New York

Lisa Alvarado, Thalweg (Traditional Object), 2020, acrylic, fabric, wood, 76 × 82". From the series “Traditional Object,” 2010–.

Lisa Alvarado, Thalweg (Traditional Object), 2020, acrylic, fabric, wood, 76 × 82". From the series “Traditional Object,” 2010–.

Lisa Alvarado

Lisa Alvarado’s series titled “Thalweg (Traditional Object)” features brightly inscrutable two-sided paintings on fabric or canvas, edged with metallic passementerie or floral embroidered trim—delicate finishing touches for bold abstractions. There were nine such exacting works (all 2020) suspended from the ceiling at various angles in “Thalweg,” her airy solo exhibition this past summer at Bridget Donahue. Some, bearing graphic stepped shapes, prismatic compositions, snaking or zigzagging patterns, and glyph-like forms in electric palettes, seemed informed by Mayan textiles; others, built from brushy gestural layers, evoked desert scrub, coral reefs, and aerial topography. One Object from the group, framed by silver tassel fringe and lace, with its big swaths of color in a Monet-ish palette of pink and celadon, recalled torn-up lily pads. But that particular history of painting didn’t really come to mind anywhere else in the show.

The artist’s use of the term traditional object comes off as an ironic adoption of museum nomenclature, a critique of the anthropological gaze that segregates aesthetic practices and sees Indigenous cultures as existing only in the past. But I think there’s nothing ironic in Alvarado’s super-allusive handcrafted objects themselves. They feel like celebrations of older and still living modes of abstraction and craft, inviting us to guess at their possible ceremonial, domestic, or dramaturgic roles. They do have at least one function—sometimes they are used as lushly anti-spectacular backdrops for Alvarado’s free-jazz drone band, Natural Information Society, in which she plays the harmonium.

A spare and tunelessly soothing score by NIS played on little wireless speakers scattered throughout the gallery. Sustained wind tones and long-ringing percussive hits formed a twinkling, reverb-y soundscape. The noises made for an enchanting ambience of crystalline far-outness in keeping with the press-release description of the artworks as “vibrational maps and reminders of invisible states,” a counterpoint to the more earthbound, geopolitical themes at play.

The Germanic word thalweg may refer to a line one maps by connecting the lowest points of a riverbed or valley. In the context of international relations, it signifies the imaginary line drawn down the center of a river, when the waterway serves as a border. Alvarado, who now lives in Chicago, is from Texas, where a stretch of the Rio Grande separates the United States from Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez. There, concrete channels guide the dividing water’s path, preventing its contours from naturally shifting. This renders the historically contested and brutally policed median—the river’s thalweg, in both senses—immovable. The artist’s Thalweg Bridge, 2020—a narrow, floor-bound, friezelike composition of flowers and black-and-white sand that ran in two parts along parallel walls—might be seen as a countergesture, an exercise in impermanence and porosity. The show had been up for some time when I visited, and viewers had clearly taken care not to disturb the meticulous fluvial design. But its sharp edges had softened anyway; grains of unfixed sand had inevitably mixed, black and white turning to gray.

The work’s wave-and-tendril motif showed up in another series of glossy sepia- and algae-hued dye sublimation prints titled “Thalweg (Luna),” 2020. The design appears as a translucent layer over or under hazy photos of shoreline foliage, a calm sun-dappled river, and a small open boat full of passengers. Alvarado also incorporates what look to be vintage studio portraits of a young man and a woman in two of these pieces. The woman’s likeness has been poignantly altered, her face marked with carefully drawn tears. The modification was the most intimate and mysterious detail of the show, the only gesture of its kind.

In the press release was a short paragraph that succinctly described the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s, when as many as two million people of Mexican descent—convenient scapegoats for the Great Depression—were deported from the United States. Maybe this mass injustice is the source of the woman’s heartbreak, I thought. But “Thalweg” wasn’t the kind of show that let you tie up loose ends. The tears, the text, and all of Alvarado’s small and very particular choices are better left unresolved, reverberating with the rich, semicelestial tones that filled the space.