Double Jeopardy

Seth Alverson painted exact duplicates of his unsold artworks and hung them side by side to sell as sets. Is this an exercise in futility, an act of genius or both?

Seth had some good things going before his brother's passing. He was working at TAS, doing prep work at a gallery and establishing the indie-run Domy Books on Westheimer with Brasil owner Dan Fergus, Russell Etchen and Patrick Phipps. Seth was also one of the first members of a group that eventually evolved into Sketch Klubb, a dudes-only get-together that features around a dozen folks "drawing stupid crap every Saturday."

However, after his brother's death, he felt distracted and needed to get out of town. He applied to a number of grad schools — something he had done six years previous before balking at the idea — and scored an interview at Yale.

At the time, Seth was largely working with six-by-five-foot canvases. The Ivy League school in New Haven, Connecticut, wanted to see the oversized work in person. It wasn't easy, but Alverson eventually got his paintings and himself in front of a couple of interviewers.

Seth explains Hole for Bad Ideas, which is the artist's favorite in the show.
Photo by Francisco Montes
Seth explains Hole for Bad Ideas, which is the artist's favorite in the show.
Art Palace owner Arturo Palacios (right), who first started representing Alverson in 2007, says that Seth has become a more sophisticated painter over the years.
Photo by Francisco Montes
Art Palace owner Arturo Palacios (right), who first started representing Alverson in 2007, says that Seth has become a more sophisticated painter over the years.

"I bombed it," recalls Alverson. "I think they were testing me on how well I can BS or talk out of my ass to prepare for gallery talks. At one point, they asked, 'What's your relationship to museums?' and I had no clue how to answer." He instead sat there, waiting for something to be said in the most uncomfortable silence ever.

Alverson eventually returned to Texas, where he found that Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University, which U.S. News & World Report rated as the top public university for art and design, had accepted him into its master of fine arts program.

Alverson sits in his living room and adds paint to Hole for Bad Ideas, Seth's favorite in his evil twin show. The painting's middle is used for Alverson's self-proclaimed subpar concepts, which he subsequently deletes with black paint. He quickly adds layers, like he does to most of his canvases, with only a handful of brushes. Instead of making a separate copy of this work, Seth has decided to make a duplicate of the painting on the painting, which stands upright on a three-foot-tall bar stool that he calls his easel.

The artist pays $790 a month for his sparse live-work cave in the Heights, where he spends much of his time painting, drawing and sleeping on an air mattress on the floor. Because his art sales can't completely cover rent and the bills, he works part-time as an assistant curator of a private collection.

In 2010, Alverson graduated with a master's degree from Virginia Commonwealth. He still keeps up with the relationships he established in Richmond, especially with his painter girlfriend, who currently attends VCU as an undergraduate art major.

Instead of moving to somewhere like New York City, a relocation option Seth considered but eventually shunned, he returned to Houston for his family, friends and a "promising art community" that can boast a brief history of copycatting art work.

In 2008, Ledvina, who co-runs the DIY venue Tha Joanna on Branard Street in the Montrose, promised Seth a piece of his that was displayed at the "Monster Show" at Domy Books. However, due to a mix-up, Domy sold the $100 art work to an outside buyer instead of reserving it for Seth. The purposely rudimentary effort on faux notebook paper featured nothing but the word "god" scrawled across the surface in lowercase, slime-green lettering.

Local artist Jenny Schlief, who was at Domy that evening, recalls one of Seth's buddies entering the venue, taking "god" off the wall and walking out. "Everyone started freaking out" when people realized that the piece was missing, says Schlief. The work had been taken, and not by the outside buyer.

Ledvina, remembering the incident, said he had left the venue and received a text message that his artwork, which also displayed body hair and what looked like a cat's dirty paw print on the resin coating, had been stolen. "I thought it was a joke," he says. "It wasn't a joke."

Magically, "god" reappeared the next day on the gallery wall. Not because the piece had been returned, but because Ledvina, who thought and still thinks that the theft was awesome, had made a duplicate. According to him, the buyer suspected something shady and 86'd the deal.

Unlike the fiasco that necessitated a duplicate piece, Ledvina thinks that Seth's current show acts as a subtle rebuke of the art world's commodity-centric marketplace.

"I do think it's pretty sardonic, but it's also about his ability to paint. It's totally sincere, legitimate and vulnerable," says Ledvina. "He's as confused as he's ever been, which I think is the best time for him."

Schlief, an established mixed-media artist and Box 13 art collective member, thinks that people should appreciate Alverson's results as they stand. "I've done a few studio visits with [Seth], and I think he's one of the best artists in town," says Schlief. "There's a blatant disregard for any sort of trend and he really does whatever he wants."

Schlief says that Seth may never succeed on a larger scale, but that doesn't necessarily matter to him. "I think it's a pretty labor-intensive craft of love, especially when you see his paintings. He's doing it because he really believes in it and cares about it."

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Yay Seth! An amazing painter and a good person. Thanks for doing this article, Houston Press.