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RF AlvarezThe Look Back

Taymour Grahne Projects is pleased to present The Look Back, a solo show by Texas based artist RF Alvarez, opening on September 21.

RF Alvarez

The Descent (Mezcal and Cigarettes)

2024

Acrylic on raw linen

122 x 152 cm. / 48 x 60 in.

01 / 03

RF Alvarez

Farewell, Eurydice, to The Man I'll Never Be

2024

Acrylic on raw linen

152 x 122 cm. / 60 x 48 in.

01 / 03

RF Alvarez

The Afterparty

2024

Acrylic on raw linen

152 x 183 cm. / 60 x 72 in.

01 / 03

Opening: September 21, 3-5pm

Exhibition dates: September 22 - 29

Opening times: Mon-Sat 10am - 6pm, Sun 10am - 4pm

Address: 67 Great Titchfield Street London W1W 7PT

Accompanying the exhibition is a text by Emily R. Pellerin:

“Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint... What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved?" – Ovid, The Metamorphoses

_ _ _

In the Greek myth of Orpheus, the heroic poet falls in love with a nymph, Eurydice. She is fatally bitten by a snake, and is relegated to eternity in the underworld. In this moment, we witness the perfection of marriage being interrupted by pain.

Orpheus makes the journey to save her. Creative expression, as we know, will always have life-saving power: with his prodigious music, death’s guardians grant him permission to rescue Eurydice, the love of his life.

Yet, there is one condition. As she follows him, he must not look back at her until they arrive in the upper world. Orpheus makes it all the way to the final threshold – and he looks back. The transgression is a betrayal of them both. Eurydice is lost forever.

RF. Alvarez interprets Orpheus’ journey as an attempt not to solve grief, but to comprehend it. The Texas-based painter’s new show, titled “The Look Back”, is bred from a similar instinct to reconcile himself to the loss of innocence that comes from growth’s requisite knowing, and the hardship inherent to its concomitant understandings of the world, self and love.

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“The Look Back” is a series of paintings conceived within the last year, and is exhibited in a site-specific sequence at Taymour Grahne Projects. For Alvarez, the personal context from which the new paintings were born has to do, quite intimately, with the growing pains of selfhood. It has to do with his identity as a husband, with the strains of matured individualism and the sophisticated hindrances of any truly honest companionship. The paintings also have to do with the queer self-knowing that preceded his marriage; and with his identity as a painter who is still (inevitably) on a learning journey.

RF. is rooted in a familial history of hand-me-down Mexican machismo on one side, and the cattle-rearing stoicism of southwestern ranchers on the other. Oeuvre-wide, he is personally, persistently breaking free from the restraints of the hold of a mythological vaquero – in turn, more vastly breaking the cowboy figure free of its taciturn, hetero bounds. This specific thematic reclamation offers a salvation unto itself: RF.’s beautifully configured, large-scale portraits recontextualize cowboy symbolisms in order to re-codify them more liberally, more queerly. The paintings play, also, with recontextualizations of his marriage. Imagined scenes mingle with recreations. Expectation mingles with doubt. As a project at large, his work fervently sets out to re-myth-make.

Through the act of painting, RF. finds the space and hallucinatory momentum to break open his psyche. He fractures and penetrates intuition, exposing feelings through the canvas and its scenes, its gestures, its tones. His mere act of brandishing sombreros and longhorn skulls next to the gay male nude, displayed in dialog with debaucherous and intimate queer joy, is a generous offering. The proclamations are a gift to us; but also, crucially, to himself.

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Organized into three “Chapters”, RF.’s exhibition begins with a loosely painted, Eden-like tableau. The artist places us into a scene of deliriously hot, deliciously dream-like Texas in late summer. Inspired by filmmaker François Reichenbach’s courageously queer, early French New Wave experimental documentary Nus Masculin (1954), we see a world in which postcoital leisure reigns, swaddled by nature.

