Ineffable and uncanny, like the ungraspable lingering of a recurring dream, these four paintings, all Untitled, 1993-4, are part of Francis Alÿs’ celebrated Sign Painting Project, a collaborative enterprise which came to fruition in 1993. Each work in this grouping depicts a variation of a silhouetted man, seated upright on a chair. Shrouded in mystery, the anonymous figure is repeated in four separate compositions of differing dimensions. In each, a pitcher is perched precariously atop the protagonist’s knee: it balances implausibly, defying all laws of gravity. The surrealist iconography at play in these works is strikingly evocative of René Magritte’s dreamlike and illusory paintings of similarly suited and generic men, as in his seminal work The Great War of 1964. As if in homage to Magritte, Alÿs’ suited, seated character exudes an analogous air of intrigue and detachment. Cuauhtémoc Medina describes this ‘lone man, an archetype of the modern subject, dressed in a suit and tie and involved in a number of sculptural fantasies’ which characterise Alÿs’ work of this period. These he defines as ‘figurative translations of imaginary transitions between objects and the body, in which body parts and everyday things collided, fused and overlapped with the same unassuming magic of street situations’ (C. Medina, ‘Fable Power’ in Francis Alÿs: Cuauhtémoc Medina, Russell Ferguson, Jean Fisher, London 2007, pp. 82 – 86). It is this unassuming magic, which sees the quotidian infused with the peculiar, that is so compelling in Alÿs’ work.
The Sign Painting Project emerged on the one hand from the 16th century collective tradition of the painters’ workshop, and on the other from the abundance of hand-painted advertisements that lined the streets of his neighbourhood in Mexico City. Enthused by these vastly different practices, Alÿs established an interactive dialogue between his own paintings and those of three local rótulistas (sign painters): Juan García, Enrique Huerta and Emilio Rivera. Seeking to challenge notions of authorship and authenticity, Alÿs created a body of small oil paintings based on the flat, bright and vivid street signs; these were then translated back into larger works by the rótulistas, much like the street advertisements that had originally inspired them. Indeed, in the present group, one of the smaller oil paintings by Alÿs (iv.) has been interpreted and enlarged by the sign painters in two corresponding works on enamel on tin and oil on canvas respectively (i. and ii.). An additional work (iii.), an oil on canvas painting composed by Alÿs in 1993, invigorates this set with a further dimension of dynamism and enigma. As the project developed, Alÿs began to create more works based on the rótulistas’ interpretations, further blurring the lines of origin and originality. With its bright hues and entrancing simplicity, this beguiling selection of works provides a titillating insight into Alÿs’ innovative project from this pivotal period in his career.