Cuba's digital destination
Alexis Álvarez was born in San José de Las Lajas, 28 km southeast of Havana, on March 14, 1968. His work uses diverse languages suggestive of a certain detachment it allows the urgency of his poetics to arise above everything else. Consciously taking risks, fully aware of the extreme radicalism he has chosen, he always seems to place his limits very close to an inevitable abyss. If there is one thing he professes at every intense moment is taking all masks off connecting with a permanent state of honesty and personal freedom, and, above all, the possibility of inscribing rupture where customs were anchored.
The starting point of this exuberant journey through the colors and devices that often remind us of the unmistakable marks of Pop Art began 20 years ago. Once again, we must go back to 1991, which marks the beginning of the country’s recurring Special Period. During this period, Alexis produced works such as Destello de lápiz (Pencil Marks), Adefesios (Freaks), and Fantasmas (Ghosts), in which the use of such basic materials as watercolors, cardboard and oil paint prominently converge, characterized by a strong expressive quality linked to the natural manner undertaken by him in his search.
Alexis Alvarez understood and quickly began to observe the codes that identify the creative actions of those who embrace resistance as the essence of their work. Consequently, he inserted the self in his discourse, which usually tends to be excessively parodic although at times it eventually becomes prey of its own drama, sliding into a pathos that, to a certain extent, is performative, especially since performance is a sort of lightning that often crosses the space of his creation. His work is characterized, among other features, by intervening at times with an almost narcissistic pride, turning the murky whirlwind created in his mind and transferred through the gift of representation into a cry.
Some artists—consciously while others are surprised by an uncalculated energy—experience an instant of strong contact with tradition, a moment which usually reveals their points of affinity and even their passion for another artist who has left his imprint on this unsettling area called memory. For Alexis, this being that is magnified from the need to connect with an origin or heritage is the painter Antonia Eiriz, so visual and definitively transcendent that not even fire has been able to consume her. Rather, this very fire has been somewhat a source of nourishment to resurface in a piece that Alexis finished in 1995 titled Las llamas (The Flames).
His incessant need to search and his ability to unfold and deploy himself in space, which always seems scant to him, as well as his need to express himself have led the artist to seize multiple languages, which at times he combines. Here, I believe it is only fair to mention his achievements in photography—a highly conceptual photography, which at times is even ideological, whose strongest arguments of his vindications can be found in the background. Proof of this are his series Hijos y novias de Cuba [Sons and brides of Cuba] and No somos de plástico [We Are not Made of Plastic]. The former shows several individuals who defend their sexuality against the symbolic force of the nation by merely exhibiting their bodies and their intentions before symbols that seem definitively sacred. In the latter, the artist resorts to a more complex dramaturgy; the field of interpretations is expanded and diversified, and in, which the characters are barbels, that deliberately speak to us about religion, politics, sex and society in general. These barbels become the emergence of a critical alter ego that eventually fascinates us.
Alexis has also made significant incursions in the field of design, considering art what others deem purely decorative. As part of this vocation, he has intervened in public spaces creating disturbing ceramic murals where passers-by can unexpectedly discover their own vocation or the incitement to a wish, which until then had remained dormant. Certainly, his link with popular culture is authentic and is usually expressed in the title of paintings such as Murió la flor [The Flower Died], Me gustan los Mulatos [I Like Mulattos], and Soy de la Loma [I’m from the Hills], which mix vernacular language, proverbs and verses from famous popular songs. The symbolic value of blood continuously erupts in his performances, always from a laceration which at the same time comes from rituals.
I recently visited him at the quaint garage that he uses as a studio. When I asked him about his place in the contemporary Cuban art scene, he replied: “To consider myself part of the Cuban art scene seems to me very unusual. During all these years, my work has been a personal therapy. As I create my own discourse, I ponder and decide the path to follow. If I were to define myself, I would say that I am an artist whose self-referential work has allowed me to contextualize and defend my sexual identity, being one of the first artist to address gay themes, in which I am directly involved with the discourse in question. In my opinion, the work that had previously dealt with this topic in Cuba was very contemplative. I could not feel the artist in their allegations; hence my need to resort to a direct and honest discourse, and the best way to do it was by exhibiting myself. Discurso necesario [Necessary discourse] (performance, 1991) is the voice I found of my inner self. This triggered everything I have done along this line, including my latest exhibition Una luz encendida: y un hombre que habla sobre sí [A burning light and a man who talks about himself] accompanied by the performance A corazón abierto [Open heart].
My next question was about his position on erotic imagery to which he responded: “I believe that eroticism is validated by the subtleties one experiences daily in the gay world, which is a completely unpredictable universe due to moral impositions and canons that enforce male chauvinism as a role model. We were forced then to duplicate our erotic imagery and to create communication codes in the most unpredictable places, oftentimes in front of a crowd that cannot become aware of what we are experiencing. This is the origin of erotic refuges such as movie theaters, buses or parks. Personally, I continuously discover this in the most insignificant things. The inability to possess everything I see and want generates an emotional overload which impels me to create. This island is a virtual explosion for the imagery of any individual with a single drop of sensibility.”
Amid the brief conversation, which despite his hyperactivity, I managed to establish with Alexis, I recalled his series of paintings El jardín de los héroes [The Garden of Heroes], and after verifying that his hands had not been harmed by the thorns of his rose bushes, I asked him about his work and the future to which he responded: “For me the future is uncertain, I am living the here and now. I only know that I have worked and explored many fields of art—painting, performance, theatre, dance, cinema—and in anything in which I feel the need of doing.”