The New York-based multimedia artist, community organizer, and activist, originally from Santiago, Chile, Matías Alvial @matialvial talks with us about his origins and how his first contact with art, how he became an activist, and the reasons why he did it, all the themes his art reflects on and more exciting topics! No doubt Alvial is a beautiful human being and a really talented artist, and all he desires is for his art to empower people to embrace a future where we are liberated from social norms.
Adrian Gomis: Your biography says that you are a “multimedia artist, community organizer, and activist, originally from Santiago, Chile.” To start with, could you tell us more about your roots and your story with art?
Matías Alvial: I was born and raised in Santiago, Chile. From a young age, my mother introduced me to art and architecture. I was a chaotic child. She had a set of expensive imported watercolors that she would refrain from using… except for the special days when she would paint sunflowers and irises. She still resents me for cutting them up. In my defense, I was a child having my first take at collating! She doesn’t like my nude photography… to this day she insists I paint flowers. When I was 14, our family moved to Florida for my father’s job in an attempt for my siblings and me to learn English. He knew the language could open many doors – and it did indeed. At this time, I began high school. By junior year, I was president of the art club, and my best friend, Victoria Luzuriaga, was the president of the photo club, so naturally, each weekend we would frequent the art spots in the area: FAT Village, Wynwood, PAMM, and in December, Art Basel. My family had to return to Chile but I didn’t want to go back. I moved in with Victoria so I could finish my last year of secondary education. After graduation, we both moved to New York. I studied Marketing in university as a closeted artist. It wasn’t until my last semester that I took ‘Intro to Photography’ with Nancy Barton. I didn’t learn much. I didn’t create much. Instead of using the darkroom, I spent most classes chatting with Barton. What a fascinating and talented woman! I remember asking her how one becomes an artist. She simply said, “you just do it.” Later that day she introduced me to a former mentee of hers, Lyle Ashton Harris, who needed a studio assistant for that summer. The rest is history!
AG: When and how did you become an activist and a community organizer? What do you fight for?
MA: I was first introduced to activism in 2018 through a meeting of Voices4, a group that formed following Chechnya’s anti-gay purge and whose mission statement was “Queer people anywhere are responsible for Queer people everywhere.” I then transitioned my efforts to providing graphic design services to organizations like The Anti-Violence Project, The Intersex Justice Project, Gays Against Guns, etc. I don’t fight against ‘an evil’ per se, but rather, my approach is to get people rallied under a banner of unity. For instance, I organized a Queer Art Sale to raise funds for The Center, the heart and home for the LGBTQ+ community in NYC. The outcome was heartwarming. The participating artists were ready to help, no questions asked. We raised over $5,000 to aid The Center’s off-site efforts to move its services (mental health and group counseling, substance use treatment, ESL classes, HIV support services, among others) to virtual formats during the pandemic.
AG: Through your art, you explore various themes such as identity, human connection, gender, and sexuality. Were all these themes always concerned in your art from the moment you started your journey as an artist or have they been coming up throughout the years? Could you elaborate on each theme, please?
MA: I don’t know. I think this is a question of nature versus nurture. Am I uncovering the ‘true’ version of myself as I mature? Or am I building the version of myself that I want to be? All I know is that the more I engage with the queer community, the more I’ve become interested in its theory, literature, art, and culture. Working in close proximity with queer creatives has allowed me to expand my notions of self and intimacy and in doing so, I’ve been able to develop deeper relationships. I wish I could elaborate on each theme, but to me, they’re all connected and dependent upon one another under the umbrella of queerness.
AG: You reference artists as “the “visual muckrakers” of the twenty-first century” because art for you has the power to prompt social change. Why do you think art has that power? Does your art contribute to that social change too? How?
MA: I would start by looking at someone like Dorothea Lange, who documented the Great Depression in the United States. Once published, her photographs prompted federal authorities to help those photographed. Of course, this example plays out in the context of journalism, but similarly, the work of artists like Felix Gonzalez Torres or David Wojnarowicz had critical importance in raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, the Reagan and Bush administrations remained silent and refrained from acting to save people’s lives, which infuriated those affected. Queer artists creating work in this period of mass suffering understood that art was able to deliver a message, primarily regarding issues of homophobia and discrimination. This paved the way for queerness to be widely accepted in art institutions and the public sphere. While I don’t think my work is at the level of the artists aforementioned, I do think my art plays a role in amplifying the voices of a diverse and intersectional queer community. I hope that my photographs empower people to embrace a future where we are liberated from social norms.
AG: Talking about your influences, which are the artists or people inspiring you right now?
