D-L Alvarez, The Closet (detail), 2006–2007, graphite on paper, eighteen sheets, each 17 1/2 x 21 1/4".

D-L Alvarez, The Closet (detail), 2006–2007, graphite on paper, eighteen sheets, each 17 1/2 x 21 1/4".

D-L Alvarez

D-L Alvarez, The Closet (detail), 2006–2007, graphite on paper, eighteen sheets, each 17 1/2 x 21 1/4".

Replete with spectacular references that range from infamous crimes to pop-cultural benchmarks, D-L Alvarez’s work unfailingly invites interpretations driven by his fascinating interests and almost always neglectful of what the artist has done with and to his chosen source material. As the artist’s first solo museum presentation made plain, however, such thematically weighted readings ultimately fail to meet Alvarez’s work on its most compelling terms. This show, which closed at the UC Berkeley Art Museum in October, offered a welcome chance to look anew at the forty-seven-year-old Oakland, California–based artist’s interdisciplinary practice. What emerged, contra the prevailing discourses around his work—including, notably, the interpretative material that accompanied the exhibition (as well as my own previous text on the work)—was a portrait of an artist deeply committed to issues of form.

Though an important solo outing, this exhibition was an extremely efficient affair, comprising just three clusters of objects: an eighteen-sheet suite of midsize graphite drawings; two sculptures of sewn fabric suits draped over wooden armatures; and white wall-mounted wood shelving carrying dozens of vintage VHS tapes, arranged in a spectrum according to the color of their cardboard jackets. Alvarez’s compositional precision regarding the relation of parts to wholes, an ability to shuttle his viewers’ attention between these two distances of apprehending, and an emphasis on manual handiwork were strikingly evident across all three of these diverse bodies of work.

On the gallery’s longest wall, the eighteen drawings, collectively titled The Closet, 2006–2007, hung in a row, as if successive stills in a filmic sequence. Each frame contained distinct figurative content, but Alvarez has abstracted the source imagery into conglomerations of hand-drawn, pixel-like rectangles. To achieve this, the artist divided each sheet into an intuited, irregular grid, onto which he then translated an image by shading individual cells with varying values of gray. Impressively, Alvarez coaxed a whole tonal universe from his graphite pencils. But while both this labor-intensive procedure and the work’s iconographic content are inherently compelling, it is the one-thing-after-another-ness of The Closet’s making and its concertedly rationalized presentation that ultimately deliver the work’s dominant note: a sense that Alvarez’s work relates to American Minimal art and textile design (or even needlework) more than to any ostensible narrative theme.

Across from this piece, Alvarez had installed Fade to Black, 2012, the VHS-tape-and-shelf assemblage bearing rows of rectangular cassette-jacket spines. The resultant abstract field of pictorial units rhymed with the drawings’ rendered-by-hand gridding. Indeed, arranged according to a formal taxonomy—that is, by packaging color, as opposed to, say, title or director—Fade to Black compels its viewer to appreciate it (as the title might suggest) on primarily visual terms. Fastidiously arranged and organized, the piece also bespeaks a kind of obsession not unlike that which, on some level, presumably characterizes the production of Alvarez’s meticulous drawings.

The third group of works in the show, the two-part piece Something to Cry About (I and II), 2007, also boasts an aggregate structure and finely executed handiwork. To create this piece, Alvarez fashioned two adult-size bodysuits (resembling children’s footie pajamas) from a patchwork of smaller fabric units and then laid the garments to rest limply over irregular white wooden frames. Evoking a pair of fetish objects, this piece carries an unsettling, uncanny energy. Even without recourse to the specific (plenty creepy) real-world events that supposedly “inspired” the work, one still feels a structural charge—even a sense of horror, perhaps—when apprehending the part that is standing in for the absent whole. Ultimately, through great attention to detail and a careful consideration of the various valences of viewing, Alvarez takes each work into a register in which, ineffably, it breaks from the topical hooks that perhaps motivated its beginnings. In the end, this act of transcendence is more than enough to capture and hold our interest.

Jordan Kantor