Lisa Alvarado Sound Talisman
Bridget Donahue | March 26 – May 21, 2017
Eleven tapestry-like painted objects hang from the gallery ceiling in symmetrical arrangements, delineating pathways, establishing something of a community. Together they share similar patterns, materials (acrylic, satin, fringe), rectangular shapes, and sizes of 6 to 9 feet, yet no one object is the same as its neighbors. All stamped with the same icon on their glossy backsides (with the exception of one hung at the front of the gallery), the banners appear visually bonded to their counterparts.
These eleven objects—plus five feathered floor mats, a photographic print, and an audio piece—comprise Sound Talisman, the first New York exhibition by Chicago-based artist and musician Lisa Alvarado. Referencing Mexican craft traditions, the hanging works, called Traditional Objects (2010 – ongoing), are used as backdrops in performances by Natural Information Society, an avant-garde music ensemble in which Alvarado plays harmonium and percussion. Removed from that context, though, they remain striking objects on both formal and material levels. Each is patterned with layers of acrylic paint, alluding not just to textiles, but also to movements in painting such as Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and Capitalist Realism.
Often Alvarado delivers what looks like an immaculate modernist composition, only to undo its perfection through material deviations. For Traditional Objects 10, 11, and 12, she encloses an impressionistic sea of thin brush strokes within a rectangle, which itself is set in a larger plane of color. In Traditional Object 11, other substances such as paper towel are buried beneath layers of neon yellow acrylic; the piece’s primary subject (the Impressionist rectangle) is revealed to be a facade covering up techniques and materials native to textile arts or collage. Traditional Objects 17 and 18 reveal material tricks as well: from a distance, they recall postwar canvases with marble-like patterns, yet at closer look, the thin strokes of paint become frayed fabric, as if Alvarado X-rayed the work’s satin innards.
Traditional Objects 5, 6, 15, 19, 20, and 21 showcase the jagged, weaving patterns that speak most clearly to Alvarado’s interdisciplinary practice; fans of Natural Information Society will recognize them from the band’s record covers, like the recently released Simultonality. These pieces summon the painting of Sigmar Polke and Thomas Bayrle, both of whom borrowed textile strategies to, in part, evoke the networked substructures of people and information in late capitalist society. Like Bayrle, Alvarado composes her patterns with accumulations of discrete shapes—a regimented process more in line with printing than painting. Traditional Object 21, the exhibition’s newest piece, shows a cascading maze of small stenciled rectangles atop a vibrant pink backdrop. Within every shape are more, delineated forms, each colored to contrast its surroundings.
Yet, however separate, the individual forms lock into one another, forming what could be a never-ending sequence. Painted in formal and spiritual unity, the diamonds, rectangles, and zigzags that comprise these sequences suggest foundational real-world materials: bricks, religious icons, single-celled organisms—things of which history and culture are formed. Because Alvarado paints the patterns by hand, there are minor inconsistencies from shape to shape which give the impression that each variant represents an evolution, a new shape woven in with the old.
In the 1970s, Bayrle’s painting coexisted with music by groups like Kraftwerk and Can, who through focused sonic repetition referred to the structures of the postmodern world (highways, computers) while resisting western music traditions. Natural Information Society adds Krautrock’s pulsing beat to disparate influences from free jazz to West African folk. On Simultonality, their rhythmic patterns activate and fuse together these genres, each containing its own complex history and attendant patterns. Sound Talisman is likewise set into motion by sound, meandering the pathways between Traditional Objects, causing Alvarado’s patterns to shake and quiver. Each thump of sonorous metallic percussion sends a ripple through the fabric; each harmonium drone slithers up one diagonal or another. Due to their use for performances, some of their surfaces have cracked from the band’s travels, illuminating the material’s lived history. As sounds reverberate through Alvarado’s community of objects, the stories and traditions contained within them call out and enter into the mix.
Joe Bucciero is a writer born in Chicago, based in Brooklyn.