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Where the magic happens.
You may be surprised when you walk into Hot Box Betty expecting pretty
things and are confronted by Jaws and Dead Birds. Not that the
paintings by Alex Reisfar aren't beautiful - they are.
Reisfar's work has a Latin American influence; the figures are rendered
like those of Diego Rivera or Antonio Ruiz. In Maria and Child, the
breastfeeding mother's hair transforms into artery and umbilical cord
ala Frida Kahlo, while her masked face draws from the indigenous
revolution. "In parts of the Zapatista movement, they have these
pamphlets, and the imagery in them, especially the female Zapatistas,
is very powerful," Reisfar says. While initially surrealist, Reisfar's
paintings are not about dream worlds, but full of intentionally applied
symbols. The drama in the work is not happenstance from the
subconscious, but grounded, as he says, in "anarchist history and
theory." One piece is blatantly anti-war; a soldier with a leering
skull greets a smiling baby and a female figure that cannot face him or
the viewer. In El Cazadore, a great white shark signifies a menacing
force ("great white: GW," Reisfar points out) while a Zapatista child
stands in defiance. In Gaurdian, a Native American child begins to
unravel. Reisfar is confronting big subject matter: death, organized
religion, war, propaganda and white guilt.
Technically, Reisfar's work is drenched in the past. Painted on discarded windows, found or donated, the pieces seem antiqued. "I have a collection of my great grandmothers early National Geographic collection, from say 1900 to 1975, and they are full of weird, odd, images, religious imagery, lots of World War I and II photographs, many of them hand tinted strangely, like the worlds' first airbrushing." The influence of hand tinting comes through in the eggshell blues, pastel tans, aged army green and sepia, while the costuming of the subjects imply a similarly antiqued time period.
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In paintings like Happy Meal, in which a baroque-ish putto is lifted from the sea in the gaping mouth of a shark, Reisfar claims the meaning of this piece is all in the title, but the narrative seems deeper than the anti-movement prescribed to it. He may be referencing Fast Food Nation, but he is also slyly echoing Bottecilli's Birth of Venus, touching on ideas of gender and cultural expectations. The mood of the work is much more subtle than activist applications. Many of the narratives have no context; the landscape and settings are ambiguous. There is an implied sense of purgatory; figures often pose in a mutely toned fog. At times there is a melancholy feeling of detachment. Much like the hand tinting from those old issues of National Geographic, Reisfar is manipulating the story, heightening the drama. By downplaying the scenery, the characters become paramount. The viewer can't help but become curious of their identities. In Alone in Rome, a keenly rendered Monk avoids eye contact with the viewer. In The Ghost of the Washington Hotel, a portrait of a comfortably relaxing woman, you wouldn't know she's a ghost except from the title. Yes, there is a loneliness, but there is also a curiousness, and, at times, whimsy.
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This mood makes sense when we begin to discuss his process. Reisfar paints late at night, alone in his basement studio.
"At three in the morning, you start to get to know yourself really well, you start having conversations with ghosts, parts of yourself that you didn't know existed." Ghosts are both figurative to Alex, and literal. He seems intrigued by how realms overlap, as in the way he paints from both sides of the glass, often experimenting with layers and scratching on the back of the glass after the characters on the front are completed, creating a disjointed sense of space.
"I used to try to finish a painting before I went to sleep, because I thought, 'what if I died, and this is my last painting?' I don't want the left arm to be disproportionate."
Reisfar's painting are on display at Hot Box Betty, and online at www.AlexReisfar.com