in Frieze | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Francis Alÿs and the Return to Normality

Francis Alÿs

in Frieze | 04 MAR 97

At a time when much new painting seems to be caught up in a vain race of one-upmanship where uncategorical weirdness is the ultimate goal, it should come as no surprise that the most affectingly strange paintings might be made by people and processes that aspire to normality. The collaborative works that Belgian-born, Mexico City-based Francis Alÿs and his taller, or workshop, of Mexican sign painters have been making for the past few years are products of the latter sort, multi-part paintings that thrill the eyes with inconsistencies and incongruities plucked from daily life.

For his part, Alÿs does produce mildly unusual images, but the subtle surreality of his small, oil on canvas studies are anchored in everyday experiences of walking the streets, taking in the views of the city, or idling away the afternoon in one's room and are modelled after the cool neutrality of hand-painted Mexican signs. The glitches that occur in his pictures - gravity-defying bureaux, animated bed sheets, acrobatic side chairs - are so calmly integrated within the greying cityscapes and bland interiors he records that they become excusable lapses of perceptual reason, the kind of innocuous transmutation that happens when eyes are squinted, drinks are drunk, or ennui lurks in one's head. Raggedy canvases and a sketchy yet contemplative style make Alÿs' paintings seem like visual diary entries meant solely for his consumption; the enigmatic scenes they describe are so unremarkable that they must be personal.

It is when these unpretentious and obtuse paintings are passed on to members of the taller for replication that things really start to become exciting. The dreamy ambiguity of Alÿs' works is wholly at odds with the clarity, legibility, and attractiveness expected of the signwriter's craft, and the translation of his humble 'originals' into sign-scale enamels on sheet metal illuminates the chasm that separates the ideals of the so-called 'commercial' and 'fine' arts. While contemporary art, as it has come to be practised, prides itself on obscurity and challenges of convention, sign painting holds up the opposites as its highest calling, for its goals are to identify and cultivate consensus, not split it into factionalised 'in' and 'out' crowds. The collision of visual cultures that exist in the diptychs, triptychs, and polyptychs made by Alÿs, Enrique Huerta, Rodolfo Huerta, Juan García, and Emilio Rivera highlight this split, yet in front of one of their untitled works, it represents only one element in a complex system that the viewer must confront. Mimicry, innovation, improvisation, collation, elision, didacticism and personal expression all have roles to play in the visual heritage of the collaborative's output, and after spending time with a number of their paintings, these nuances assert themselves to varying degrees.

An untitled, three-part painting by Alÿs, Rivera, and Enrique Huerta from 1996 amply demonstrates the complexity of purpose among the ensemble. The model is made by Alÿs: an image of a grey-suited man seated on a wooden chair within a mostly lavender-coloured interior. Quirky details such as the stick that balances between the man's elevated right leg (raised by a nondescript white box placed under his foot) and the window sill, or the related phenomena of a long wooden member that bridges one of the buildings on the skyline outside with an elevated chair sitting on top of another high-rise, complicate the superficially simple image. Rivera's painted copy of Alÿs' original fills in the indistinct scenery, naturalises the figure and his surroundings, and attempts to explain away some of the oddities of the template. A carefully rendered hardwood floor, delicately airbrushed floral wallpaper and anatomically correct treatment of the hands, among other skilfully wrought details, give the painting a graphic solidity and realism lacking in the original version. The curious white box is converted into a more believable stack of books and the strange interaction on the rooftops is made a little more plausible with the addition of wispy clouds, architectural detail, and appropriate wood texture.

Huerta's version also attempts to refine the rough edges of Alÿs' model, and like Rivera's panel, provides visual consistency where it was otherwise lacking. A patchy background is streamlined by Huerta into a continuous flow of neutral beige from wall to floor, throwing the main figure into higher relief, and the mysterious box is replaced with a more likely matching chair on which he can rest his shoe. Huerta is no more successful than Rivera in selling the scene to viewers as something entirely expected, but his no-nonsense style portrays the given subject in a manner just as effective as Rivera's elaborate mimesis. Since all of the collaborators are clearly and equally credited, viewers can come to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of each artist's approach, as well as comparing them with the original. Alÿs likes his paintings opaque and slightly mysterious; Rivera prefers mimetic precision and rainbow-hued, cloud-streaked skies; Huerta and García are partial to large expanses of pure colour, which in Huerta's case often lean toward bright, Caribbean pastels. The final outcome of the collaborations often tend to showcase the virtuosity and inventiveness of the signwriters more than the sly machinations of their leader, a condition that has become increasingly evident as their skill and artistic personalities have blossomed.

A recent series of cityscapes seems especially tailored toward the increased participation between all members of the taller in the elucidation of a theme. In these works, Alÿs offers up relatively blank silhouettes of the Mexico City skyline that have an aura of misty romanticism about them, as if Hopper, Morandi, de Chirico and Richter had collectively guided his brush. This hazy ambiguity leaves considerable leeway for the taller to make the image more distinctly legible, and they are more than up to the challenge. A 1995-96 triptych based on an Alÿs painting of a grey collection of high-rise buildings set against an abraded, orange and yellow sky exemplifies the divergent goals of the romantic chronicler and the business-minded advertisers, as Rivera and Enrique Huerta do their best to 'sell' the city to quotidian consumers. Rivera changes the time of day from late afternoon to mid-morning with an ebullient blue sky gently striated with clouds (doubtless a psychological ploy to encourage energetic consumption) and familiarises the buildings with stable planes of cool grey, proper fenestration, and a true-to-life Pacifico Clara beer advert. Huerta jazzes up his picture with an eye-grabbing celebration of tropical colours - cantaloupe and mint green buildings, a bubble gum pink Coca-Cola sign and bright blue firmament. He even includes a jokey self-endorsement in the form of a wall painting that advertises the paste-up signs of Alÿs and Huerta, replete with Alÿsian figural discombobulation. Not only does Huerta make the idea of a Mexican cityscape more luridly appealing, he also proclaims that if one ever needs a sign with a leg dangling down to touch a man's head, the firm of Alÿs and Huerta is the one to call.

Although outwardly light-hearted and simple, Alÿs' project brings to light many of the complicated components that colour perceptual and representational judgement. The paintings that he and his workshop produce can be seen as visual analogues to the childhood game of Chinese Whispers where messages change as they pass from person to person and perception to perception, highlighting the ultimate subjectivity of representation, or more specifically, illustrating the divergent values of artistic and commercial image-making. Audiences are rarely given the option to enjoy the romantic world of impressions and the canny directness of advertising in the same artwork, but by bringing his group of signwriters into the gallery, Alÿs eliminates this judgmental dilemma and fosters a liberating, ahierarchical appreciation of diverse pictorial approaches. Cunning conceptualists might applaud his authorial displacement and pious Marxists might complain of bourgeois exploitation of the working class, but the pictures Alÿs and taller make are most concerned with revealing the wealth of visual pleasure to be found when categories are scrambled and the act of viewing is normalised.