Local artist uses images of consumerism to deliver a scathing critique


At Open Space through March 9

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Anyone who has ever braved a Manhattan sample sale knows the etiquette of the social changing room: There are no rules. When you see something you like, if you want to make sure it fits, you drop trou or peel off your shirt and get on with it. It’s a pop-up version of the free market at large—locate, evaluate, purchase—that perhaps isn’t flattering but is certainly recognizable. We’re Americans; we consume.

As imagined by local artist, writer, and musician Lesser Gonzalez Alvarez, though, the social changing room reflects a different sort of economy. For the sculptural installation “Changing Room,” Alvarez has constructed a familiar retail presence: the cube divided into two small rooms where people enter to try on outfits in semi-privacy. It’s a well-made fabrication given a DIY patina—exterior walls striped with spray paint, and fluorescent lights covered in DayGlo film. It’s the sort of street-art aesthetic applied to pragmatic design that Urban Outfitters would appropriate to market the twentysomething underground to thirty- and fortysomething professionals. On the wall separating the two small rooms where a mirror would ordinarily be mounted, however, a roundish hole is cut out, allowing occupants to peer through and see the person on the other side. It’s a social media idea transferred to the point of purchase, an isolation chamber that allows you to see what the other person is doing. We’re virtual global consumers; we like things.

This combination of cannibalistic capitalism colliding with virtual citizenship gives Alvarez’s solo show Make/Shift, currently on view at Open Space, its quiet aggression. It’s a knife to the throat of the economic status quo, but it’s cloaked in the hot color palette and digital vocabulary of a great deal of young contemporary art that straddles the representational and the abstract, the high and the low, the serious and the sarcastic. In Alvarez’s case, it could be mistaken for surface whimsy. But beneath the bright colors and mundane objects that populate Make/Shift’s 20 works lurks a seething, barbed critique.

Consider the smiley faces. In four pieces Alvarez transfers the yellow-and-black smiley face from plastic bags onto surfaces. In “White Smiley” and “Tan Smiley” Alvarez merely transfers the smileys onto white and tan surfaces, respectively, but the results are subtly eerie. The transfer isn’t always smooth, distorting faces into Goya-ish grotesqueries.

The choice of the smiley is subversive and sublime. Here’s an image that has undergone more face-lifts than a Real Housewife, morphing from Harvey Ball’s happy-face logo for an insurance company into a peace, love, and flowers shorthand for the cool-breeze 1960s into an omnipotent mark appearing on any number of novelty items into a sarcastic appropriation by underground British dance communities.

Where Pop Art turned ordinary American brands into iconic images through commercial art processes such as screen printing, Alvarez tightly focuses on the financial divide between name brands and generics. Today the smiley is the sort of image you see when shopping at the dollar stores that dot food-desert neighborhoods, which corporate retail chains don’t target for development. It’s become the brandless advertising mark of economic divestment, an idea devastatingly articulated in Alvarez’s “Smiling Display,” in which the smiley has been transferred onto casts of human skulls.

This subtle theme percolates through the show, from the “Double Gulp” multiples (concrete sculptures of Big Gulp-like beverages, which turn a high-fructose-corn-syrup beverage into the kind of building block used to make the 24-hour store where you might purchase one) to the digital illustrations and sculpture of unfinished, empty rooms and construction materials, and finds its most quietly feral expression in the exquisite “Hang Loose Monument.” In this 3D digital rendering, Alvarez creates a pair of hands making the casual gesture for no worries: thumbs and pinkies extended with the middle three fingers tucked into the palm. They look like concrete sculptures, and they’re situated in a grass-strewn field and set against a gorgeous blue sky sprinkled with billowy clouds.

It’s a calming image, but as you look longer it accrues a fascinating undercurrent. The field’s grass is surprisingly long, as if nobody tends to it or even comes to see the sculpture, save maybe to bomb it with graffiti. As you look, the hands start to feel less like monuments and more like tombstones. In fact, this “monument” to the endless summer of the ’60s starts to acquire the loaded history of abandoned Soviet-era busts in Eastern Europe, relics of a former way of life and ideology. The mood turns “Hang Loose Monument” into a reminder of the most lethal weapon facing any dominant hegemony: time. And with that twist Alvarez turns a gesture of boomer America into an icon of a regime that younger generations have discarded in history’s dustbin.

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