MA: I’ve been looking at the work of George Platt Lynes, Wilhelm von Gloeden, Lucas Samaras, Mark Morrisroe, etc. Often, people think that Nan Goldin is a big inspiration, but funny enough… I didn’t know who she was for the better half of my practice. However, I do now find myself greatly captivated by her work. I would also say I’m deeply inspired by the way that my contemporaries – artists like Jo Fetto, Leo Foo, Justin Liam O’Brien, and Colin Radcliffe – are approaching ideas of queerness and intimacy. Additionally, being surrounded by driven creatives – such as David Chan, Brock Coylar, Devin Kasparian, Camila Lim, Austin Nolan, and Em Perlman – pushes me to keep hustling. My friends’ success is also my own.
AG: You have been recently interested in documenting the universality of the queer experience through film photography. What made you pick up your camera and express your art through another medium? Why analog photography?
MA: In a conversation with my mentor, we were talking about the historical importance of the Black Lives Matter protests unfolding in the city. He urged me to pick up a camera and document the events. As I participated in these protests, I began seeing familiar faces in person again. I became interested in photographing my friends as we were re-entering social circles post-isolation. Since then, there hasn’t been a day that I don’t carry a camera on me. I chose analog photography because my summer job pre-Covid dealt with archiving negatives and transparencies from the 80s and 90s. I liked the materiality, the feeling of holding an image in your hands versus only seeing pixels on a screen. Additionally, I think there’s a mindfulness element at play. I would say I’m hyper-aware of my surroundings. Many things, people, and events catch my attention but with limited exposures at roughly $1 each, my job is to actively select what becomes captured. In an interview with Leslie Katz, Walker Evans says “I think too that photography is editing, editing after the taking. After knowing what to take you to have to do the editing. The secret of photography is, the camera takes on the character and the personality of the handler. The mind works on the machine – through it, rather.” He passed away before the invention of digital photography, but the sentiment remains true to me. While his editing takes place after a roll is shot, mine takes place as I shoot. One or two shots are sometimes enough to capture the essence of what I wish to remember.
AG: Could you talk me through your creative process, both for your fine art pieces and for your photography projects? How different is the creative followed in both mediums?
MA: I’ve come to self-identify as a seasonal artist, where I take photographs during the warmer months and work in more traditional media – namely painting, drawing, textiles, etc – during the colder ones. There is no strict formula to it. If the weather is nice, I’ll find myself outdoors socializing, and in turn, photographing. I have therefore compartmentalized my practice into two universes, one that embraces reality and another that wishes to escape it. With a documentary-style approach, photography serves as a tool to truthfully depict what is in front of my eyes. On the other hand, my traditional media practice allows me to dream and express abstract thoughts. Truthfully, my entire creative process is widely spontaneous. Inspiration strikes unexpectedly. When the muses knock on my door I have the obligation of letting them in. I work in sprints. Working for 7-10 hours at a time only with occasional bathroom breaks. Sometimes I even forget to eat. Very rarely will I plan out an artwork; instead, I ‘borrow’ parts from prior sketches. Yet, ten hours is not enough to finish an artwork in one go, so usually, the unfinished painting will rest unattended for months. I like my paintings to have a marination period (or procrastination period, depending on your preference). In a way, my paintings chronicle my evolution. This liminal period in between work sessions serves as a time to grow as an artist. When I revisit an unfinished work I am able to explore new ideas on the foundation of a past self.
AG: How do you think your art will evolve? For example, you have started with photography recently, so I guess your art will continue chaining. How do you see it in a couple of years from now?
MA: I wish I knew myself! The beauty of being an artist is embracing curiosity. I believe the most successful artists are those who refuse the comfort of what they know. We live in an era full of ‘renaissance people’; I’ve met many creatives, across different industries, that can do it all. The mainstream has celebrated Picasso for his ability to transcend media and style – which, I will agree, is worthy of admiration. But there are contemporaries working on the same level of interdisciplinary genii, such as Nicole Eisenman. As I’ve turned to lens-based work more professionally, I have found myself reading up on the history of the medium. I’m especially interested in artists that incorporated the photographic image into the genre of painting, like Robert Rauschenberg or Andy Warhol. I think this is where my practice is headed. Embracing mixed media; adding painterly gestures to an otherwise machine-mediated picture.
AG: To conclude, what does 2022 hold for you? What do you expect from it and from the future? What will we see from Matías Alvial?
MA: It’s easy to have high expectations for the future and fall victim to the vicious cycle of pursuing constant success. No matter the amount and/or level of recognition, we are often left unsatisfied… wanting more. I think a healthier approach is to let things unfold at their own pace and to cherish each milestone. I’ve had a hard time embracing the capitalist market, where we are expected to produce constantly. Art is not a product, but a way of making sense of our place in this world. This year I am hoping to keep exploring my visual voice and synthesizing all my recent learnings into a new multimedia body of work. Additionally, I’m in the early stages of publishing a photobook. Keeping fingers crossed!
Exclusive interview for Vanity Teen online in conversation with Adrian Gomis @adriange_