Katrin Alvarez: Confronting and Banishing the Demons Within

Written by: Maureen Flynn

Like Marlene Dumas, an older artist with whom she shares certain qualities in common, the German painter Katrin Alvarez depicts aspects of human and societal relationships through figures that often take on a doll-like quality, in her exhibition at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from June 3 through 24. (Reception: Thursday, June 5, 6 to 8pm.)

Many of the people that Alvarez paints seem to be somnambulists cut off somewhat self-protectively from their own benumbed emotions, as they traverse desolate landscapes or appear locked into compartmentalized spaces that they cohabit but do not share with others whose sense of isolation is apparently every bit as severe as their own.

In an oil and mixed media work on canvas called "The Painful Reality of Human Relations," for example, one nude figure inhabits a kind of bunker cut into the earth in a posture of despondency, while another, wearing black stockings, bares her buttocks in a gesture more derisive than seductive and yet others wander about disinterestedly in a scene as evocatively conceived as one of Neo Rauch's Leipzig tableaux and as bleakly existential as a stage drama by Samuel Beckett.

Even more stark is "Slums of the Mind," in which the bust-level image of a young woman, her head surrounded by a strange, skeletal rectangular structure of no known utility, partially covers her breasts with her hands as she wanders through a scorched earth landscape suggesting a post-nuclear world. The young woman wears a dazed expression such one sees only on the faces of the homeless; the sky above her appears incandescent with toxicity. As in the case of other great contemporary humanists such as Gregory Gillespie and Odd Nerdrum, the severity of Alvarez's vision is redeemed by her ability to transform potentially unpalatable subjects into objects of aesthetic delectation.

In another oil and mixed media painting on canvas entitled "Easy Prey," for example, two ominous male figures appear to stalk a living doll with hinged arms resembling a pubescent girl in scanty underwear, suggesting an allegory of pedophilia. Indeed, the traumas of youth appear to be a recurring theme for Alvarez, as seen in two other works called "Chain of Childhood" and "I Survived My Childhood."

In both, luminous, clear-eyed portraits of women inhabit the foreground. But behind them, phantom-like memories lurk. In "I Survived My Childhood," a masterfully drafted crayon on board, the background figure resembles a ghostly relative of the protagonist of Edvard Much's famous picture, "The Scream."

Perhaps Alvarez's most disturbing image, however, is another crayon drawing on board entitled "Departure from Normal Conditions," where a woman with weird protrusions sprouting for her limbs appears to inhabit a surreal junk shop of mismatched human body parts. Even here, however, despite the grotesque subject matter, the artist's refined draftspersonship saves the day, turning something potentially ugly into a thing of real beauty.

It could very well be that Katrin Alvarez's artistic mission is to teach us to look unflinchingly at the demons that we all harbor, in the hope that by doing so we may transcend the dangers that threaten us from within. Surely this is one valid reason to make art, and if indeed this is the area that she has staked out for herself, well, no one does it better.
Image Credits: Chain of Childhood, Oil & Mixed Media on Canvas, 47" x 35" 2008

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