View of “Candida Alvarez,” 2020. Foreground: Jellow, from Air Paintings (2017–2019), 2018.

View of “Candida Alvarez,” 2020. Foreground: Jellow, from Air Paintings (2017–2019), 2018.

Candida Alvarez

When Candida Alvarez unveiled her monumental public work Howlings—Soft Paintings in August 2017 as a part of Chicago’s Year of Public Art, the tropical storm that would become Hurricane Maria had not yet coalesced over the Atlantic Ocean. Alvarez, who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents in 1955 and moved to the Windy City in 1998, had recently celebrated a major exhibition, “Here,” at the Chicago Cultural Center, and the display of her latex-on-PVC mural on the banks of the Chicago River represented a high point in her long-running efforts to make abstract painting relevant for a wide audience. Yet by late September Hurricane Maria had struck Puerto Rico with catastrophic force. When the US government reneged on its responsibility to provide comprehensive disaster relief, many Puerto Ricans took matters into their own hands. People’s assemblies, formed in the spirit of autogestión, or self-management, provided social services that the government had forgone. At the same time, Alvarez, working in Chicago and waiting to hear this exhibition’s titular phrase—estoy bien (I’m fine)—from her relatives on the archipelago, continued to model a painting practice of insistent mutability, one that echoed both seasonal cycles and the drastic shifts brought about by climate change and showed her carrying on with her commitment to painting in multiple visual idioms. Between late 2017 and summer 2019, Alvarez transformed some of the proofs for Howlings—Soft Paintings into the seven large double-sided paintings presented in “Estoy Bien,” her overdue first solo commercial gallery show in Chicago. 

Each piece, made of a PVC-mesh material more often used for awnings, construction scaffolds, or fencing, was suspended from a freestanding aluminum frame and set in the middle of the gallery floor. Printed directly onto the mesh were collages of digitally manipulated pictures from Alvarez’s decades-long studio practice. She further modified the prints by adding latex ink, glitter, and acrylic and enamel paints to the surface, producing enthralling fields of painterly gestures. On one side of Here to There, from Air Paintings (2017–2019), 2018, a thickly poured slab of an alizarin crimson hue streaked with blacks, grays, and whites abuts a field of yellow chevrons and a bright blue blur. On the reverse, most aspects from the front are recognizable, but purples, pinks, and other small surprises divulge the many worked layers that underlie the final composition. In Jellow, from Air Paintings (2017–2019), 2018, a black-and-yellow passage evokes camouflage, a recurring formal device for Alvarez, as much as aerial photographs of an island archipelago. In this work especially—though it holds true for all—the translucent support allowed viewers to simultaneously see the works that stood behind it; distant compositions became shifting, ghostly grounds for the one before the viewer.

Alvarez has long contested the false binary of figuration and abstraction, and her work rebuffs the institutional tendency to recognize female artists of color only if their work legibly connects to their biographies. Alvarez asserts her right to paint as she wishes, constantly experimenting with a wide range of visual vocabularies. “I’ve begun to see that it’s not just one self,” the artist says in an interview included in Candida Alvarez: Here. A Visual Reader, an important resource published after her 2017 show at the Chicago Cultural Center. “It’s a multitude of selves. For me, that definitely includes the politicized woman who embraces her Puerto Rican heritage and bilingualism, as well as the Self determined to stay out of all cultural boxes which threaten my freedom to make choices.”

Six collages hanging next to the gallery’s front desk spoke directly to the relationship between the artist’s process and her politics: Each work in the suite Puerto Rico Hurricane Collage (Villalba), subtitled no. 1 through no. 6, all 2017–18, superimposes an image from Alvarez’s painterly experiments with a disoriented view of the landscape of the Puerto Rican municipality of Villalba. Like painting, social organization requires an expansive imagination, one that can envision how the world might otherwise be. Abstraction, for Alvarez, does not follow the midcentury idea of a search for essences; rather, it is a tool for reimagining—in the midst of real grief—how we can relate to one another, what kind of government we could build, and how to make a painting.