The artist Xandro Alvarez aka @xandro.alvarez is as reticent as he is prolific, concealing as he is revealing, and aloof as he is forthcoming. Thriving in an environment of chaos, the artist changes stripes as readily as a chameleon changes color. Refusing to be classed into easy categories, Xandro remains as elusive as a wave upon the sea. He maintains, however, a certain insouciance in his stance as an artist: “I do whatever I want, especially [in] making people uncomfortable. If people ask questions or reject my work, it’s because I do what I am supposed to do…”
Tireless in his commitment to painting, he plies his trade with the intensity of a surgeon. His protagonists – mostly female – have run the gamut from pristine political figures in nondescript interiors to distressed ingénues in forest glades. A palette of salmon, navy blue, mint green, olive and golds have given way to more earth-tone hues. There was a time in Xandro’s early practice when he painted with photorealistic rigidity. He approached his discipline in a multi-faceted manner.
Today, his figure portraits depict women stripped, bound, or caged. What is a viewer to make of figures, – in the softest of pinks, – performing oral sex amidst lush fields of green? A look into his world evokes carnality with tenderness, fragility with pain.
A painter at the top of his game, he has an ever increasing hunger to arrive where his craft calls him. This writer catches up with Xandro in the midst of his first retrospective in Lisbon.
“I don't expect or need my work to be understood or appreciated by everyone, I stand at the artist’s place, [in] an uncomfortable, very personal place that can only be shared with individuals [of the same sensibility].”
VV.: Xandro, what an honor to speak with you! Congratulations on your vernissage. Please tell me about your recent show in Lisbon
XA.: It’s my first solo show and one of the very few times I have ever shown in a gallery. The gallery name, Aspace aka @aspace.pt is owned by Jack Gustafsson and curated by Rui Guerreiro aka @pinheadworld. Both Jack and Rui are colleagues I highly respect. The gallery, [in] itself, is [located] inside one of the oldest buildings…in Lisbon. Built before the 1755’s earthquake, [it’s] a place [that reverberates] with soul, a perfect fit for my paintings.
VV.: Is it a retrospective?
XA.: It is definitely a retrospective of works [dating] from 2008 to 2020 [showcasing] different periods, each one very distinct from the other.
VV.: Please tell me about yourself. How and where did you start?
XA.: I studied painting and art in France, but only started [painting] seriously in 2007; I moved to Portugal in 2008 in a radical change to isolate myself and immerse [myself] in art.
VV.: How fascinating! Why Portugal?
XA.: I didn’t know what to expect when I first visited except [to find] a very old, traditional and conservative country – that’s all. But so many things happened to be exactly what I was looking for; [my first impressions were] through nature, especially the wind and the air, the incomparable blue sky. It’s also very green, I was surrounded by nature. Then the ocean, and the Portuguese people. I felt more at home than anywhere else… [Call it] destiny.
VV.: I can imagine! What’s a typical day like for you?
XA.: There’s two types of days; one, I will work all day starting at 9 am until 8 pm or more, with a long pause for lunch. I generally finish the day exhausted because of the concentration painting [demands from] me. And there’s another type of day – generally after two days of painting, – I need to [take] a break, for other activities.
“There's harmony between all the elements. My painting is very much connected to nature, even in craftsmanship, as I use pigments and raw material to make it.”
VV.: Your dedication is quite evident. How do you begin a painting?
XA.: I have a structure in my head, a visual, then there’s accidents that bring me new ideas and development. Spending time analyzing my works and other’s art, accentuating the points I want to stretch. I’m not interested in producing more vapid images, I would prefer doing something else. I ask myself questions.
There’s harmony between all the elements. My paintings are very much connected to nature, even in craftsmanship, as I use pigments and raw materials to make it.
I visualize [and make] paintings/drawings in an instinctual way. For example, the titles of my paintings are rarely more than one word because the title adds another dimension : “words”, which has nothing to do with painting. It’s on another level. I never [envision] a painter I discover, for example, with words, it’s visual references, subjects, colors, space, etc. I will only start reading about the work – if I do – after I have searched visually all the answers I need, and generally it’s a disappointment. It speaks about something else.
The meaning is, like the meaning of a dream, to look at beyond the explanation.
VV.: You stated that you ask yourself questions – what kind of “questions”?
XA.: Questions about pictures, painting, art history. I’m a visual person, not an intellectual in the sense of a total abstraction of thoughts. I am searching for the grain of sand between the teeth, the intellectual process through visual/painting, the challenge. These things still interest me [to this day].
VV.: When you say “vapid images”, are you referring to your own or those of others’?
XA.: Both, I try to [challenge] myself as a painter… and to fight boredom, I create chaos [instead].
VV.: Some of your figures are portrayed in pale, muted hues – almost opalescent – as in medieval works. Is this for the sake of contrast?
XA.: Yes, medieval absolutely, Renaissance, too, and even further. The translucency of pale skin and the contrast definitely, this works with black skin too, in [reverse]. Depicting the [gradations of skin tones] on nudes was the most delightful experience in my art student years, even orgasmic.
