New York

Francis Alÿs

Dia at The Hispanic Society of America

From September 2007 to April 2008, the North Building Galleries of the Hispanic Society—dimly lit, mahogany-paneled rooms usually set aside for nineteenth-century holdings—are being occupied by a rogue collection. At a glance, the works assembled don’t look so very out of place, save for the relentless repetition of their subject matter. The myriad pictures on display—created by many hands and culled from locales around the globe—all show a crimson-veiled woman, her face in profile. The image feels generically iconic—the attendant whiff of religiosity tempered (or perhaps enhanced) by a stubborn refusal of specificity. But disavowing the seeming one-thing-after-another logic, every iteration reveals on closer inspection all manner of distinctions.

The level of skill displayed, for one thing, ranges from paint-by-numbers mechanicity to off-the-cuff improvisation to academic proficiency. One portrait is entirely composed of different shapes and colors of dried grains, seeds, and legumes carefully arranged on a board; another is embroidered; a third incorporates a piece of fabric for reality effect. Many strive for the exactitude of the book or magazine plates they are likely based on; others give the impression of loose renditions of loved ones or even self-portraits, only thinly veiled by subject matter. (One of my favorites, with a boldly printed signature that reads RICHARD R, has the squarest jaw I’ve ever seen on a woman.) Four of the profiles face in a different direction from the majority; a number tinker with the standard elements, offering a green cloak, for instance, or shifting the seating to three-quarters profile. To point out that some are “better painted” than others is perhaps too obvious; more compelling is the way in which, in the face of all these faces, such qualitative distinction feels somehow beside the point.

That the nearly three hundred pictures on view depict the arguably protofeminist Saint Fabiola may at first elude many viewers. However, such generally under-the-radar status doesn’t preclude the figure’s local popularity. Fabiola was a Roman matron from the fourth century who decided to divorce her abusive husband at a historical moment in which such separations were not looked kindly upon. Remarrying a kinder, gentler man only to have him die, she opted for penance and public service. Welcomed back into the church, she devoted herself to the sick and, most notably, to the service of abused women. Unsurprisingly, the need for such a protector, symbolic or otherwise, persists and partially explains the proliferation of homemade renderings.

If I only mention Francis Alÿs here, near the end of this review, it’s because the artist responsible for the Fabiola project is also somewhat tangential to it. Alÿs, who is known for his particular brand of romantic-political Conceptualism, began collecting images of Fabiola almost twenty years ago. At first stumbling on but eventually seeking out images of the saint (it seems likely that all of those he found were produced in the twentieth century, even if many of them look much older due to intentional aging processes utilized by the makers or to less than gentle handling over the years), he has now amassed a formidable number. From the pristine to the dog-eared, all refer to a now lost “original” painted in 1885 by Jean-Jacques Henner. But Alÿs’s presentation of so many “replicas” indebted to this source seems less a comment on repetition, postmodern pastiche, or high-low dialectics, and more an inquiry into the ways in which one instance of faith-based representation has precariously persisted. Materially stubborn and surprisingly affective, the exponentially reproduced Fabiola (in the effusively non-white-cube space of the Hispanic Society but also in uncounted and unmapped additional locations, as sold in flea markets and forgotten in attics) refuses to bend to the confines of a mere conceptual exercise. To his credit, Alÿs, whose gesture here seems more tender than authorial, does his best not to pen her in.

Johanna Burton