July 19th, 2013

One Day Someone Will Write a Movie About This

This is an transcontinental saga with all the makings of a great story: love, lies, crime, and ambivalent truths. It starts with my graduate seminar at SVA in 1999 (actually it starts much earlier but this is when it starts for me).  Jerry Saltz would show us these thematic slide presentations on anything from advertising, to art, to world events. The artwork he showed was mostly post-modernist and contemporary, and this last category included different types of artists: students, mid-career, and blue-chip.


Work by José Álvarez

One day the theme was about manipulating people, or something along those lines, and he introduced us to José Álvarez, an artist who according to him was rejected by Yale graduate school against his advice when he was a faculty member at the time. Mr. Álvarez basically showed up in Australia claiming to be some sort of spiritual medium and started a cult. According to Jerry he collected a ton of money from gullible Australians who fell for his New-Agey made up cult. Mr. Álvarez claimed to be channeling a 2,000 year old spirit named ‘Carlos,’ and people just believed him. After some time Mr. Álvarez came out as a fraud on Australian television and declared he was an artist trying to make a point about how easy it was come up with your own religion (kind of like this jerk). A few years passed and José Álvarez was included in 2002 Whitney Biennial along with artists like Kiki Smith and Tim Hawkinson (which speaks volumes about Jerry’s foresight and Yale’s lack of it). This was the time of the Mega Art Market when biennials where huge and spectacular. His work included some psychedelic paintings and (I think) some identity related work. After that I didn’t hear much about him again but I suppose he had secured gallery representation and was doing fine.

Nevertheless that whole Australian story stayed with me and I told it occasionally to others. Then last week my wife saw me laughing at this video, and started asking me if it was a spoof and whether people really believed in that crap. I told her yes and started telling her about the José Álvarez piece. She thought I was joking too and I had to look for material about it online so I could show her. It turns out the whole thing happened in 1988, way before the internet, so there isn’t much material about it, but if you search well enough you can find enough video on it. It turns out that the story is a bit more complicated than the way Jerry told it to us.

In 1988 James Randi—a magician and author of skeptical books on the paranormal—was basically hanging out in his house in Coral Gables, Florida, talking to someone on the phone about manufacturing such a hoax, and at some point he leaned over to his boyfriend who was “airbrushing in the next room,” and asked him “Hey, you wanna go to Australia?” The boyfriend’s name: José Álvarez. The rest is on this video:

(Sorry you had to watch those ugly 10 seconds at the end) So after seeing that, I thought “Wow, what an awesome performer.” and what a mashup too! Álvarez, his magician lover, Penn and Teller and the whole Australian continent.

So anyway, I guess Carlos and Randi went on tour and fooled around the globe in more ways than one. Then, in 2011 a teacher’s aide in the Bronx named José Álvarez applied for a passport so he could attend his sister’s wedding in Jamaica and got denied on the grounds of identity theft. Soon enough he proved he was indeed José Álvarez from the Bronx, not José Álvarez the artist living in Florida, and this is where Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (Deyvi is for “David”), a former Venezuelan art student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, comes in.


Celebrated South Florida artist Jose Alvarez Accused of Identity Theft

Yep, art and life come together in one amazing, beautiful and messy intersection of interests, expressions and values. First of all, I admire this guy for taking his art to its most logical conclusion. He’s a pretty good painter as it is, and it turns out that he was performing as a performer who fools people to show them how foolish they are, while at the same time fooling those who knew he was fooling others to tell a truth (or something like that). I do not mean to make light of what the real José Álvarez went through when he found out, which I’m sure was unsettling, nor am I trying to condone identity theft, but there is something fascinating about what Deyvi must have been thinking throughout all of this. In his defense he alleges that they told him José Álvarez was dead, and he didn’t use his new identity to do other crimes. (For all we know he may have even increased Álvarez’ credit score with his earned wealth in the art world.) Whatever the case I couldn’t help thinking of Chen Kaige’s Cheng Dieyi who could not tell the difference between his artistic practice and life. I for one, try to keep those two at a parallel, sometimes they cross over, but I think that if they merged my life would be a mess.

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