“I don’t have any really good stories to tell,” said experimental film artist Alfonso Alvarez while sitting outside his garage-cum-studio in Berkeley earlier this week. “I’m more interested in the act of seeing than the act of telling a story.”
Alvarez is part of a loose community of artists working with film as a sensory medium rather than a narrative one. His abstract work and his film projector performances have taken him from the Fine Arts Cinema in downtown Berkeley to the Ann Arbor Film Festival in Michigan where, last spring, a contingent of Bay Area experimental artists arrived en masse.
His work layers film on top of film and slips images off their anchors. Through optical printing and hand processing he can beat celluloid to within an inch of its life down to shadows of shape and color, and in doing so knocks its figures out of this world. It tickles the eyeball.
In “My Good Eye” (1995), a piece commissioned by the Lollapalooza traveling music circus, he rapidly juxtaposed images of flowers and city traffic and a cable car turn-around and film leader together to form what he calls a “retinal massage.”
“We see things simultaneously. We make connections all the time. Our lives are not linear narratives,” said Alvarez, challenging the sanctity of characters and plot development. In his films, he says, “There is a collapse of those things into a medium.”
The way that abstract image making (both in film and, by extension, painting) takes objects and figures out of any real-world context can be confusing to one viewer or sublime to another. His film “La Reina,” a sequence of densely-manipulated cresting waves that might be the rippling cosmos or could be the folds of a carnation ends with a parade for “La Reina de Guadalupe,” a ritual for the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Mexican village.
Alvarez said his friend and colleague Greta Snider, a prominent local, short- and avant garde-filmmaker (and one who is not usually given to ecstatic revelations) told him that watching “La Reina” was close to a religious experience. Alvarez hesitated to accept religiosity in his work, but acknowledged spirituality in his color whorls and splotchy frames.
A few years ago Snider premiered a film memorial to her father, “Flight,” created with ray-o-grams, a process that puts objects directly onto photographic paper and exposes them to light. An artist who is not usually associated with hand-processed filmmaking, Snider came close to rendering the familiar sublime through an attempt to turn the material – her father’s worldly possessions – into pure light.
The newest work by Alvarez – also a memorial to his father – finds him moving in the opposite direction. The abstract artist comes close to being downright representational. “Calling All Cars” is him restraining his “collapsing” style of dense hand processing. It is very nearly linear. It will be a part of a program of short films showing 8 p.m. June 30 at Independent Exposure, a monthly microcinema, at 111 Minna St. Gallery in San Francisco.