December 13, 2013

Spotlight: Patricia Alvarado
When bodies become canvases.

Patricia Alvarado comes from a long line of female artists who choose to offer their own body up to their work; using every inch of themselves to realize their vision, without fear and without apology. Her work is highly conceptual and performance-based; she uses a wide range of techniques to create it, and documents it with simple, striking photographs and videos. She uses her art to challenge patriarchal ideas about beauty and femininity, to explore shame, to expose both the internal and external struggles around our appearance that make up our daily lives, and the hypocrisy that infests the societal standards upheld for women everywhere. She uses her own self to challenge gender inequalities and the paradoxes woven through the ideals we all subscribe to.

I had many, many questions I wanted to ask the 21 year-old about her art; she proved to be incredibly articulate about her vision and politics, as well as a talented image-maker. I caught up with her during finals week and discussed body hair, intersectionality and Tumblr trolls.

THE LE SIGH: You come from a long line of female artists who choose to use their own bodies to visually question societal standards and ideas around body image - something I've always thought to be a very brave method to adopt. What have you found the pros and cons of doing this to be, and how integral is it to both your subject matter and style?

Patricia Alvarado: I suppose the advantage I see in using my own body to visually communicate my ideas, which are often posed as questions or explorations, is that I (as a woman of color) get to finally see representation of myself and my fellow queer brown women. Like, when I studied "abroad" and participated in the New York Studio Residency Program earlier this year, I met this amazing artist (and person), Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, who created these incredible large scale watercolor drawings/paintings of queer brown women. And when I walked into her studio at mid-semester, I cried, because I couldn't think of a time I'd ever felt so represented. That's why I use my body - so I can (hopefully) be that moment for some other brown girl who feels like the world doesn't care about them. As far as cons, it's emotionally exhausting to feel as though every critique I enter is not only a critique of my work, but also of me and my appearance as a person. But for me, it's necessary to use myself and my body. It helps me feel honest about my work.

TLS: A lot of your work revolves around body hair, and challenges the pressure to conform to daily rituals of modifying our appearance. You also highlight the hypocrisy in the disparate attitudes towards hair that occurs in relation to where it is on the body. Why do you think we're so obsessed with hair in our society? Both its maintenance and removal. And how has your own relationship with your hair changed over time?

PA: I think we're so obsessed with body hair because of how heavily communicated and enforced the "anti-hair" sentiment is. I don't remember when I started shaving or who taught me, and yet it's something I practiced (and still practice) for years and years. There's this strange omnipresent force that deems body hair unappealing, dirty and "unladylike." As for my own relationship with my hair, I used to shave my entire body, then I stopped shaving for a very long time, and now I just kind of do whatever I feel like depending on the day. I've just learned to do what I feel is best for me, whatever that means, because it tends to fluctuate.

TLS: You use mostly photography and video footage to document your art and installations, while using a range of different techniques. How did you discover the ways in which you like to work?

PA: It has taken me years to figure out my artistic process, and honestly it's something I still don't understand 100%. I entered art school as a photography major, and after attending the New York Studio Residency Program, switched to major in Fine Art because of the freedoms allowed as far as choosing which medium to pursue in each specific project. I really just started hating photography, and felt so burdened with so many theoretical questions about the medium itself that I had to do something different. That's when I started becoming more interested in installation, object-making and performance.

TLS: Shame is an issue you work with a lot too - both as an internal struggle and an oppressive societal force. I saw a post about the SlutWalk protest on your blog, and wondered what your thoughts are on slut-shaming, and whether this is an issue that drives your art.

PA: I have an issue with the term "slut-shaming" in itself. I agree that shaming women on the decisions they make regarding their autonomy and sexual experiences/endeavors is wrong and deplorable, but the word "slut" is something I'm really not interested in reclaiming. As an Asian woman, it's really hard to support the term itself, as women of color are sexualized endlessly. But yes, the ideas behind "slut-shaming" are definitely at play in my work.

TLS: In your piece "you & i," you write explicitly about an abusive relationship you were involved in. You also say you're interested in the idea of exes in general, and how people from the past still continue to affect us. How much does your personal life influence your work, and how does the past continue to affect you?

PA: My personal life influences my work 100% of the time. I don't think I've ever made a piece about something I haven't personally experienced. The past plays a big role in my practice because of how research-driven I am. My works stem from personal experience, and just as an individual's past experiences shape them as an individual, my lived experiences shape me as an artist. The past is always relevant to me. It's an exhausting way to work, but it's worth it in the end, when I hear from people who say they can relate to what I'm putting on the table. I make work because I know what it's like to feel alone in a situation, and I put my personal life on blast in the majority of my work in hopes that someone out there can feel like I'm speaking to them, because I am.

TLS: You received hateful messages on your Tumblr in relation to art you made about rape, and you used their words for another piece, titled "an attempt to humanize." It must be extremely difficult to receive such messages, and creating art out of their vicious and anonymous words seems like an incredibly healthy way to respond to it.

PA: Yeah, well in the past, I've received plenty of anonymous messages regarding my abusive relationship. The specific messages I address in "an attempt to humanize" were the most vicious, and were ultimately the reason I had to disable anonymous messaging on my blog. I mean, the people who messaged me these words were clearly people who knew my rapist/abuser, as they knew his name (which I had never disclosed on the Internet), and they referenced specific events and places I had also never put on the Internet. It scared me a lot - I felt very unsafe. But like I've been saying, I put my personal life on blast with my projects, and I just felt like...something had to be said about these messages, about anonymity, about their attempt at shaming me. The project has grown from me simply hand-writing these messages in an attempt to give them a life beyond the Internet, to me asking others to hand write the text. I had my best friend who like, helped me more than anyone else in the time after my abusive relationship (he was actually the first person I ever told), write the messages, and he told me he felt so bad afterwards, he threw away the pen he used. I'm interested in these reactions and feelings of responsibility.

TLS: What is it like being part of the feminist art collective, The Coven? How did that come about?

PA: The Coven is rad. I've been inspired by Laurence Philomene's work for literally years, so to be a part of this amazing group of artists is truly a blessing. Every single person who's a part of The Coven is wildly talented, and I'm so appreciative to have fallen into such a situation. Luna Dykstra-Santos messaged me on Tumblr and asked me to join and I said yes! It was magical.

TLS: You identify yourself as a "fat, hairy, brown, queer woman." How has intersectional feminist theory influenced your work?

PA: Intersectionality is everything to me. I don't identify as a feminist myself, because of the many ways in which women of color have been excluded from feminist discourse and dialogue, but intersectional feminist theory undoubtedly plays a very important role in my work. I mean, I owe the knowledge I have today to feminist thinkers and theorists.

TLS: You're due to graduate from Minneapolis College of Art and Design next year. What are your plans for the future, and what do your wildest professional dreams look like?

PA: So scary to think about. As far as future plans go, grad school, and/or maybe some type of liberal arts degree, as I'd love to teach a liberal arts class in an art college one day. Also, I'm pretty sure I want to move to the east coast. Wildest professional dreams? I would love to have work in galleries and museums. I would love to teach. I just want to continue to reach out to people through my work. I want to continue learning and growing. That's all I can really ask for.

See more of Patricia's work here.

Holly Cassell, an artist and blogger that loves to travel and has a longstanding love affair with hotels. Her floor is always covered in glitter. She writes about her world here.