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This artist’s portrait subjects: Fellow asylum seekers in the detention center

Jose Alvarez, "Carlos, Honduras," 2012, ballpoint ink on paper

If you’ve ever had your portrait drawn, you know how disconcerting the experience can be. In a compelling show of 28 portrait drawings by Miami-based Venezuelan artist Jose Alvarez at Gavlak Gallery, it resonates on multiple levels.


The process of being closely, even intimately examined, usually by a stranger, leads to anxiety over the question: How am I being seen? The final portrait will offer one pointed answer.


Inevitably, the question is one that is also asked by immigrants to a new country. Alvarez — his birthname is Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga, which he abbreviates as D.O.P.A. — had a somewhat leveled playing field, since he worked during his own two-month stay years ago at an infamous detention center for undocumented foreign nationals awaiting asylum hearings or deportation.


His drawing materials are unassuming — ballpoint pen on ordinary paper. Humility is stamped into a genre more commonly associated with an upper class.


The sitters are all men. Most hail from Mexico, but they also come from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Hungary. Acutely rendered, almost all are posed frontally and shown bust length.


Their visages are serious and unsmiling.


All but four of the sitters are named, their portraits accompanied by a short biographical sketch of how they came to be in detention. (Alvarez refers to the four that aren’t identified as “ghosts” — detainees abruptly deported, disappearing before he could learn their stories.) Many narratives are harrowing but not entirely unique. Lives marked by poverty, violence or scant hope for the future describe countless earlier generations of immigrants to America.


That conventionality makes these people more rather than less like us, which is salutary for human beings politically regarded as aliens. We “know” them, even as we don’t.


Juxtaposed to these modest yet absorbing faces is a large and spectacular collage. Six feet by 5 feet, backed with shimmering gold mica, a lush profusion of organic and floral imagery in a gamut of glamorous color is rendered in florid acrylic paint and ink, richly colored pencil, handmade paper, exotic feathers and quills.


Alvarez’s “The Promised Land (I Lift My Lamp Remix)” nods to the Statue of Liberty’s golden door, while laying at its threshold time-honored materials from the artist’s South American heritage. The portraits in this quietly powerful exhibition show people who have risked everything for a shot at what the collage offers: a painstaking fantasia of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Gavlak Gallery, 1034 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 17. (323) 467-5700,

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