- Where are you from and where do you reside?
- I was born in San Antonio, Texas. I currently live in Los Angeles, California.
- What necessities do you require when making your art?
- It’s mostly just important that I maintain a simple, clean and uninhibited process. A bright space, a lack of clutter, a single paint brush, paper, the ceramic bowl I use to hold the ink, and my notebook: these are the only real necessities for the act of creating. Music helps. So does a clean shirt. But the most important requirement, and perhaps the hardest to come by, is time. Unrestrained time, when the mind can wander through its own understandings.
- Describe a typical day in the studio for you.
- My studio sits on a hill in Silverlake, in Los Angeles. I take notes and sketch at a large wooden desk overlooking the sloping street corner. There’s my coffee, my gray notepad, a jar of brushes, and I could sit there all day. When I finally decide to translate something into ink, I spread out on the floor and sit on an old serape from my family’s ranch. If weather permits, I’ll leave the windows open for breeze. Those are the good days.
- What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
- Most of my work grows out of a serious introspection, so many of the pieces I create draw inspiration from my writings and observations. It’s important to me that each work comes from a place that is considered and genuine. Even the most dramatic of sentiments are excusable if they felt real at some point. The most difficult part of the process is sifting through those sentiments and reflections and translating them into an object of representation – one that feels equally considered and genuine.
- How do you choose these objects? Are they personal symbols, or do you reference imagery from more a more collective source?
- Well, there’s a distinction to be made between the object and the imagery. The object incorporates the imagery – it is the combination of text and image and texture and color and physicality. I think the paper color, for example, is just as important as anything else. And yes, the object is a personal symbol of sorts. In the sense that it is a statement meant to open a dialogue, and it comes from some place in me as the maker.
Even the most dramatic of sentiments are excusable if they felt real at some point. The most difficult part of the process is sifting through those sentiments and reflections and translating them into an object of representation – one that feels equally considered and genuine.
— RF Alvarez
The images within the object, however, reference a range of sources: sometimes a photograph, like the bull in “I never really felt like I belonged anyway…” – that’s a pretty serious reference to a Ramón Mastas photograph, which I think really speaks to that feeling, and carries so many subtleties and other narratives within the reference choice itself. Sometimes it’s a film still – like “Nothing feels new Anymore.” Sometimes it’s a created image without a reference at all.
The point I’m getting at here, maybe a little too obtusely, is that the narrative of these artworks is not just in the imagery or just in the text, it’s in the intersection of both. And of the physicality of the work as an object.
- Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?, or: How do you incorporate chance in your creative process?
- Absolutely. While it’s important the work is considered, I think there’s also great value in learning from and adapting to the process itself. Expressions can too often be inhibited by over-analytical forethought. I usually begin with a sketch – a loose idea of the work and how it will manifest – and often find myself having arrived at something different and (on good days) more poignant in the act of making. Much is left to chance. I find there’s a freedom in that.
- How do you choose your materials?
- Carefully. Each medium carries with it genre – references to previous works and styles. The decisions to use materials are as important to the pieces as anything else. They are an essential part of the narrative.
- Have you always worked with ink?
- Not always. I’ve also worked in oil, pencil, photograph and digital. I work with black ink because of its narrative power – we write stories in black ink, we record and journal and correspond. We print headlines. Black ink is intrinsic to our documented experiences.
- How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
- I’ve gained more appreciation for the beauty and importance of my own hand’s involvement in the process. I don’t try to hide that, I don’t try to set strict rules or expectations. Strict representation is not the point – nor does it help to arrive at the point. I really think it’s been in the past few years that I’ve come to terms with that, and to embrace imperfections in the work and the presence of a narrative voice. It’s more about confidence than anything, really.
Part of any growing up, in a practice or in a life, involves an acceptance of those unique characteristics that define one’s existence. We come to terms with ourselves. Or at least maybe inject a little patience into our expectations.
And meanwhile, my approach has evolved. I can embrace those unique characteristics because my goal is no longer to prove a capability, but rather to facilitate a dialogue. To express a genuine experience; to find a frequency that resonates. I’m much more interested in the conversation now.
I work with black ink because of its narrative power – we write stories in black ink, we record and journal and correspond. We print headlines. Black ink is intrinsic to our documented experiences.
— RF Alvarez
- Are you formally trained?
