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Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.)
Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.)

All artists have stories, and how their lives inform and influence their work. Jose Avarez (D.O.P.A.)’s story is one of the most unusual, a life of strange circumstance that he turns into art that is by turns wildly exuberant and starkly telling.

His new show opened at Gavlak Palm Beach November 26th, the artist’s third solo show with the gallery and coincides with his widely received and deeply impactful, Krome: Faces of Detention, at the Boca Raton Museum of Art (through January 8, 2017). In contrast to his austere and dignified ink portraits of inmates at the museum, his new body of work explores themes of connection, the infinite and consciousness.

“I want this new work to be connected with the actual titles of it,” he says from his home studio. “ It’s a different direction mentally and a total philosophical state. The connection with the titles is a way to bring the work to another kind of space.”

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Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.) began his career 20 years ago as a performance artist channeling a fictitious 2,000 year-old spirit, Carlos, his performances appealed to viewers who sought to explore the basic human experience. These performances were the subject of video work presented in the 2002 Whitney Biennial in New York City. Switching visual gears, his work has taken the form of intricately composed collages created from natural materials in combination his own unique renderings of organic forms and figures. The forms swirl and spiral, folding and unfolding into space. It’s reminiscent of 60s psychedelia but more organic.

Called “The Awakening” the series of collages are composed of multilayered media including mica, porcupine quills, feathers, glass beads, and mineral crystals. Alvarez loves hot colors of pinks, oranges, blues and yellows. He repeats patterns that pulsate with color. The work alludes to “the sublimation of mind, alternative dimensions of time and space, or perhaps hallucinogenic drugs. Vibrant, neon colors paired with a detailed arrangement of recurring forms and textures evoke scopophilia, a sensation similar to that which one might experience in a Yayoi Kusama infinity nest” says the gallery.

There are two circular reliefs, or “tondos,” that become explosive landscapes for the mind to transcend. The glittery mica and mineral crystal panels give space from the labyrinth collages. The repetitive layering in his work can also be read as a chant or mantra, another dimension to enter and get lost in.

Back down on earth, the artist has had some very real and hard core experiences. Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.) was born in Venezuela with the name Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga but wanted to live and work in the US as he was desperate to escape Venezuela. As a young gay man he faced brutal persecution from authorities there in the early 1980s and feared for his life. So one night in a nightclub he bought the ID of a man he had been told had died. The name was Jose Alvarez and Deyvi was reborn.

For 20 years he used the name and soon married much older Canadian-born “Amazing Randi” a performer who has spent 40 years as a skeptical crusader, debunking faith healers, so called psychics and spoon-bending mentalists. Randi appeared on “The Tonight Show” as a guest of Johnny Carson 32 times, won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant; decapitated Alice Cooper with a prop guillotine during one of the shock rocker’s concerts (he survived); and, in the late 1980s, went on the warpath against mystics who claimed to channel deities.

But then after 20 years the real Jose Alvarez applied for a passport and the Feds came knocking at Deyvi’s door in September 2011 and charged him with identity theft and falsifying a passport. He pleaded guilty to both charges and spent two months in the Krome Detention Center in Miami.

Now billing himself as “Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.)” behind bars he did what artists do – he made art.

“I did nothing but hide and sleep the first few days. Then I picked up a pen and had some paper and just started drawing another inmate. The guy started crying. I said what’s wrong? He said no one has ever drawn me or really looked at me like this before. I just drew him straight on but they are very revealing too. Soon all the guys wanted me to draw them and I ended up with 30 drawings. A lot of them have that gaze. A quiet desperation, I guess. Waiting to see what was going to be their fate. I told them these would be in a museum though I’m not sure they believed me. It was the worst time of my life but my hope made the most of it.”

Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.)

The drawings are in a show at the Boca Raton Museum of Art and while they exist as stark contrast to his luxurious colorful gallery work, they work to connect to the interior and the infinite.

“I really just want to inspire commonality, get closer to a state of consciousness,” he says. “I want people to get lost in the work through the color and texture. Work that talks about this is important especially now when people feel a darkness has descended and need space to feel glorious, feel connected rather than isolated. I feel we can always do better in everything.”

Alvarez has been the subject of solo exhibitions at The Kitchen, New York and the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Florida. He has also been included in notable group at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California, the San Antionio Museum of Art; McNay Museum, San Antonio, Texas; Akron Museum, Akron, Ohio; The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida. In 2014, the documentary film, An Honest Liar, was released to international acclaim, telling the story of the artist and his spouse.

Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.