Face Off

Photo by Jack GouldDecay sticks like a shroud to Mabel Alvarez, which I guess is only natural, since she died in 1985. Ha, ha! But seriously, folks!

The Mission San Juan Capistrano currently houses a magnificent exhibit of the Modernist painter's lonely work. Go on a weekday, when the brick-paved gardens are quiet and you have the camellias and lavender to yourself. You'll have to fork over 6 of your hard-earned bucks (!), but you also get to see the room with the soldier mannequins (!) and the mission as it was when Father Junipero Serra was busily whipping the Juaneo toward salvation. The gardens this time of year are a work of art themselves: understated, sleeping and terribly lovely. There are benches and two Pepsi machines by the gate—which is hideously jarring, as was my cell phone, whose jangling ring bummed everyone out, I think. God, I hate me!

Alvarez was born near the end of the past century; her work and her writing are like sandwich boards advertising the tragic Victorian spirit. "I stand on the edge of a crater," she wrote. "I gaze down into a curved moonlight void. In the center is a strange, shining world. It floats in frightening space. One could fall off the edge of this world."

Alvarez hung on for 93 years before she died in a nursing home. But her work throughout was inspired by her upbringing—tragic Victorian meets beautiful, talented, rich girl in the 1920s and '30s. She never married but had at least one ill-fated love affair with another artist. The mission doesn't exhibit her more sensual works (shown in an outstanding exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art last year). Those portraits are of her friend and favorite model, Arabella, who's often shown hanging out, pensive and beautifully fleshy in just a slip, like a Hopper. And it wouldn't be terribly appropriate if the church did show them; Arabella isn't nekkid, but the promise of passion would seem a bit odd in this Jewel of the Missions.

That leaves us with works that are literally self-effacing. Alvarez's father was a doctor who treated lepers in Hawaii. No one in her paintings is missing limbs, but many are faceless, as though marauding conquerors had sacked a church, run off with the paintings, scrubbed the heads off the figures and then urinated on the canvases. Conquerors are like that. Was it the father's preoccupation with his patients, or something in Mabel herself she was trying to erase?

Alvarez's work here can seem uninformed, but there is evidence that she drew from the Post-Impressionists, the Symbolists and Art Nouveau; she bordered on the experimental but always relied on tradition. She never painted cubes or abstractions, though her Expressive brush strokes often made ghosts out of flesh-and-blood models. There is something quaint about the paintings' modernity, the elongated gracefulness of the figures, like Modigliani meets Klimt. But because of the bedrock of tradition—and because she can actually paint the figure—most of them will never look terribly dated.

There are exceptions: heavily impastoed, smeary works like Figure in Desert Sunset look like she applied cherry frosting with a spatula. But even they have their charm as one phase in many.

The exhibit is poorly hung, as if designed for giants: you have to crane your neck to look up at the paintings. They're also crowded into one room, and I think the wall cards were typed on a typewriter! Exhibits at the mission are usually a little tacky, as if they are an afterthought. But at least it's not another damn bunch of plein-air portraits of the mission itself, all gleaming light and blowzy roses.

Some of the works are slight. There are pastel sketches, well-rendered but feeling like something an untried girl with nothing to say might execute. You can almost see Amy March sketching Rome's ruins, her pert nose bent over her paper. Girl Sketching in Forest and Kawaiaho Cemetery are like frothy little whipped-cream numbers, except, of course, that one is set in a cemetery.

There are later portraits, like a series from Haiti in the '50s, that seem naive. Two native ladies sit delicately in a field, taking tea. They are more Czanne than Gauguin, painted as a talented child might. But the simplicity of the rendering has much more life to it than a realistic portrait of her nephew, whose eyes may have been captured in shape and color but are as flat as a Stepford child's.

The most beautiful work is the Blue Madonna, which, according to the wall text, has never before been exhibited. Could that really be true? The oil on masonite work is slathered in strokes of thick, blue gels, like Gleam toothpaste. It, too, is faceless, and only a token acknowledgment is made to the small bundle in her arms—far too small to be any kind of baby; it's more the size of a mewling kitten. Blues and greens were Alvarez's signature colors. Even late in life, she searched for a spring, for love and new life. She died, but spring is on the walls at the mission; you can see it there amid the gleaming light and the blowzy roses.

"Mabel Alvarez" at Mission San Juan Capistrano, 31522 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 234-1300. Through Jan. 4. $6; children/seniors, $4; members, free.


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