View of Lisa Alvarado’s exhibition “Sound Talisman,” 2017, at Bridget Donohue.

The works in Lisa Alvarado’s “Sound Talisman” weren’t paintings in a precious, gallery-bound sense. Rendered in craft-store acrylics on layers of inexpensive polyester satin, the large mandala-like hangings are supposed to be rolled, transported, and rearranged. Alvarado plays harmonium in the experimental ensemble Natural Information Society, which is led by her husband, Joshua Abrams, and these pieces, usually displayed two or three at a time, were made to invigorate venues during NIS performances. Yet when attached to strips of wood and suspended from the Bridget Donahue ceiling on sturdy hooks and chains, the painted fabric rectangles became more than utilitarian backdrops. They emerged as stand-alone visual inquiries that may occasionally accompany music and performance.

Bright and lively, the hangings were designed to be seen from a distance. Some were positioned parallel with and close to the wall, hinting at painting’s traditional place within a white cube. Others were arranged freely in the space, suggesting floating hallways and corners. There’s an intensity to entering a room full of these works; even before noticing the details, one feels a sort of pulsating energy. While the backs display the same medium-size printed motif, the fronts are painted in different patterns. 

Alvarado’s designs are derived from Mexican textiles, and follow formats that are similar to one another. A handful of the works are geometric, with a zigzagging effect created from small triangles and jagged lines. Lurid color combinations give the hangings force. In one piece with a fringed purple border, blocks of neon orange, teal, and magenta are accented by hot pink and kelly green. Though similarly vivid, other works are less geometric; the brushwork is looser and more improvisational, and a rhythmic scratching overrides the borders between colors. These examples have the layered feel of topography, their wavy organic movement dotted with violent blotches of red and cobalt. 

Some patterns encompass the fabric’s whole surface, while others fill an off-center rectangle set in a field of a complementary hue. In both cases, the imagery is often slightly askew in its frame, giving the sense that we’re seeing only a clip of a pattern that stretches infinitely. Small mats made of dyed feathers—a detail new to Alvarado’s practice—sit below several hangings, adding a sense of ritual. And, throughout, works seem to overlap and connect, as if they were a part of some larger geometry. 

A soundtrack by Abrams, which played on a loop unless there was a live performance, compounded the somewhat hippie-style aesthetic. Where NIS’s free jazz–inflected music tends to lock into a groove, this eighty-minute soundtrack wanders through a set of moods. With a droning bass and weaving melodies, it generates drama and even a semblance of narrative. During one of my visits—a rainy day—I entered to a warbling, cool harmony, which was slightly sad and passed in small waves. The sound component altered the focus of the show, inviting a meditative state, but the music’s predetermined arc limited the capacity for mutual activation between art and sound.

Live performance generated the strongest interdependence. At the opening, in front of a particularly arresting fuchsia banner, Alvarado played her harmonium alongside drummer Chad Taylor and Abrams on a three-stringed North African bass lute. The three musicians’ instruments, merging into a warm and open sound, underscored the connections among Alvarado’s paintings and invited a slight collapse between seeing and listening, as viewer focus turned into pure enveloping experience.