Gema Alava, born in Spain, won a national drawing prize two years in a row while still in school there. She received her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and has been living in New York for many years. Alava works as a performance artist as well; one of her most notable pieces, Trust Me (2010), consisted of talking to individuals about art in museums while they are blindfolded. The work on exhibit, called “Observational Awareness,” is based on two sets of drawings: Silences and Reflex. Silences, began in 2008, are drawings with a black ballpoint pen, done on the subway while Alava was traveling to MoMA to meet fellow artists for a Fluxus-inspired interaction, in which she conducted a one-on-one discussion with participants about the works in the galleries. In 2010 Alava began the series called Reflex, which is based on her performance Trust Me. In this series, Alava works both from images taken from surveillance cameras and from memories of her conversation with the person she talked to. Both groups of drawings, rendered on inexpensive yellow notebook paper, are small and dark, usually done on the upper-right-corner of the paper. Even though they are compact in size, their life moves beyond the page. And their intensity also moves inward, as if the drawing’s life occurred behind the image, which is largely the result of the density of the ballpoint ink.
The combination of open space and dense, dark image results in a powerful viewing experience. The audience must peer into the drawing carefully, close up, because of the works’ small size. One is rewarded by Alava’s emotional intensity. In Reflex (2010), the picture is that of a tunnel, with a shaft of light coming from the back of the passage. Shadows are about to overwhelm the light. This happens repeatedly in the drawings. Alava’s work is not echoed much in New York; we are given more to expansive gestures and cerebral assertions that reject the intensity of emotion and the tight technical achievement Alava’s drawings display. Still, her art fits comfortably within the context of the New York art world. Drawings on paper are transparent in a technical sense, and, often, an emotional one because the medium is unable to be reworked. In Alava’s drawings, the imagistic concern is to portray darkness and light—in both a visual and, implicitly, spiritual manner. We have seen such thinking before in Western culture! But the artist’s take here and with the other images results in a strong dialogue with both qualities—illumination and twilight. As a result, the group of drawings partakes of a long tradition nearly dialectical in its opposites. While they originate from the interactions between Alava and her participants, they also belong to a canon of Western image-making we know well (maybe the best artist to practice this kind of contrast in illumination and gloom was Goya, Alava’s great geographical and artistic predecessor).
In Reflex 3 (2013), the image again reminds us of a tunnel, this time looking out onto a view of what might well be a sea and shadowed horizon. It describes a portal onto what seems to be a conventional seascape. Most of these drawings display little abstraction; instead, they valiantly continue, in contemporary fashion, the practice of figuration, a genre not recently in very high regard. Many in the art world think that figuration is finished—but we have such painters as Nicole Eisenman and Dana Schutz, who have returned to the genre. But somehow it seems as if Alava is bringing something European to the table. Perhaps the strength of feeling encountered in both these drawings and the performances belongs to a tradition a bit different from the one she currently lives in. Nonetheless, this is a speculation; it is clear that Alava’s art is not particularly Spanish, participating easily in the general global context of contemporary art. Silences (2008), a trilogy of images, consists on the left of a row of what look like tree trunks throwing shadows on the ground to the right. Behind the file of trees is further ground, with trees and sky behind it. The middle image is almost completely dark, with a very thin cross of light rendered in the middle left. On the right are two slabs of lighter gray that angle toward a darkened middle. Beneath the bottom slab, and in the middle darkness, is the suggestion of grass. There is also a semblance of the night sky above. Like the other drawings, this miniature triptych shows that Alava is describing an emotional state mediated through representation—shadows abound in these drawings. But we would be amiss if we emphasized feeling alone; the works also convey a sense of menace and oppression. The atmosphere might additionally be read, by implication, as a reading of the social distress many feel today. Or it might not. As with all very good art, the work supports a variety of interpretations, political as well as emotionally descriptive.
In a general sense, the drawings respond to the constant presence of surveillance in the museums originating the work. Surveillance remains a profound threat to privacy, and is undertaken even in outdoor public spaces. In the museums, ostensibly they are meant to protect the art from being stolen or touched, but even there, the problem of implicit control occurs. Alava is suggesting that hidden scrutiny, even should it be necessary, has become endemic to our culture, undermining relations between people. That this would happen in the museum is at least strange, but it is also morally troubling. Impersonal observance of behavior is now profoundly embedded in our culture, but that doesn’t make it correct. It is both strange and unhappy that technological observation occurs in the museum, where one would hope for more open, and more trusting, relations between the institution and its audience. This is not directly said in Alava’s works, but it is implied.
Photographs provided by the gallery and Maus Contemporary.