Alex Becerra: Descarga Heavy
September 24 through October 29, 2022
By LYLE ZIMSKIND, October 2022
The woman staring back over her shoulder at us in “Blue Note,” stand-up bass held close by her side, may not be the only nude, but she is a uniquely uncovered figure in Alex Becerra’s show of new works at the Various Small Fires gallery in Los Angeles. The smooth, two-dimensional images painted in acrylic directly onto several of the other canvases in Descarga Heavy are mostly concealed underneath bold, textural layers of oil paint. Two additional pieces, “Figures in the Park” and “Grazing in the Grass,” by contrast, feature the artist’s characteristically expressionistic body figures popping out from flat surfaces uninhabited by the ghosts of complementary hidden compositions.
“I was skeptical whether I’d even show this one to the gallery,” Becerra recalls thinking when “Blue Note” was finished, because he hadn’t intended for it to be visible to us without the disruptive juxtaposition of a more viscerally produced oil work on top of it. “It was supposed to be the underpainting.”
Uniquely exposed to the viewer, “Blue Note” does evoke a different kind of reaction than the other works in this show. In “Sola” the similarly long-haired woman in the acrylic underpainting is barely seen peeking out through a perfervidly rendered abstract curtain. The nude woman playing the flute in “Pies Desnudo” is part of the oil-painted overlay that shares space with the mock-advertisement it half obscures.
The fascinatingly deconstructed oil images of the female nude and saxophone in “A New Kind of Soul” demonstrate, as Becerra suggests, “how little it takes to trick the eye into telling [the viewer] that there’s a figure” in paintings like these, which reside at the crossroad between abstraction and configuration. He also affirms the presence of an acrylic underpainting counterpoint here, as in most of the other pieces, but our eyes couldn’t discern it.
Becerra muses that he wouldn’t have been able to work this way, creating paintings with an intent to cover them up, “if I’d been taught that the surface was something precious.” Instead, as this show amply manifests, “my approach is more performative.”
Starting with underpaintings that we can’t fully see leaves the artist “room for error—something only I get to experience,” Becerra says. As a “connective tissue” forms between the initial surface image and what gets painted on top of it, the oil and the acrylic’s mutual “call and response” establishes a foundation for our rich encounter with these finished pieces.
Becerra, who grew up in Piru and now has his studio in Inglewood, initially studied experimental music in art school before committing to painting, and he still finds time to play with a couple of bands. “Music has always been a big part of my work,” he emphasizes in describing his “multi-sensory approach to art-making.” Even the exhibition’s name, Descarga Heavy, is based on a Spanish-language slang term for a complex improvised jam session.
Perhaps the most autobiographical object in the whole show is the only one that isn’t a painting hanging on the gallery walls. Sitting under a protective canopy in the Various Small Fires entrance courtyard, “Garage Fanfare” is a 12-foot-long green automobile constructed in polystyrene foam, adorned with musical instruments, miniature paintings, artist facial casts, plants, audio wires, and other detritus. Overtly “an homage to the car culture of L.A.”, this model automobile is also a sly testament to Becerra’s recognition that the place “where I get all my best ideas is in the car.”
Becerra spent time in his 20s working with galleries and studios in Berlin, expanding his frame of reference and influence beyond his hometown, and “didn’t realize how much a part of my identity L.A. and southern California was until I left.” Still, while looking at “Garage Fanfare,” he acknowledges with a grin, “Even if I sometimes try avoiding that kind of ‘L.A. style,’…there it is.” WM
Lyle Zimskind writes about arts and culture for Los Angeles magazine and LAist.com and has contributed to the LA Review of Books, New York Newsday and KCET Artbound. He is also a former Managing Editor of the Czech Republic edition of Esquire magazine.