VV.: Orgasmic? I’m sure. On the topic of sexuality, how did you arrive at “Consent” as the recent title of your show?
XA.: “Consent” is a very key title, my gallerist Jack Gustafsson, who is Swedish, found it, and I immediately accepted it. I believe it is even more relevant to my more recent works ( that are not in my actual show ). I am not, as an artist, answering any political issues. In the sphere of art, I do whatever I want, especially [in] making people uncomfortable. If people ask questions or reject my work, it’s because I do what I am supposed to do. The question of consent today is a hot topic, I obviously felt drawn to it, even unconsciously. Obviously my work is not everyone’s cup of tea.
VV.: Correct me if I’m wrong, but an undeniable eroticism – mixed with pain – runs through certain pieces. May you please expound on this?
XA.: It would take a lot of time to explain the path that brought me where I am now. There’s eroticism and pain but also abstraction, nature, imagery, pleasure, poetry, tensions. It’s always processing, it’s alive. It’s where I’m called.
VV.: Are the models of women you know?
XA.: Not all but some of them, yes.
VV.: Would you say these women are erotic?
XA.: Yes of course, the naked body has always been something erotic for me. There’s tension.
Slide 1: “Suburb” Oil on plywood, 60 x 48 cm (2019). / Slide 2: “Odd Boy” Oil on canvas, 76 x 80 cm (2019). / Slide 3: “Voodoo” Oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm (2019).
“The relationship to time is extremely important too. It is the essence of painting, through movement and stillness.”
VV.: Why are your figures tied? Masked?
XA.: I made the masks as I did the portraits, but in itself, the masks are more abstract; [they] also free me from the portraits. I’ve spent two and a half years making twenty-four portraits of political figures, [so] I find it aesthetically very powerful.
VV.: Why is the aspect of pain or discomfort attractive to you?
XA.: It’s a matter of contrast always, visually and metaphorically, I keep a balance between fragility and force. The relationship to time is extremely important too. It is the essence of painting, through movement and stillness.
Slide 1: “Untitled” Oil on paper, 70 x 61 cm, (Preparatory portrait) (2019) / Slide 2: “Girls of the Wild” Oil on canvas, 86 x 77 cm (2019)
VV.: Is there a reason why the figures in your work rarely make eye contact with the viewer?
XA.: I see each of my models as separate entities, with their own interrogations. The narrative is restricted to themselves. I honestly do it unconsciously.
VV.: Do these paintings represent your fantasy life?
XA.: Yes, obviously there’s never a complete separation between what you paint and what you live but it’s not an obsession, my art is the obsession.
“There's never a complete separation between what you paint and what you live, but it's not an obsession - my Art is the obsession.”
“Classroom” Oil in canvas 95 x 81 cm (2020)
VV.: Your recent portraits reveal figures stripped of their heads. What is the appeal?
XA.: I have worked on portraits for many years, also I think right now, that it’s something that the eye is looking for – the face – because it’s COMFORTING, but as I structure my work in an abstract way… I [find] this [an effective] way to integrate/balance…my human figures [within a] landscape, the viewer can’t be reassured [of finding the archetypal figure.] This creates a stress/burden dynamic. I just began to work on it, we will see where this goes.
VV.: I’ve seen your political figures and it seems you’ve run the gamut from painting conservative straitlaced women to the extreme in erotica. Personally, I find it liberating. Was there an epiphany? What exactly caused the 180 degree change? Sexual liberation? Experimentation?
XA.: From the extremely austere aspect of the portraits, the rigorous technique and the hermetic subjects derive the most recent paintings. There’s continuity. After two and a half years on the portraits I worked one year on a completely abstract series – which I almost completely destroyed. A necessary caesura. Only after that I started with new subjects.
“I keep a balance between fragility and force.”
VV.: Your recent works are ambiguous. Where do they stem from?
XA.: They are a summary of years [worth] of work. The landscapes, nudes, and objects are part of a whole.
Everything in my paintings has a meaning, most of the time, it’s unconscious. Of course, I prefer the viewer to give his interpretation. With words you always diminish the picture, unless you are working on another level, like poetry, and I started a collaboration with poets recently which is very exciting. That’s why I can’t [describe] my work with words, especially me…a visual person not at ease with [using] language. I don’t expect or need my work to be understood or appreciated by everyone, I stand at the artist’s place, [in] an uncomfortable, very personal place that can only be shared with individuals [of the same sensibility].
XA.: The poem “Seau” was written especially after my painting. We decided to collaborate after I contacted him for I felt we had similar sensibilities. There’s a mutual respect. It’s a beautiful artistic connection.
VV.: My friend, I ask this of all my artists: what advice would you give to a young painter just starting out?
XA.: I have friendships with young painters. I don’t have particular advice since everyone has his/her own journey. Smart guys with strong personalities – they must view their work on another time scale, years, decades. Success is a liar. However, no plan B, since you will go through hell, this must be a do or die mentality.
VV.: A “do or die” mentality! Hard to swallow but these words are SO true! And there you have it!