Francis Alÿs, Untitled (Original), Mixed media, Overall: 36 × 60in. (91.4 × 152.4cm)
3 panels: 1) Enamel on sheet metal 36x30 in. 2) enamel on sheet metal 36 x 30 in. 3) Encaustic on linen 8 x 9.5 in., Collection of Craig Robins, Miami
Francis Alÿs is an interdisciplinary conceptual artist working in installation, video, painting, drawing, photography, and performance to address issues of geopolitical and social conflict in urban environments. Trained as an architect in Belgium and Italy, Alÿs moved to Mexico City in 1986, where he began making public performance works as meditations on the experience of urban living, and where he ultimately played a key role in the revitalization of Mexico’s contemporary art scene in the early 1990s. During that time, he painted a series of small-format canvases in which the recurring character of a man in a suit, pictured with a piece of furniture or some other object, performs various physical activities.
These paintings recall the hand-painted advertisements (or rótulos, in Spanish) that Alÿs encountered in the streets of Mexico City’s Centro Histórico neighborhood. Once his works were completed, the artist commissioned several rotulistas (sign painters) to produce copies of his works as handmade commercial signs, thereby returning the images to their original source. Part of Alÿs’s Sign Painting Project (1993–97), the triptych Untitled (Original) (1994–95) is comprised of Alÿs’s small composition in encaustic on linen, reminiscent of a Flemish miniature portrait, and two larger copies painted in enamel on sheet metal—a medium meant to endure outdoor conditions—which reflect the rotulistas’ interpretative adaptations of the artist’s subject. In this series of works, Alÿs challenges the notion of paintings as unique and original objects, and questions the role of the artist in the production, distribution, and consumption of images.