Francis Alÿs

Galería Ramis Barquet

The twin series of paintings in Francis Alÿs’ recent gallery show probably originated as illustrations to the urban interventions he executed after moving to Mexico City from Belgium five years ago. While the spirit of those ephemeral pieces swiftly spread among the work of many young Mexican artists—including that of Gabriel Orozco—Alÿs’ paintings evolved into works that defamiliarize our viewing habits.

In “The Liar,” 1993–94—a series of strangely delicate paintings in resin, wax, and oil—an archetypal clerk in a standard gray suit is the agent of seemingly incoherent actions and situations. Awkwardly but forthrightly rendered over muddy, monochromatic backgrounds, this Magritte-like character sits on a bed holding pillows under his arms and between his legs in one work; arranges food and dinnerware on a table in a precarious circle, in another; and, in yet another, blindly pats that same table, a blond wig covering his face.

Alÿs apparently views the canvas as a stage for his own theater of the absurd. But beyond his disregard of functionality, Alÿs’ Everyman turns out to be a means of scrutinizing the paintings’ properties as objects (i.e. mass, volume, separateness). Having realized these sorts of properties can only be alluded to but not directly presented in a picture, we are provoked into “testing” the paintings’ pictorial properties. Alÿs succeeds in transfixing us because the oddly schematized information contained in the paintings feeds our natural predisposition to complete pictures, both perceptually and symbolically.

For the “The Liar: Copy of the Liar,” local sign painters were asked to redo Alÿs’ originals in larger formats using the traditional tools of their trade: industrial enamel paints and tin boards. Fittingly, they directed their talent toward creating visual effects rather than literal copies. The more dedicated had the pictures “corrected” and “perfected” in the rendering, the less patient exaggerated the schematization and added pictorial inconsistencies of their own. Though the sleek and shiny enamels could never match Alÿs’ luscious translucencies and softened edges, the copies, thanks to their keyed-up color schemes, are at times able to reproduce the pictorial disembodiment of Alÿs’ work. For instance, Catálogo 2-2 (Catalogue 2-2, 1994) shows an under-the-table view of a stick resting on the feet of Alÿs’ signature character. The cunning copyist depicted this stick producing a fussy lilac shadow on top of a bright yellow background. This energized shadow ends up stealing our attention away from the figure, which in turn becomes but a formal accessory. Less fortunate renditions failed to produce an interesting pictorial effect, posing the question of why one picture may engage our attention when a very similar one fails to do so.

The “Copy of the Liar” might seem to fit well within the now clichéd discourse surrounding the death of the author, as well as within the fashionable scavenging of the realm of kitsch. Nevertheless, the “Copy of the Liar” manages to be more than the latest art fashion precisely because the success of the copies as paintings is conditioned neither by the aura of “the signature” nor by the pretense of “critical engagement.”

Yishai Jusidman