In recent years, there has been much talk of painting as a ‘contact medium’, mobilizing the idea of the canvas ‘as body’ via Willem de Kooning’s famous assertion that ‘flesh was the reason why oil paint was invented’. While I have no problem with this theory from an intellectual standpoint, it has never made sense to me on a physical level. Yes, the surface of a painting is certainly less closed than that of, say, a Diasec, but does it impel you to touch, to feel, to be in contact with?
This debate surrounding the body’s relation to the painted surface returned to me in Lisa Alvarado’s exhibition, ‘Polyphonic Shadow Cloth’, at LC Queisser. Four works, two in large formats, hang from the ceiling as unstretched textiles. Their front-sides are fabric planes painted edge-to-edge; their reverse-sides are a lime green organza. In three cases, an extra layer of material sits between the two, lending the works a soft volume. With the pictures suspended, narrowing the gallery space as architectural interventions, the viewer is pushed to relate to them on both a visual and physical level, an effect only amplified by their soft, delicately knotted borders.
In contrast, the edge of Traditional Object 28 (2018) is stitched with coarse hemp. The bristles frame an abstract composition of interlocking coloured layers, itself framed in pink, that might recall Gerhard Richter’s tedious squeegee abstracts. But Alvarado’s bright colour palette, which evokes impressionist depictions of nature, sets the groundwork for a project beyond self-regarding abstraction alone. The vertical brushstrokes – swift flicks of the artist’s wrist – create a freehand pattern behind which a glowing vermillion occasionally peeks through. That same colour features in a small rug of part-dyed pheasant feathers that lies on the floor below. The patterning of the iridescent plumage seems to have provided the blueprint for Alvarado’s paintings, and it returns again in Feather Shadow 12 (2018), a narrow rug of feathers that seem to come from a pheasant’s throat. The beauty of the work derives wholly from these materials, which lend the exhibition a very physical form of seduction. After all, Darwin identified the soft touch of a bird’s plumage as a form of enticement crucial to sexual selection.
The show’s strength lies in the subtle manner in which it delivers this sense of touch within distinctive, organizing patterns. Traditional Object 29 (2018) presents a grid of diagonal bars in gold, pink, shimmering violet and green. Some of the bars are broken up by zigzag lines resembling cardiogram readouts or soundwaves. This grid, neatly painted without the slightest trace of brushstrokes, is inserted, slightly off-centre, into a monochrome frame of bright vermillion. Here, prominent brushstrokes reveal traces of an underlying complementary green, causing the red to shine bolder still. The synesthetic aspect is reinforced by a soundtrack: Polyphonic Shadow Cloth (2018), composed by Natural Information Society, the band founded by Alvarado and her husband, Joshua Abrams. The vibrations of drawn-out harmonium chords seem tuned to the zigzag lines, but in more general terms, too, the music shifts the physical works into a performative context. They were originally made as stage designs for Natural Information Society concerts, and thus exist at both sounding boards and objects in their own right.
Perhaps polyphony would be a suitable word to describe Alvarado’s irregular patterns. But much would be lost in such a description: the traces of her hand; the alluring glow of the imagery; and, of course, the tactility. Alvarado highlights the latter quality on the reverse of her pictures: using screen printing, abstract patterns are applied to the organza, which, a gallerist explains, are the imprints of glove stretchers. Another degree of touching, then. But if there have ever been pictures that cried out to be touched, it is these. Painting as, well, a contact medium.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Lisa Alvarado, 'Polyphonic Shadow Cloth' runs at LC Queisser, Tbilisi, until 12 January 2019.
Main image: Lisa Alvarado, Feather Shadow 12, 2018, feathers, fabric, 200 × 17cm. Courtesy: the artist and LC Queisser, Tbilisi; photograph: Angus Leanly Brown