Jhina Alvarado Offers a Time Capsule
The other day, a friend of mine posted to my Facebook page an image of Steve Jobs with the headline "1 Person Dies and 100 million cry"; next to him was a picture of emaciated African children with "1 Million Die and no one cries." She did it because I'd ranted during our conversation the night before about Jobs being proclaimed a modern Einstein or some godlike entity. It's not as though he'd discovered a cure for cancer, I said, which would have been helpful; no, he made toys—and he made a lot of money doing it. I also pointed out that the U.S. had been doing pretty well before Apple came along: the Industrial Revolution was a big hit from what I've read; we managed to land on the moon (something we've not been able to do again, even with fancy computers); and people used to have conversations over dinner instead of answering emails, rummaging around for the latest, greatest apps, or, er, checking what someone might have posted to their Facebook wall. We also used to take photographs of people, events and excursions that were meaningful, and we put them into photo albums; they could not be altered or edited, they needed no electricity for us to see them, and they would, for all intents and purposes, last forever, even though we do not.
Mexican-Korean artist Jhina Alvarado seems to get this last point, in particular. As part of "Cinéma Vérité" at the JoAnne Artman Gallery, Alvarado presents her series "Forgotten Memories," a host of oil and encaustic paintings of revitalized antiquated photos that speaks directly to the capturing and preserving of universal human experiences—and it can't help but illuminate how far from that notion we've gotten.
As was Einstein (but not Jobs), Alvarado is a mathematician. Really—she teaches pre-calculus and advanced algebra in San Francisco. But by night, this self-taught artist explores the non-sequential world, a world where nothing has to add up correctly to produce a positive result and logic is useless. It's a world of unknowables: untold stories of unknown persons only evidenced through celluloid artifacts that litter the bins of flea markets and estate sales. For Alvarado, the task is to resurrect not the literal story of the subjects pictured, but to use what they've left behind as a catalyst to connect all viewers and all human experiences.
By discarding the backgrounds in the images and focusing solely on the people, Alvarado already takes us into a dream-like state in which nothing is solid or known. She also paints black bars over the eyes of each person to further the disconnect from the actual story and personality. Taking a Stroll—an image of three women from the 1940s briskly walking toward us arm in arm, wearing bathing suits, their faces plastered with huge smiles—translates immediately: We don't know who they are, where they are or what they mean to one another, and it doesn't matter. Anyone, especially a woman, who looks at this image will instantly recall a similar moment in her own life and that brief surge of unabashed joy.
Likewise, Turtle Race glimpses the seconds before a group of ladies in '40s-era bathing suits places aquatic reptiles down for a relay. The women are not centered on the canvas, with two of them—one on either side—only half-appearing, the front or back of their heads cut off by the wood panel's edge. There is also abundant negative space above them, and this nonsymmetrical placement heightens the feeling that we are viewing a fleeting reflection. Alvarado finishes each piece with a layer of encaustic wax, which blurs the images and again ensures they emote the vagueness of a memory or dream.
There are several other snapshots featuring beach babes and boys—the most humorous is Sombrero Boys, which truly does ignite the curiosity for backstory—but Alvarado's choices of subject matter run the gamut. She derives some images from already-kitschy photos made even more so when pushed into the spotlight: Monkey Bars, for example, features a man and a woman hanging upside-down from the playground accouterment. It's a silly moment of goofing off and poking fun at the maturity none of us realized would be eventually required of us. Puppy Love might be the most effective piece, however, for no matter what techno age we're in, people take pictures of their pets; this overcoated 1950s woman holding a beagle that she encourages to look at—or even smile—at the camera would be a forgettable scene to anyone who didn't know her. When transformed into one of Alvarado's memories, however, it becomes the ultimate representation of the human need to love, nurture and connect—and one we might have missed out on if it'd been snapped by a fancy phone doomed to be lost in the endless upgrades of techno-time.
This review appeared in print as "Time Capsule: Jhina Alvarado preserves humanity the old-fashioned way in 'Cinéma Vérité.'"
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