What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

August 15, 2019

Jose Alvarez
The Promised Land
Gavlak Los Angeles
May 31 – August 17, 2019

Jose Alvarez

Detention, deportation, refugee, criminal, other: these are terms that have blanketed the news in the last few years. Not a day goes by without a story about an incident at the border or of children being separated from their parents or of someone being detained or sent away because of their nationality or sexual orientation.

Jose Alvarez (born Deyvi Orangel Peña Artega (D.O.P.A.)) is an artist living in South Florida. He came to the United Sates from Venezuela in the 1980s to escape persecution as a gay man and when his visa expired he acquired false papers and took on the name of Jose Alvarez. With this name, he began his art career. In 2012, he was charged with identity theft and spent two months at Krome Detention Center in Miami, FL., a place now known for its abuse of the undocumented foreign nationals there to await asylum hearings or deportation.

During his incarceration, and at first in an effort to ward off depression, Alvarez drew his cellmate and later began to make portraits of the other detainees. As he drew, the men started to open up to him, telling their individual stories. In the exhibition the works are presented with this biographical information. Alvarez created each of the 28 drawings using the inner core of a blue or black ballpoint pen. The core was removed from its clear plastic casing (as the hard substance was considered a potential weapon) and is also on view in a vitrine. The bendy thin device is not an easy tool to draw with and Alvarez's depictions display his skill and dexterity with this absurd a pen. As fine drawing paper was not available, Alvarez drew on whatever type of plain or lined notebook paper he could obtain.

What is remarkable about this project is the determination and integrity of the sitters despite their desperate situations. The pen on paper works capture their intensity, resolve and disappointment. In the exhibition, the framed drawings are presented with a printed text that states the sitter's name, country, Krome ID number, age as well as a short description about how they came to the U.S. and how they happened to end up at Krome. Alvarez was an empathetic listener who drew and recorded those who posed for him without passing judgement. He juxtaposes factual information— the injustices and prejudices toward immigrants— with compassionate drawings that illustrate their inner strength and beauty as human beings.

Hamsa, Morocco, Krome #309, Blue, 25 years old (all works 2012) for example, shows a bearded man with large ears and dark eyes staring straight ahead. The accompanying text states: "Hamsa made his way to the US with a promise that he would be given a job. That was a lie. He spoke no English but stayed at an Orlando motel for some seven months until he found he could make a living selling cars. He is awaiting deportation." Many of the descriptions reveal the subject's hopes, dreams and hardships, as in Stumpar, Jamaica, Krome #342, Blue, 32 years old. "Stumpar was born in Jamaica and received a green card seven years ago. Then he had some trouble with the law. He sings at music festivals and dreams of becoming a reggae star. Stumpar’s ambition is to have a better life in America and to build a sports and entertainment complex."

The 28 drawings and stories of capture and incarceration read like a tragedy as Alvarez depicts these men's vulnerabilities and defenselessness against the ruling authority. While not everyone at Krome was innocent, many were not given a chance to prove their innocence or explain their circumstances, and Alvarez's poignant project speaks to these discrepancies and injustices.

Note: This review was first published in Artillery Gallery Rounds, August 7, 2019.