LOS ANGELES — “I want to share the things I appreciate in my world,” Michael Alvarez tells Hyperallergic, “places I fell in love with for different reasons.” These are the liminal spaces of Los Angeles: the rail yards, freeway underpasses, and public parks that act as the city’s connective tissue. As a skateboarder and graffiti artist growing up in the neighborhood of El Sereno, a few miles northeast of downtown LA, these were Alvarez’s playgrounds, where he found community and honed his craft.
His current solo show at Matthew Brown Gallery in the city’s Fairfax District features large-scale paintings that depict these sites, juxtaposing large expanses of sky and concrete with intimate human details reminiscent of Northern European Renaissance landscapes. Using dozens of reference photos for each work, Alvarez builds up his canvases with oil, spray paint, and collage, giving an impression not of a static scene, but of movement, life, and memory, filled with ghostly palimpsests.
He pastes in bits of debris picked up along his urban excursions: peeling wall paint, crushed bottle caps, latex, and other pieces of grime and gunk — along with years of “paint scabs” from his studio — constructing his landscapes from scraps of literal ones.
“Barrier Bash (Art Show at the D.I.Y)” (2022) reproduces an open-air art show that Alvarez organized with his friend and fellow artist Tomas (depicted in the foreground with a blue shirt and khakis) on an El Sereno dead-end street that abuts train tracks. Against a backdrop of blue sky and green hills, a crowd of visitors peruses miniature versions of Alvarez’s paintings that hang nearby. In “Neighborhood Watch” (2012), a lively street scene on Eastern Avenue is interrupted by a car crash in the center of the painting, perhaps a nod to pioneering Chicano artist Carlos Almaraz’s fiery crash paintings. The damage is partially obscured by the large, bald head of Alvarez’s uncle Frank, highlighting the importance of family that is showcased in another series of works on view that take inspiration from family photo albums.
“For Vincent (Last Mission)” (2022) is a memorial image to Alvarez’s cousin Vincent, who lost his life to gun violence in 2008, just months after being released from prison. “We grew up together. Art was a big connection,” he says, adding that the two would send drawings and photos back and forth while Vincent was incarcerated. “Life took us on different tracks.”
Removed from the asphalt and concrete of most of his paintings is the verdant landscape in “Take a Hike” (2014), which depicts Hermit Falls, a popular hiking and swimming spot nestled into the base of Angeles National Forest. “As someone who’s grown up in the city, for me it feels like a break from the density of everything,” Alvarez notes.
The show’s title, Good Looking Out, has multiple meanings, initially referring to Alvarez’s role as a young lookout for his friends when they were illicitly tagging. It also refers to the wonder that can be gleaned from just keeping your eyes open and being aware of your surroundings, however banal. His paintings share this sense of discovery and exploration amongst the dirt and danger.
“I’m trying to find moments that stood out to me that felt optimistic, but that have impressions of trauma and heaviness,” Alvarez explained. “There’s so much resilience that I’m lucky to be around and absorb.”