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Marcel Alcalá, The Performance of Being (2023)
Marcel Alcalá, “Surviving the Performance” (2023) oil on canvas 72 x 54 in (182.9 x 137.2 cm)Courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery

Marcel Alcalá’s paintings fuse reality TV, queer nightlife and El Greco

Marcel Alcalá‘s latest exhibition The Performance of Being explores the fantasy of a queer utopia

If all the world’s a stage, let us have Marcel Alcalá paint it – rich, vivacious, and completely unabashed in its contradictions. In a new exhibition, The Performance of Being at Night Gallery, Los Angeles, the artist captures intimate moments of self-realisation and gender performativity in some of their most ambitious paintings to date.

“History and our familial stories provide context when we present ‘ourselves’ to the world,” Alcalá explains, “and yet we are constantly learning and changing, a process that follows us to the end. Our self-discovery, our truth, takes shape in the in-between, that is, our time here on earth.”

While Alcalá has previously cited reality TV as an influence on their work, here their reverence for art history is evident on the canvas, where influences from surrealism and the indigenous Huichol arts of Mexico meet the masters of the Spanish renaissance. The result is an entirely distinct visual vocabulary, articulating the colourful vibrations of everyday life alongside more existential psychological allegories.

When perusing the works of the Greek painter El Greco, the artist stumbled upon the image of “The Burial of St Orgaz” where a dead man is carried by a procession of angels to his burial. The scene provided the compositional inspiration for Alcalá’s oil painting “The Performance of Being” which centres a vibrant cast of characters contemplating a figurative depiction of the artist in majestic drama.

“I was immensely touched by the way El Greco reflected this idea of performance,” Alcalá tells Dazed. “I wanted to see myself in this image. Not dead, but in a state of otherness, maybe a deep sleep, in which my family, my younger self, and friends would be watching over me, in the performance of being.”

Distinguished by a spirit of camp that hails from their days performing in drag as a clown archetype called Payasa, Alcalá’s paintings are a vivid tableau that simultaneously conjures and challenges the queer utopian impulse, depicting the curation of life as a necessity and refuge.

“My safe spaces are the drag clubs, bars, and dinner parties where queer people are the main characters” - Marcel Alcalá

“When I hosted readings and writings as Payasa, I would use drag to generate dialogue about serious issues in our world,” they say. “Drag made it more fun to talk about such things and I’m starting to realise that the elements of fantasy in these works do the same.”

In the piece “Presence of Mind”, Alcalá redresses the shame attending the Catholicism of their childhood by creating a site of self-invention. A figure wearing an adorned cape – based on a queer wrestler the artist knows – strikes a pose on the steps of a gazebo topped with a crucifix, claiming the religious symbolism as their stage.

“My safe spaces are the drag clubs, bars, and dinner parties where queer people are the main characters,” says Alcalá. “My paintings are an outlet to celebrate my otherness and that of my community, in much the same way that costumes are a means by which to perform a heightened version of myself. Since the world is overly focused on everyone’s gender, identity, and sexuality, I enjoy playing with this fixation, turning it on its head.”

Also honoured in the exhibition is the duality of Alcalá’s Mexican American heritage and its role in the presentation of their queerness. “My Abuelas Cactus” evokes memories of the artist’s grandmother cast against the colourful paper decorations hung during the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos [Day of the Dead].

“To be Mexican is to be in a constant state of vibrant, colourful culture, a celebration of life and death, and a part of ancient histories that connect you to the very soil you stand on,” says Alcalá. “In this community where grandmothers reign supreme, having fun is an essential means by which everyone comes together in light of the poverty, violence, or darkness they may face. I think this empowering way of life made it more comfortable for me to come out and to find hope through creative expression.”

Cutting through the transcendental masks of Alcalá’s theatre is a real and diaristic reflection on what it means to be alive and surrounded by the compassion and community of both their chosen and birth families. “I think the utopia I speak of is in the community in my life,” the artist concludes. “Due to the current political climate in America, I’ve started to believe that there is no absolute utopia and that this is OK. Culture is informed by its perfections and imperfections alike.”

The Performance of Being is showing at Night Gallery, Los Angeles from March 25–April 29, 2023. 

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