New York

D-L Alvarez

Derek Eller Gallery

D-L ALVAREZ THINKS LIKE A WRITER. Each piece segues into the next like chapters in an evocative but fragmentary novel, weaving non-narrative stories that buzz with human presence but in which no human appears. Alvarez's personal vocabulary refers to the natural world and its uneasy infiltration of the urban environment. But the trees, spiderwebs, and parks of “Sculpture Garden,” his second solo exhibition in New York, had as much, or as little, to do with nature as a fairy tale has with fairies. Cool, almost simple on the surface, the innocent images and objects in the show seemed to have absorbed and given shape to a mournful humor, a macabre eroticism, abject desire, and confusion.

The show began with Remnant (from action), 2000, a ten-foot-rail dead sapling suspended upside down from the ceiling so that its twig tips grazed the floor. The trunk and branches had been wrapped with sewn strips of what looked like heavy silk, torn from a suit coat Alvarez once wore in a performance. Costumed and bandaged in the shimmery cloth, the hanged tree was almost painfully anthropomorphic, although the purple-gray material also read as bark or evening light. Sometimes, perhaps, a tree is just a tree.

But usually it's not. The trees in Map, Sites, and Diagram (all 2000) were crisply, almost naively illustrated, yet each evinced a sublimated violence and longing, as if they stood as witnesses to invisible dramas. A frieze of small pencil drawings sutured with tape, Sites flirted with bucolic cliché, but veered ineluctably toward strangeness. The wall drawing Diagram doubled into Rorschach abstraction. but resolved into a figure suspended in a web of branches. Map, meanwhile, was an example of the blue-penciled, paint-by-number-style drawings Alvarez has been making for some time. Instead of colors, the numbered spaces correspond to fragments of text appended to the gothic forest scene. Alvarez wrote most of these; the others derive from literary sources, notably Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the teen-angst novels of S.E. Hinton. Matching statements with visual passages, the viewer implemented a low-tech hypertext, allusive and amorphously disturbing: “Cigarette butts and spent condoms littered the path”; “Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

The “strange constructions” and “slight ligaments” of imagined narrative also shaped Documentary Footage and Model (both 2000). Concealed inside a two-inch hole in the wall, a tiny screen displayed the black-and-white video Documentary Footage_—a static, frontal shot of an empty park bench. Cut to another shot of a different bench; after that another and another. Whatever perverse excitement had been generated by the peephole intimacy dissipated to lyric melancholy as it became clear that no visitors would ever arrive.

Model shared this atmosphere of the latent or nonencounter. The sculpture consisted of four identical architectural models of a national park–style bathroom building, each in its own Plexiglas box cantilevered from the wall. The familiar pitched roof, rustic siding, and separate entrances on opposite comers were unmistakable, although the buildings also recalled the ubiquitous cottages in the forests of fairy tales. What trysts or stalkings might be enacted here? Like Documentary Footage, Model raised such questions only to challenge them with intentional monotony. Just as the park benches remained empty, the miniature buildings refused to divulge their secret stories. As did the rest of “Sculpture Garden,” Model evoked a meeting point between setting and event, object and fantasy. In this unstable, ultimately fictive realm, the imagination confronts—but cannot requite, or even fully understand—its own abject desires.

Frances Richard