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Now you see them: The tricky world of the Amazing Randi and Jose Alvarez

Artist Jose Alvarez, husband of magician James Randi, displays new work in Hollywood.

After decades spent exposing faith-healing fraudsters and sending millionaire psychics into bankruptcy, magician James Randi wasn't about to pull a disappearing act now. On a muggy August afternoon in Miami, Randi arrived to pick up his husband, artist Jose Alvarez, from a two-month stretch at Krome detention center. From the street, Randi watched the barbed-wire entrance open and close without Alvarez passing through it, so he waited longer. When Alvarez finally emerged sometime after midnight, Randi and Alvarez embraced under the bright streetlamps.

"I would have stayed until the rising of the sun the following day, if necessary," Randi recalls. "That's what partners do."

Randi and Alvarez, who live together in Plantation, are the focus of the award-winning documentary "An Honest Liar," screening this week in South Florida theaters. If the film is a chronicle of the renowned magician-turned-crusader known as "the Amazing Randi," it's also about another deception at the center of Randi's life. In September 2011, police arrested Alvarez, Randi's partner of 25 years, and charged him with identity theft and falsifying a passport. He pleaded guilty to both charges. Now, Alvarez, born Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga, is plotting a comeback with his new art show, "As Far As the I Can See," opening Friday, March 27, at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Now billing himself as "Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.)" in professional circles (the acronym is his name), Alvarez labels his exhibition a show about "healing." In a sprawling display that covers the center's four galleries and courtyard, dozens of pop-psychedelic murals, photographs and paintings draw from science, mysticism, and Alvarez's globetrotting career as Randi's assistant.

"Dude, it's been so beautiful," says Alvarez, 51, whose three-year probation is scheduled to end May 29, according to his criminal lawyer, Susan Dmitrovsky. "It felt like Randi, my friends, Jane [Hart, the Art and Culture Center's curator], my art gave me this lifeboat that made me safe for my situation. I'm talking from a place where I felt so debased and erased. To be elevated to the point where I can regain my voice, it's been healing."

Randi agrees. "I hold him together in one piece, really," he says. "When I see the progress that Jose has made, how his style has changed over the years, and how he has innovated so many new things into his work, I'm a bit astonished. I think he's a bit of a magician himself."

Randi, 86, is gaunt, elfin and bald, with a white beard he jokingly describes as "wizardlike." A framed poster on the wall inside their two-story Plantation home is emblazoned with the words "The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold!" and shows the tuxedoed magician standing triumphant next to a four-foot-tall padlocked milk can from which he escaped. His upstairs study is filled with pictures of author Isaac Asimov, a medical skeleton and his 4,000-volume library on mysticism, astrology, UFOs and witchcraft.

The book collection used to be housed at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), the Fort Lauderdale nonprofit that Randi shuttered in 2014. Since 1996, the JREF has offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can prove his or her psychic abilities. Of course, the prize remains unclaimed.

"I even trimmed it down a great deal," Randi says of the library, gesturing to it from an armchair. "I eliminated 40 volumes on aromatherapy. What a waste of space, you know?"

In the 70 years the Canadian-born Randi has performed magic, he spent 40 of them as a skeptical crusader, debunking faith healers, spoon-bending mentalists and psychics. When Randi wasn't freeing himself from straitjackets over Niagara Falls or appearing on "The Tonight Show" — he was a guest of Johnny Carson 32 times — he played the foil to alleged psychic Uri Geller in a well-televised feud. He has also, in no particular order, won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant; decapitated Alice Cooper with a prop guillotine during one of the shock rocker's concerts (he survived); and, in the late 1980s, went on the warpath against hoodwinking mystics who claimed to channel 1,000-year-old deities.

Alvarez met Randi at the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale a few months after arriving in South Florida on a student visa. They connected over a shared passion for amateur astronomy. The Venezuelan-born Alvarez fled Caracas in 1987 to escape persecution in his neighborhood against gays. He says military police pressed guns to his forehead and threatened to kill him.

"Randi and I are an odd couple," says Alvarez, who in 1987 bought a fake ID at a Fort Lauderdale nightclub. "He's rational and militant, in a sense. I'm more philosophical, spiritual. He's a sounding board for all my problems, and whatever he says, he's always right."

Alvarez says he "did what I had to do" to conceal his identity, and that Randi wanted to protect him.

"Let me put it this way: If someone sees somebody in harm's way, they will try to keep him safe. You'll do whatever is necessary to save him," says Alvarez, adding that he's not "allowed" to apply for citizenship. His immigration attorney, John Pratt, says the Immigration and Naturalization Service has agreed not to deport him.

"I'm happy the real Jose Alvarez applied for a passport, which got me arrested," Alvarez says. "I'm relieved that the secret is out."

In an effort to expose the public's and the media's gullibility, and to outwit psychic fraudsters, Randi asked Alvarez to become one. They dreamed up the shamanistic seer "Carlos," a 2,000-year-old spirit inhabiting the body of a 19-year-old Venezuelan. Alvarez and Randi created fake press releases and newspaper clippings touting the "Carlos" act, which involved stopping his heart onstage (a trick) and using crystals to channel psychic power.

Over the past week, Alvarez has been busy transporting his works to the Art and Culture Center from their Plantation home. Paintings created since his release are scattered throughout the house. Unframed canvas works, laid out on the island kitchen countertop, show flowers and nautilus shells rendered with vibrant swirls of color.

At the center, photographs show Alvarez examining moon rocks at Houston's NASA Space Flight Center and reprising his role as "Carlos" with the Sydney Opera House in the background. In the main gallery, works bearing titles such as "The Active Side of Infinity" and "The Promise of a Better Tomorrow" are studded with feathers, African beads, porcupine quills and gold mica crystals. Alvarez says he is creating "portraits of alternate universes."

Curator Jane Hart says her relationship with Alvarez began in late 2012, after a judge sentenced the painter to six months' house arrest. He showed up at the center to fulfill 150 hours of mandatory community service. Hart never met him in person, but recalled his performance-art travels as "Carlos" at the Whitney Biennial and his murals at Gavlak Gallery in Palm Beach and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.

Hart says she felt "gobsmacked" when Alvarez mentioned his name "so modest and humblelike" on the first day of community service, after hours of "tedious work" that included "polishing chandeliers."

"I'm just completely awestruck by his work," Hart says. "It's like looking through a microscope at the whole framework of the universe. You see butterfly wings and flowers and nature forms and crystals, but also deep space. He deserves to be in the international spotlight, as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully, this show will be a precursor to that happening."

"Jose Alvarez (D.O.P.A.): As Far As the I Can See" will open with a reception 6-9 p.m. Friday, March 27, at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St. Admission is $10. An artist talk will be held 2:30 p.m. April 18, and an 11:30 a.m. May 2 screening of "An Honest Liar" at the center will include an appearance by Randi. Call 954-921-3274 or go to ArtAndCultureCenter.org.

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