In Conversation: Sean & Val x RF. Alvarez

RF. Alvarez in his Austin studio.

Sean & Val presents a collection of limited-edition t-shirts made in partnership with artist RF. Alvarez, featuring his works "The Reader" (2021) and "The Water" (2022).

Image of t-shirts displaying works by RF. Alvarez.

We sat down with the Austin-based artist to talk art references, creativity, and friendship. His next solo show opens in New York City at the Alanna Miller Gallery on May 12, 2023.

Sean & Val: Tell us about yourself. 

RF. Alvarez: I am an artist based in Austin, Texas. My mom’s side of the family has been in Texas for six generations, working as cattle ranchers, while my dad’s family is from Mexico. Both sides of my family bring strong concepts of masculinity. As a result, my work centers around explorations of masculinity, and the display of men who are comfortable with their bodies and who are comfortable expressing emotion. 

In the past year or two, I’ve moved into more figurative work with queer themes. I see my practice of art as an active excavation, and my newer work focuses on insinuating queer narratives into the art world. My work is also referential to moments throughout art history, such as Caravaggio’s shadow work or Monet’s landscapes, and I incorporate my own story into these historical references. 

A lot of that came about by taking a risk in deciding to paint myself and my husband intimate together, in one of the pieces featured in this collaboration, The Reader. When the work was on display, a young man attending a local university told me how powerful it was for him to see himself, as a gay man, reflected in the work, and it inspired him to come out to his parents and own his truth. For me, that was a crucial moment that has directed what I want to do moving forward. Queer visibility is incredibly important to me in my work.

Sean & Val: What inspires you in your work?

RF. Alvarez: My main inspirations are Caravaggio, for his work with light; Vermeer, for glassware and tablescapes; and Monet, for atmosphere. As an artist I think it’s important to have a lot of other artists to look up to and to be inspired by, and right now we have a lot more artists starting to approach queer life more boldly. 

I also want to depict the fleeting nature of life in my work. That sense of fleeting beauty includes your relationship with your body, the love you have for yourself, the love you have for someone else, and being vulnerable and comfortable enough to give yourself to someone else. All those things are connected to the fact that we are not here forever, and queer identity is one that deeply understands the ephemeral nature of our lives and our time here. 

My work with words comes directly from his personal journals. I journal every day and then revisit my journal entries years later. I think it’s important to share these deeply vulnerable moments and to allow yourself to be vulnerable. 

Sean & Val: Tell us about the works that are featured in our collaboration.

RF. Alvarez: 

The Reader. I started with the composition from a photo by Crawford Barton, and I swapped in myself and my husband as the subjects. Off to the side, there is a removed swim brief (a Sean & Val!). The painting is about the bathing suit being removed, and the comfort with the body. Rather than change out of a wet bathing suit and put something else on, it was more comfortable in that moment to take it off and lay down together. The viewer understands their relationship and comfort with each other’s bodies right away.

The Water. This work is a portrait of my husband swimming in a cold spring in Austin, and it is paired with a piece of writing. The writing is about being back in Texas, having lived elsewhere together with my husband and then restarting together in Austin. It’s about coming back to a place we didn’t think we would return to, and being an incomplete half to a whole. I am the grass and he is the water. 

Sean & Val: Is there a work of yours that you’re most proud of?

RF. Alvarez: Based mostly on the sheer amount of time it took me to complete, The Invitation. The work features people around a dinner table. It took months to finish, and it ended up being the reason I got selected by a gallery. I took a risk in painting something different than I had before, and it took a long time for that risk to pay off, but the lesson I learned was to follow my intuitions in what I want to create. 

The Invitation, a painting by RF. Alvarez.

Sean & Val: Sean & Val is inspired by the sense of friendship within the gay community. What does friendship mean to you?

RF. Alvarez: Friendship for me is about carving out space for people, creating a safe space for them and allowing them to bloom within that space. The piece, The Invitation, is my group of friends.

You have the woman in the middle inviting you in, which is a reference to Circe from the Odyssey, where she invited the men to drink wine that turns them into the true versions of themselves and they turned into pigs. That’s why the glassware in the painting is highlighted, it’s a visual representation of coming into a space and becoming the true version of yourself, which is crucial and impossible without friends who help create that space for you. That is the thing I cherish the most about my friendships: getting together and just being my true self, unedited and laughing and being silly together.