The first time I had a real encounter with the work of the Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist Francis Alÿs was at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), where Alÿs had a solo exhibition of three separate and important bodies of work. I remember vividly the multicolored toy sailboats lined up like ducks in a row across the museum gallery. They were the same that appeared in Don't Cross the Bridge Until you Get to the River (2008), a dual channel video work in which two groups of children set off to cross the Strait of Gibraltar from opposite coasts—one departing from Morocco, the other from Spain. "Will the two lines meet in the chimera of the horizon?” inquires a text flashing on the screen at the beginning of the video. The children advance slowly and impossibly, gurgling amid salty mouthfuls, their clunky toys bopping and bobbling.
And I remember the paintings. I didn’t count them, but I felt that there were many, and I was immediately struck by their scale: they were very small, some no larger than an index card. A few were grouped together to form a single image, such as a map of nondescript, vaguely familiar topographical bodies; in one such work, a collaged cutout of a woman in a housekeeper’s uniform stood on a piece of land but cleaned another with a vacuum that extended across the water. These intimately-sized artworks are a staple of Alÿs’s practice, and though his most beloved œuvres take the form of performances, installations, or videos, he has always produced the canvases which he refers to (perhaps affectionately, but also very much accurately) as his “tiny paintings.” A series of these works will be shown as a standalone exhibition for the first time this summer, at the Liverpool Biennial.
Currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Miami is a selection of works by Francis Alÿs from his Sign Painting Project series, produced between 1993 and 1997 and part of the museum’s permanent collection. Experiencing something similar to writer’s block, Alÿs sought a new way of working, an exercise or method that would allow him to break away from stifling habits. He noticed the many billboards in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City, where he still lives, and began creating small paintings in the flat, seemingly generic style of the signage that dotted his line of sight. Shortly after creating this first body of work, Alÿs sought out the makers of these billboards, known as rotulistas, the anonymous artists of the urban landscape. And he commissioned them to create paintings based on his own initial works.
The resulting compositions turned out to be anything but generic, evincing a diverse range of styles even within a trade meant to produce a homogenized visual language. The cycle continued: Alÿs made paintings based on the signmakers’ interpretations, then they would create another set of iterations, and so on. The project lasted three and a half years and yielded 120 paintings made by Alÿs and his collaborators (which included three artists in particular: Juan García, Emilio Rivera, and Enrique Huerta, who appear by name in the ICA’s wall labels). Each cycle of the collaboration exhibited at ICA presents the initial work by Alÿs—a “tiny painting”—along with one or more versions produced by García, Rivera, and Huerta.
As in Untitled (in three parts), illustrated above, Alÿs’s paintings are dwarfed in size by the works of the rotulistas. They sit quietly like erasers on top of a chalkboard, waiting to be needed. These shifting scales had already captivated me a few years ago, when I felt the enormity and abyssal depths of the Strait of Gibraltar in contraposition to the little bodies struggling to maintain a single file, the perceived smallness of each painting, their imposing vastness in the museum space.
“Sign Painting Project” remains on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami through December 2, 2018.