- I am self-taught, though I have a background in graphic design. I was lucky enough to know my great grandmother very well, and I would say she was the closest thing to a mentor I had. She was a painter (watercolors: rainy streets and flower gardens, as a great grandmother is want to paint) and she taught me a lot about composition, representation patience. I think she was the first person who said “okay, you should do this.” When she died, I inherited her box of watercolors and it now sits on the bookshelf in my studio.
- Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now?
- I am very solitary in my process. I couldn’t imagine it ever being otherwise. I think the solitude is there, you can see it in the works, and it’s an important part of them.
- When did you begin your current practice?
- At the end of 2013, really. I had returned to the states from briefly living in Beijing and took up work in a friend’s print shop in New Orleans. I had begun playing with text and image pairings in many sketches before that, but it was in that print shop that my use of black ink really crystalized.
- Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
- Yes. It was a Franz Kline. The exact when or where of it I can’t quite remember – I was very young – but my family made it through two winters living outside of New York before turning around and heading back to Texas, and so I’m going to guess it was in that time, on some trip into the city. What I do remember is how small I was and how big and bold the work was and how it just felt right.
- What are some themes you find recurring in your pieces, intentional or not?
- Identity construction vs. identity reconciliation. Belonging vs. independence. Beauty vs. emptiness.
- Can you speak more to identity construction vs identity reconciliation?
- Let’s go back to this idea of the image within the object. What is original in the artwork is its nature as an object (its physicality, its combination of text and imagery, etc. etc). And so that opens the door to use referenced imagery within the object at will. Which is an important tool. I’m okay referencing photographs or film stills or even other artworks. We live in an image-based society, and I think imagery is how we have come to construct our identities, or communicate how we think we should fit into the world. And I would say we often do so without thinking about it actively, and by borrowing images or emulating something we’ve seen. It’s even how we dress, the things we like to eat or fill our homes with. It’s all image construction and it’s all a reference to something else.
So then you have these competing ideas of yourself, which are now constructed in images. There’s the aspiration, which is a kind of curation; there’s the feedback that that curation has onto you, how it provides an avenue for you to express yourself; and then there’s this third thing which is the fact that you are born with an inescapable identity already. For some this is much stronger and plays a much bigger role in their life. But it’s definitely something, at some point, we each have to come to terms with. And the ironic part is that this is probably the most authentic side of you and it can often be in total competition with your expectations.
We live in an image-based society, and I think imagery is how we have come to construct our identities, or communicate how we think we should fit into the world. And I would say we often do so without thinking about it actively, and by borrowing images or emulating something we’ve seen. It’s even how we dress, the things we like to eat or fill our homes with. It’s all image construction and it’s all a reference to something else.
— RF Alvarez
- Are you more interested in psychology or sociological implications of identity?
- My work really deals with how we find a place in the world around us.
- Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
- Much of the imagery I play with is inspired by or in reference to photography. Or at the very least photographic in nature. I find a lot of inspiration in artful documentation of realities. The concepts or notions presented in the works, meanwhile, come from my own reflections or sentiments. I journal – and I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. It really cracks me open.
- Do you see your works as unique or as part of a series?
- Usually I consider the works as part of a series and create them with that in mind. This drives the decisions on medium and format, for example. But the works stand alone as singular expressions.
- How do your surroundings direct your approach to your work? Do you find that environment relates to your work?
- I wouldn’t say that I live in Los Angeles and so sunshine has changed what I make. Or that I would make different work if I were somewhere else. I’ve always seen myself as somewhat disconnected from a specific location, or rather not grounded in one. And especially today it’s very easy to be connected to more than one place at a time.
But a lot of the content of these pieces comes from a reaction or relation to the outside world. It could be a reconciliation with a world that maybe isn’t perfect but has a lot to offer. Or even that I’m not perfect and so how do I fit in? Or why do I even want to? I think Texas was an interesting place to grow up for this reason – the rules for inclusion and exclusion are a bit more clearly defined. I’m still responding to that in a lot of my work.
- What’s next for you?
- I’m currently working on a series aimed at the southern Texan heritage; a conversation on conflicting social identities and land ownership. It involves the use of reclaimed materials, and I’m hoping to hold a show in San Antonio in the coming year.
- Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist? Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
- Of course. Constantly. Right now, I’m very inspired by the work of musician Gustavo Santaolalla – I think the audible narrative he is weaving on a “world identity” is both beautiful and important. I think Alison Bechdel is charting new territory in the relationship between text and image. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing bold and brave expositions. And I think Renato D’Agostin is crafting incredible and surprising compositions.