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.
SLIDESHOW: Miscreant Stepchild: Seth Alverson's Paintings
BLOG POST: Seth Alverson Copies His Own Paintings, Then Hangs Them Side by Side in a Gallery
"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.
Susie, on the other hand, has never approached art like her son. "When I think of painting, I think of what's going to sell," she says, adding that she told Seth that the copycat idea was "one of the craziest things I've ever heard of" when he first told her about it.
Susie enjoyed her time making a living as a commercial artist, but after working hard at painting countless commissions, she felt a ton of pressure to perfect images. She eventually pulled the plug on her small enterprise, even though she had a year's worth of clients on a waiting list. She hasn't picked up a paintbrush in years, she says, because the experience totally burned her out.
After graduating from Klein Oak High School in 1998, Seth considered attending New York City's Pratt Institute, one of the nation's best private institutions for arts training. But after the scholarship and some financial help from his dad, he was still going to owe $80,000 after four years. He instead took courses for a year at Tomball Community College (now Lone Star College-Tomball), where he considered majoring in photography or graphic design.
Before transferring to the University of Houston, where he earned a BFA in painting in 2002, Seth had one last hurrah as a martial artist. He and his sensei decided to put themselves in a potential self-defense situation by train-hopping from Spring to Galveston.
"Sensei told me, 'Grab a knife, a stick and let's go,'" remembers Alverson. "It was actually really easy and not that scary, except when we wanted to get off. We had to jump off the moving train and roll down the hill, hobo-style." Shortly thereafter, Seth, who can boast unusual talents in visual and martial arts, decided to become a full-time painter.
Gina Cavallo Collins is an independent curator who has worked for several Arizona institutions as well as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, where Seth attended graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University. During her stint at the VMFA, Collins, though she never worked with or met Seth, says that Alverson's technical skills stood out.
Collins adds that Alverson's pieces do have the potential to find mass appeal despite the sometimes left-of-field subject matter. According to Collins, the key for him, and many noncommercial artists, is to get their work shown at bigger-name museums. "Plenty of artists can have critical success in museums, who then in turn can sell to collectors," she says.
However, Collins explains that some museums are acquiring only a piece or two a year versus that same number every few months, partially due to the lack of corporate funding, which has been "the biggest hit for museums the last five to six years," says Collins, who adds, "I've never heard of anybody dealing with unsold work in an overt way like Seth is doing."
Williams, a former director at Lawndale Art Center, where Alverson has exhibited, says that even though the Internet has made contemporary art more visible than ever, Seth still needs to do some legwork in order to make that jump to more-recognized artist.
"He has to play the game in a bigger market," says Williams. "Seth's work would do best if it's seen by people at art fairs in other cities and countries. And, at some point, he definitely needs to have a dealer that's outside of Texas."
On February 26, 2006, Seth's 23-year-old brother Lance was traveling alone from a friend's house when he lost control of his vehicle as it rounded a curb. His car struck a tree and flipped. Lance, a self-taught guitarist and trained audio engineer, died immediately.
Seth was very close to his younger brother, due to their shared interests and creative talents. While Susie lamented her son's death by writing and playing songs on the guitar, "[Seth] worked out a lot of his grief through these really dark paintings," she says.
One image from that period, Mop, was completed by Alverson in 2009. The 45-by-36-inch oil on canvas started as an illustration of a scene from The Shining, in which the bathtub woman that Jack Nicholson's character attempts to court turns into a rotting zombie creature. However, the illustration wasn't cooperating so Seth instead turned to another one of his favorite moments in the Stanley Kubrick flick, "when blood spills out of the elevators and into the halls," he says.
"I wondered what it would be like if I were a janitor in that hotel and had to clean up that mess. Death and violence are all around us anyway, so hypothetically cleaning up blood in a hotel serves as a kind of analogy to cleaning up all the blood in our lives," says Alverson. "After a while, I would realize that the task of cleaning that amount is pointless. I would give up. That's why the mop is all alone."
Alverson's good buddy Cody Ledvina, who met Seth in 2003 while the two worked at Texas Art Supply on Montrose Boulevard, says, "Since I've known him, his work has always been about human peril in some way. After his brother passed away, it became about real-life peril as opposed to the fantastic or made-up view."
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.
"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."
Back at the Art Palace on opening night, a set of Alverson's abstract pieces totaling $8,000 have sold. According to Art Palace owner Arturo Palacios, the gallery takes 50 percent of the sales, which means Seth, thus far, will be taking home $4,000 for a show that he worked on for more than a year.
Palacios has seen Alverson become a more polished artist since he first began representing Seth four years ago. "At that point, he was making a lot of large-scale, figurative paintings that were pretty graphic and dark," says Palacios. "Now, they're more sophisticated, and they don't hit you over the head like those previous pieces tended to. He's just become a much more complex painter."
Seth's mom Susie explains that her son's thematic preferences aren't as gruesome as the ones from those bleak days following the death of his brother Lance because she's seen Seth attain some closure. "His pictures aren't as dark now," she says. "I hope he feels much recovered." She also says that after viewing Seth's latest exhibit during a private showing, she's come around to what she initially thought was not the best idea in the world.
For Seth, the copycat show, which will remain on display through October 8, yielded forgotten rewards, such as remembering how to mix certain colors that he likes to work with. But the titanic efforts of painting ten exact duplicates, to the best of his ability, taxed his energy in a major way.
Rachel Cook, a Houstonian who's currently in the curatorial studies graduate school program at New York's Bard College, has followed Seth's art career since 2005, and she's impressed by his accomplishment. "I think re-performance and repetition is interesting," says Cook. "It's not just about this duplication of an image. It's Seth re-performing the act of re-creating a painting twice."
"After this set of copies, he's going to be a little bit freer," says Ledvina. "I think he needed to do this show where it's something that he's never done before. After this, he can sort of clean his palette."
Positive things have been in the works for Seth since he finished his twin paintings. At month's end, he's moving into a cheaper and bigger Heights apartment that was formerly occupied by heavy-hitting local artist Elaine Bradford. At year's end, his girlfriend, who is scheduled to graduate from VCU in December, plans to move to Houston and share the space with Seth.
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Starting next year, Alverson will instruct a beginning painting class at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Glassell School of Art. A few weeks before his show opening, Glassell's faculty chair called Seth to tell him he was a fan and to offer him a teaching position. If his post-course evaluations come back okay, the school will load him with a heftier and more challenging curriculum schedule. Teaching, which won't necessarily supplant his career as a painter, has been a dream of Seth's for years.
As far as his next series, Seth will figure that out on the fly. He says that the copycat exhibit is the first time he had a premeditated idea for a body of work.
Though he successfully executed the idea, which will probably be talked about for years, there's no way he going to put himself through that so-called futility exercise by painting additional twins to keep his evil twins company. "I have no idea what I'm going to do next," he says, "but I do know that I probably won't do that again."