Dekorationsteller feat. The Ugly Man (Decorative Plate feat. The Ugly Man, 2011), the first painting in Francisco Sierra’s solo exhibition Avalon, set the tenor for the rest of the show. On a large canvas a highly realistic, simple plate is suspended over a blank background; the plate’s portrayal in oils includes its crude biro decoration of a man’s profile, marked by a grotesque, beaky nose. From the plate’s rendering it is immediately apparent both that Sierra can paint rather well and that he eschews the po-faced solemnity of most photorealist painters, Switzerland’s best-known proponent Franz Gertsch among them. The plate hangs in an antechamber to the first gallery, filled with smaller recent paintings, that further demonstrate Sierra’s wont to insert anachronistic elements within otherwise timeless arrangements. Death Mocking Waltz (2013) is an elaborate lidded glass vase filled with liquid in which a skull is almost submerged; even if the method of the skull’s insertion through the narrow neck is a mystery, the setup is plausible and the execution in oil on board perfect – a prototypical memento mori against a dark backdrop – were it not for the wisp of saccharine pink synthetic net rising to the surface of the liquid that niggles the eye.
The next gallery houses the seven-painting series Formology of Avalon I–VII (2013), large canvases on which various reliefs made from unfired clay painted white are represented in a lifelike manner. Sierra’s illustrations show different hues of light dancing over the porous surfaces and soft shadows; some are formal arrangements of abstract shapes, others edge towards figuration, like the three circles down the centre of a s-shape in Formology of Avalon V that evoke a Pierrot’s oversized buttons. Opposite these stands the sole sculpture in the show, I’ll make you a tiger (2013), a larger-than-life hook between a gracious stork and a letter-opener in brown lacquered rigid foam. The final room houses just three large paintings: firstly one of Sierra’s unfired model tea and coffee set images, The brilliant Antagonist (2010); then the scene Im Park (In the Park, 2011), that at first glance seems saccharine – a woman in an opulent, off-the-shoulder evening gown is seated in a landscape painted with detail Gertsch would be proud of – till the magic realist details become apparent, for she is perched on a giant meringue with a Hitler moustache whose spindly arms clutch a pink-jacketed edition of Mein Kampf. The third is The New God (2013), a multicoloured tangle of intestinal gelatine or gelatinous intestines against a green backdrop.
Even though this exhibition omits several facets of Sierra’s practice – neither his naïve, scurrilous gouache paintings nor the ballpoint drawings on paper are here, though included in a concurrent solo exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Solothurn and a joint catalogue of both exhibitions has been produced – it is clear how aberrant his work is compared to that of his Swiss peers. Sierra is bizarrely attached to outdatedly technical, highly attentive painting. Yet, in so doing he realises works in the wrong scale: parlour pieces are blown up for the ballroom. Painting so realistically – so he can render the unlikely as perfectly plausible – he has the tools of devastating observational critique at his disposal. Nonetheless, he remains generous, sensitive even. In this exhibition there is an awareness of other artists’ current concerns, about making and commissioning, say. The catalogue reveals that the artist’s wife, Noëlle-Anne Darbellay, has fabricated many of Sierra’s subjects. These untethered, floating subjects are akin to digital collages, with a related investigation of flatness and depth. These convergences further underscore Sierra’s idiosyncrasies, and make his clarity of vision all the more laudable.