The rectangular room is dominated by a wooden table. About ten metres long, covered in Perspex and surrounded by stools, it displays drawings of human figures and animals, handwritten text, lists and found images. The items have been arranged apparently at random, although there appear to be occasional echoes of the layout in the adjacent galleries. The assemblage looks like a work in progress frozen in time, as if somebody had decided meticulously to register the contents of an artist's studio and expose them to the scrutiny of the outside world.
Each gallery seems to be the end-product of a process that began with the items on the table. Around 40 small-scale oil and encaustic paintings occupy the walls with a mixture of the conventional and the capricious - some are individually lit from above and, more notably, one hangs on its own in the corner of a large darkened room.
For those who have seen pictures of Francis Alÿs' house in Mexico City the organization of 'Obra Pictórica' (Pictorial work, 1992-2002), his show at Reina Sofía, won't be unfamiliar. In his home studio his work is grouped on the walls, in the manner of a 19th-century viewing room, or unexpectedly placed in columns and corners, sharing the space with popular Mexican imagery and works by other artists.
What this display obviously suggests is an absence of hierarchy. All the paintings - and all the images in them - seem to have an equal value. Also, the inclusion in the exhibition of 'unfinished' paintings, in which some figures are not part of the painting but just collaged drawings on tracing paper, implies that the lack of hierarchy also holds true between different media.
This also applies to the rest of Alÿs' practice. 'Obra Pictórica 1992-2002' concentrates on one element of his work, without fully reflecting its diversity - individual and group performance, film installation, sound works, web-based pieces and collaborations. Alÿs extracts ideas from whatever comes to hand - Mexico City, the politics of the art world, children's tales or Plato's dialogues - and examines their ability to materialize as different artworks, stretching them to the point of exhaustion. Instead of just reflecting on them, he makes physical use of them, and the effects of that usage, like the effects of an intellectual process, can be either temporary, perennial or both.
If the performance or audio works are the temporary materializations of his ideas, the paintings are the permanent sediment of this thought process. They are not more relevant than the process itself, but they have certain specific qualities: they use a more accessible language, and with them Alÿs is able to elaborate a series of topics that articulate the rest of his production.
Alÿs' paintings are populated by a series of characters - the prophet, the liar, the sleepers, the twins, the tourist, the thief, the collector. These rudimentary figures are placed in nondescript urban or country landscapes, their gaze focused on the ground, as if they are looking for something but have forgotten what. Juxtaposed, they create an apparently familiar narrative, but their nature is essentially symbolic. The same figures reappear in different works with variations that suggest a circularity based on reinvention rather than repetition. The paintings, and the figures in them, function for Alÿs like the landmarks someone might use to navigate their way around an unfamiliar city.
With this in mind, the spatial structure of 'Obra Pictórica' makes perfect sense. But from the final room of the gallery you have to pass through the large, rectangular room with the studio table. As you do so, the drawings, writings and images become Alÿs' instruments for dissembling and reworking the paintings, recommencing a creative process that does not want to end.