In The Seed Bearer, two men recline, nude, swallowed by a bed of bluebells. The painting harkens to scenes from Derek Jarman’s diary-opus Modern Nature (1991): “A sunny bluebell wood,” the text teases, “is the heart of a passionate love.” Yet Jarman – gardener, filmmaker, activist – reminds us that, within the throes of the wood’s centripetal violet heart, “it is dangerous to kiss there.” Rerouting gay love away from its familiar violence, RF. reclaims the depiction of blossoming love and lust as peaceful, patient; uncompromising and uncompromised. Cushions of course grass tickle skin (reminiscent of pricks, but soft). The narrative unfolds as dapples of sunshine fade into the slivers of moonlight in Lover in Our Bedroom. Unapologetic, unevasive, blue-cast, night-deep. In Overture of a Wayward Son, water – desirous – tugs in its quivering hold. The ripples won’t let go. The color is sweet fury. These scenes are soft, free, sexy; and they are safe.

RF. knows he is painting a privileged prose. His is the vantage point of a generation that lives in the peripheral (albeit loudening) echoes of queer unsafety. Time moves forward and in the strides of its inertia, it uses its imagination, and it rebirths better. In Cruising Utopia (2009) cultural theorist José Esteban Muñoz writes of the idea of “queer utopian memory”, a framework for thinking about art that allows for futuremaking; art that is unconstrained by the specter of AIDS or institutionalized homophobia. RF.’s work radically pursues the queer utopia, at once creating and memorializing memory.

Yet although they are utopic, RF.’s scenes are not without tension. In their shadowiness, gestures, and detail, they feel like a still frame captured from a moving image; in this, they continuously allude to the forlorn impossibility of certainty. You don’t know the hardship contained in beauty until you live your way through it. (Orpheus peeked – and only at that point did he know. In that knowing he assassinated both her and the possibility of them.)

_ _ _

In interpreting Orpheus’ look-back, some people think that he didn’t trust the gods, or that he didn’t trust Eurydice to follow him; some say he was just too in love. Others say that Eurydice asked for it. Perhaps a set eternity, however grim, was preferable to the risky whims of the real world. Perhaps the predictable din of the underworld, the thrusts of its eddies of death, was thrilling. Sometimes, nothing but the perimeters of death itself can lend us the escapism we seek.

In the exhibition’s second Chapter, RF. carries us into an epicenter of hedonism, of indulgence. Queer bliss becomes supernova. The portraits expel the shackles of the next morning, those of the death-threat of innocent lust. This is a descent into the underworld.

The fiesta, writes Mexican poet-intellectual Octavio Paz in Fiesta and Time (1961), “is the night when friends… get drunk together, trade confidences, weep over the same troubles, discover that they are brothers, and sometimes, to prove it, kill each other.” RF. takes particular inspiration from Paz’s essay, recognizing – through filial and personal culture – that in the necessary and beautiful furies of festivity there is danger; that in love, there is war.

In Lover in the Disco, we are invited into an impassioned, eyes-closed experience of bacchanal. This snapshot dialogs with the slowed-down, unruly domestic intimacy of The Afterparty. Both represent the intoxication of togetherness. Yet, The Afterparty is in fact a portrait of eyes averted. Glances are misaligned. There is touch but bodies are haphazard in their attentiveness to one another. In each of these scenes, proximity is only a veneer – despite their settings, there is the suggestion of immense aloneness in these paintings. (The Look Back contains this same, wrenching poignancy.) Like Orpheus, these subjects lust after love. They push through the after-hours, drugged by the impulses of desire.

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RF.’s paintings have a filmic quality. This resemblance comes from a precise, systematic process. He uses acrylic paint on raw linen, versus primed canvas, and fights against the linen with each brushstroke. The paint soaks through the textile, trapped in its fibers. This tactic lends, in a practical sense, a preservable quality to the works. Artistically, the effect is one of difusion, of softness, akin to pixelation up-close. RF.’s Caravaggio-esque mastery of light, in its flickers and its omissions, exacerbates these characteristics.

Beyond medium, the works’ filmic nature is also evoked through scale. In The Playing of a Gentle Flute, we are zoomed into two men dancing, bathed in the red light of the disco. This moment feels like salvation; feels like rest, a “being held”. The canvas size itself is a departure. It is shrunken next to the others. This scale-shift in pace, which RF. employs throughout the exhibition, is a tactic borrowed from filmmaking. With this small portrait we are sucked in, slowed down, invited into intimacy. We are wooed – and then gut-punched by the sobriety of the scene. If we abide by the myth, death occurs soon after reunion. If we follow RF.’s allusions, in their recreation of a queer memory, similar resonances loom.

