother. Posed in the same manner, their halos, dresses and backgrounds are unique, and each holds a symbolic reference in her hand. The Madonnas serve as expressions of his emotions, as well as a connection to the past. For example, Tia Yolanda shows up in many of his paintings. She passed away before Rene was born, but the photograph of her at his grandmother’s house always seemed to follow him with her eyes. He likes to paint her in different scenes to validate her life. As Alvarado continues to look back on his career as well as looking to the future, one thing that remains fairly certain is his love of abstraction. Being too realistic bores him.