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It's the opening reception for Seth Alverson's latest solo exhibit in early September, and approximately 30 people are taking in the local artist's paintings at Art Palace.
On one side of the gallery, Alverson's Chair hangs on a wall next to a painting called Chair II. The oil-on-canvas works are nearly identical, save for a subtle shift of contrast on the yellowish brown upholstery. On the adjacent wall are two more paintings, dubbed Silver Portrait and Silver Portrait II. These twins, like the lounge chairs, are basically the same, save for a shading choice on the subject's left cheek.
"I feel like I've seen this work before," says one art-goer as he walks in from the Main Street entrance and into the gallery space. Others, who seem to be confounded by what's on display, gather in front of Alverson's exhibit statement that's posted in a notebook near two copies of The Best Part of a Bad Painting.
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"I felt sorry for the unwanted paintings in my last exhibition," writes Alverson. "I decided to make a twin for them so they don't have to be all alone. I tried to paint them exactly the same. The pictures in this exhibition are the unwanted paintings alongside the twins I made for them."
People in the local art community laud Alverson, a 31-year-old Houston native, as one of the best painters they've ever seen. Seth employs bulletproof technique and an immaculate sense of depth and scale to produce medium-size oil-on-canvas art pieces that reference 15th- to 17th-century Flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck.
Subject matter is something else altogether. Perhaps due to his dark outlook on life as well as a recent family tragedy, Seth has painted beautifully disturbing images, ranging from a contorted and deformed naked body to a blood-covered mop that looks like it was taken from a Renaissance-era crime scene.
"There's a beauty on the surface that reminds people of a really old painting, but there's also this darker psychological side," says local private art dealer and independent curator Eleanor Williams. "His paintings have the perfect tension between technical execution and themes that hint that something slightly ominous is going on."
Alverson's oft-unsettling work fetches thousands of dollars, even though he completely shuns the commercial side of the art world. But despite his sky-high talent, Alverson — who loves the Fluxus movement and the late, all-over-the-place German artist Martin Kippenberger — isn't coming close to making a living as an artist because he's unwilling to compromise his subject matter to be more user-friendly. This could be why nobody bought ten out of the 16 paintings at his previous solo exhibit.
As a result of that experience, Seth, who has shown work at Houston's Lawndale Art Center and DiverseWorks Art Space as well as out-of-state galleries, made himself perform "an exercise in futility" by painting exact duplicates of the unsold pieces, hanging many of them side by side and selling the twins as a set.
In the context of art history, painting duplicates is nothing new — just ask the folks, including actor Steve Martin, who were duped into buying fake Max Ernst and Heinrich Campendonk paintings worth millions. What's different here is that Seth is displaying legit copycats next to each other. Taken together, the pairs of artworks are an inventive, unusual and interesting way to approach rejection, something all creative types have dealt with.
Of course, some think that Alverson is totally insane for actually executing an idea that many would shelve in the image bank of absurdity.
On a Monday evening in early September, the slim and handsome Alverson, whose short, dark hair stands out against skin that's been blanched by the extended time he spends in his studio, sits at an outdoor table at Grand Prize Bar on Banks Street. He clutches a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand and a can of Pine Belt Pale Ale in the other. It's unusual for Seth to venture out on a weeknight, especially when he's under the gun to complete work for an art show, which will go up at Art Palace in a month.
His "miscreant stepchild" paintings, which he got the idea for a few years ago, will be displayed to the public for the first time. "This is the exact wrong thing to do," he says, "but I do like to do things that make me uncomfortable."
Seth, the middle of three sons, grew up in Spring. He started painting at a young age, partially thanks to his artist mom, Susie Alverson, who used to own a one-woman portrait and doll-painting business. When he wasn't making visual art, Seth was constantly in the dojo, where he earned a second-degree black belt in Okinawan karate, a first-degree black belt in jujitsu and years of judo training.
Seth's mom, a Houston native, majored in art at David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University) in Nashville, where she met and married her husband Ed. While Seth enjoyed left-brain subjects such as math, which he and his chemist dad would rap about for fun, Seth gravitated toward art. To this day, Seth says that painting is the only thing that gives him a sense of accomplishment; he doesn't want to screw that up by making art for the masses.