Anyone who’s spent serious time in museums or galleries has likely witnessed the robotic side-shuffling of visitors as they work the perimeter — skimming the surface, rapidly absorbing, maybe Instagramming. San Antonio artist Albert Alvarez deprives viewers of that immediate satisfaction with obsessively detailed, intensely overstuffed work that truly needs to be stared at, pondered, and then perhaps seen again, to be understood at all. Within the layers upon layers of his deftly rendered scenarios, juvenile delinquents get high and run rampant in the classroom; bloody soldiers fight a never-ending, unwinnable war; crazed lunatics take over the asylum; monstrous characters engage in every imaginable act of depravity; and Jesus hangs on the cross amid a toxic mushroom cloud inhabited by a tantric orgy and the animated likes of Fred Flintstone, Santa Claus, Dennis the Menace, Gumby, Pinocchio, Tweety Bird and a Keebler Elf.
An Alamo City native who grew up on the Southeast Side, Alvarez attended Poe Middle School, studied art at Brackenridge High School and earned a handsome scholarship to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. After completing a core program at RISD that entailed sculpture, drama and two-dimensional design, Alvarez trained his focus on animation and found inspiration in both the intricacies of Chinese art and German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. “I thought [Dürer’s] style is [how] I want to draw. It was filled with imagination,” Alvarez said during a recent visit in his Eastside studio. His fascination with Dürer eventually led to him adopting the alias “Albrechto Alvarez.”
Upon graduating from RISD in 2006, Alvarez weighed the potential destinations for his next chapter. “It was coming down to the wire of where everyone wanted to go. Everyone wanted to travel to a metropolis. But in my mind, I wanted to just come back to San Antonio. It’s in your bones.”
Not long after returning to his hometown, Alvarez caught the eye of former San Antonio Museum of Art curator David Rubin. “When I first became aware of Alvarez in 2006, he had just returned to San Antonio from RISD, and he was making the rounds of art openings with sketchbook in hand,” Rubin wrote in a story for Glasstire. During that time, Alvarez was developing a signature style informed by techniques honed at RISD as well as the chaos and characters he encountered as an adolescent growing up in San Antonio.
An early brush with success came in 2007, when Rubin purchased Alvarez’s autobiographical painting I Am Albert’s Hard Times for SAMA’s permanent collection. Surrounding the artist in an intense swirl of negative recollections are what Rubin described as “tiny vignettes, including … [a heroin overdose], various views of street violence, police arrests, and strippers, interspersed with references to daily life, such as his family’s house, a cell phone, and a roaming black cat.” Remarkable as it may be that the painting — Alvarez’s very first foray into acrylics — got snapped up by SAMA and subsequently featured in the Rubin-curated exhibition “Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s,” Alvarez admits he’s not a fan. “Technically, it just wasn’t what I wanted to be perceived as,” he explained.
During our visit, the walls of his compact home studio are lined with recent works — including many he exhibited this past summer in a two-man show with Ed Saavedra at Presa House Gallery. On a drafting table, cutout drawings of Pee-wee Herman and Ozzy Osbourne join other more expected “heroes” of the Alamo — all pieces of a tableau destined for “The Other Side of the Alamo: Art Against the Myth,” a Ruben C. Cordova-curated exhibition opening in February at Galería Guadalupe. Propped against one wall, a composite drawing delivers an adult comic book in one sprawling panel. Below a marquee-like sign emblazoned with “The Wisdom of A-Train: A Day in the Life,” a dizzying array of situations, subtitles, quotes and text bubbles converge in a puzzle of cross-hatched lines. Multiple couples are caught in the act of humping; recognizable characters spring to life (including Alvarez himself, Kawhi Leonard and Coach Popovich); and talking heads squawk telling tidbits back at their creator: “Why do you make Mexicans look bad in your art?” “You’d be rich in jail with talent like that.” “How much money do you make? Do you have real job?” “Why does your work portray so much violence towards women?” “You know, you oughta draw something nice.”
As it turns out, I’ve asked Alvarez a few of those very questions since my first serious conversation with him back in 2015, the year he and graphic designer Will Templin published the unapologetically tasteless graphic novel Sexican
. What I’ve learned over the years is that Alvarez’s only “real job” is making and selling art; the violence in his work is equal-opportunity — no one is safe; and despite its often comical exterior, his artwork is less about fantasy than it is a sharp commentary on the dangerous reality we’re living in. “You would think that we’d be a lot more enlightened by now,” Alvarez said. “All this happened in the ’60s. How did we get back to that?”
As for him drawing “something nice,” that might happen, too.
“I think one day I should do a parent drawing,” Alvarez said. “Because that is an important thing in my life. I’ll get around to it eventually. I think that when you grow up, you become who you will become regardless of who raised you. I thank them for having me. It is mysterious how it all comes to be.”