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In the third and final Chapter of the exhibition, RF. writes that “the fiesta is over. What remains is a contemplation of what has to be forfeited in order to return.” In the myth, we witness Orpheus triumph through his musicality and then – reckless – suffer abandonment. When we succumb to the gnawing insidiousness of doubt, we not only self-sabotage – but confront the repercussive, ancillary sabotage of the ones we wanted closest.

For RF., Eurydice is a stand-in for certain untamed aspects of selfhood. The ones that embody doubt amidst a beautiful life. The ones that hold the pain of – and inflicted by – our foreparents. The aspects of self we once let go. The self-knowledge (the self-love) that feels just out of reach, obscured in the distance by the inescapably forward-linear movement of life. In Farewell, Eurydice, to The Man I Never Was, the horizon never comes. RF., the lone cowboy, stands in the foreground of a pink-bruised forever-sky. Across the room (across the expanse of experience), he meets his own gaze in The Look Back – a brilliant and ravishing portrait of post-coital embrace, collapse, suspension. These self-portraits are the past and the future, the bifurcations of paths-toward-identity that are only reconcilable through living. One covered, shadowed, existent in a prescribed world; the other uncovered, naked, in a chosen intimacy. In the confidence of their compositions, each portrait also exhibits a sense of forlornness; we will never be all we need of ourselves, nor will the conditions around us ever fully satisfy.

Re-myth-making entangles the past with the potential of what’s to come. “Try not to guess what lies in the future,” Jarman warns, dying of AIDS, his gardens in blossom. “But as fortune deals days, enter them into your life's book as windfalls.” The beauty within complexity is a vantage point, an actioned perspective, an orientation. It is a risk to forecast it; and yet, humanely, it is a storyteller’s responsibility to memorialize it against the indefatigable progression of unknowing that continues to unfold ahead. To calibrate fear of the future sometimes we must name it, lighting the shadows of the fear of the past.

The denouement of RF.’s storybook is Trash Night, painted as an epilogue, of sorts, to the exhibition’s narrative. From the realm of the myth, the painting has us re-enter the quotidian. This is not life imagined, it is life lived. It is dusk, a deep and reverent purple one. Domesticity is on display: RF. is the subject on trash duty, and through one illuminated window sits his lover, partner, friend – gently expectant. Awaiting reunion, one pace forward to togetherness. The scene haunts with simplicity, its air thick with contentment. This is a portrait of respite in the sound, safe rhythms of the everyday.

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Following the second death of Eurydice, Orpheus has relationships with men. He is considered a maverick of homoerotic love in the myths. RF. believes that his venture to the underworld was a grief journey, start to finish. His interpretation is that Orpheus was laboriously coming to terms with a loss that, in the end, he understood would be final. Perhaps the journey was the cathartic performance Orpheus required to enter a more expansive realm of love, a more utopian liberation.

“A queer aesthetic,” writes Muñoz, “manifests itself in such a way that the political imagination can spark new ways of perceiving and acting on a reality that is itself potentially changeable.” To embrace reality, sometimes we must throttle ourselves toward hell, toward memories of fear and the bowels of our present insecurities. From this rot grows a verdant utopia, personified as the contentment of a loving reality. This is a perspective that takes looking backward, to find itself squarely and surely situated, grateful for the journeying of a free-willed life.

-Emily R. Pellerin

RF Alvarez (b. 1988, San Antonio, TX) is a queer artist based in Austin, Texas. His figurative paintings are characterized by nocturnal color pallets and evocative scenes that blend personal memory with romantic allegory. Using a process of dry-brushing paint onto raw linen – and borrowing stylistic techniques from Old Masters – Alvarez creates luminous images of queer joy, revelry and contemplation; countering a historical narrative of queer alienation and erasure in the American West. With deep family roots in both Texas and Mexico, Alvarez uses visions of friendship, indulgence and tenderness to juxtapose with Southern machismo – illuminating the vulnerability that can hide beneath the steely façade of masculinity and the societies it creates. Alvarez has shown with Taymour Grahne Projects in London, Almine Rech Paris, Alanna Miller Gallery in New York City, and Ruiz-Healy Gallery in San Antonio. His work has been featured in The New York Times, T Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and Cultured Magazine. He received a BA from Wesleyan University.