Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Art Evening Auction


Francis Alÿs
B. 1959
i) signed and dated 1995 on the reverse

ii) signed and inscribed Juan García on the stretcher

i) oil on canvas mounted on board

ii) enamel on steel

i) 17.1 by 20.3cm.; 6 3/4 by 8in.; ii) 91.7 by 106.8cm.; 36 by 42in.
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Galería OMR, Mexico City

Private Collection

Sale: Christie’s, London, Post War & Contemporary Art Day Sale (Afternoon), 1 July 2008, Lot 388

Galerie Perrotin, Paris

Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich

Acquired directly from the above by the present owner


Theodora Vischer, Ed., Francis Alÿs Sign Painting Project, Göttingen 2011, p. 123, nos. L31.1.1 and L31.1.2, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

Francis Alÿs’ extensive and ambitious Sign Painting series is a tour de force of conceptual rigour, collaborative might and entrancing visual fluidity. Alÿs, known for his incisive public interventions in the heart of Mexico City, first began engaging with flat images in 1993 as a way to document and liberate the complex themes and conceptions of his performative work. The artist’s oeuvre centres around and reacts to the local environment and political climate of Mexico City, and, seduced by the “communicative power of their iconography”, Alÿs appropriated the visual language of the hand painted street advertisements that adorn his local neighbourhood in order to best express his dictum (Francis Alÿs, ‘The Sign Painting Project’ in: Theodora Vischer, Ed., Francis Alÿs: Sign Painting Project, Basel 2011, p. 7). However, upon completing this first body of works, Alÿs was compelled to return to the source of the powerfully affective images that had inspired him and so commissioned three local advertisement sign painters, Enrique Huerta, Emilio Rivera and the contributor to the present work Juan García, to collaborate on a project which would span the next four years.

Alÿs formed the catalytic spark of this ‘collectivo’ which challenged and reformulated the links between art, craft and communication. Drawing inspiration from the quotidian objects and events around him in the streets of Mexico, Alÿs created small canvases which pooled his experiences into obscure and simplified pictorial scenarios before passing them onto the sign makers or rotulistas to be enlarged on vast sheets of metal. Being careful not to influence the choices of the three painters, Alÿs was initially extremely elusive about the purpose of his project; one sign painter even recalls, “the best thing was the way he said I could do what I liked; respect the basic image, he said, but improve it as much as you want” (Emilio Riviera quoted in: Néstor García Canclini, ‘Francis Alÿs: New Approaches to the Cross Between Art, Craft and Communication’, in: ibid., pp. 16-17). This allowed the conventionally artisanal workers the creative freedom to realise the character, nuance and overall finish of the paintings, inevitably flavouring them with the eminent visual roar of their commercial counterparts. These grand enamel and metal signs would inform Alÿs’s subsequent miniature canvas and so on, in a ceaseless interchange of creative vitality.

Not only does this polychotomy of creative departure present us with an erosion of the conventional categories of ‘commercial’ and ‘fine arts’ but it also brings about a direct relationship and sense of continuity between individual works. The initial paintings created by Alÿs depict mildly unusual combinations of objects and subjects, however this obscurity is magnified to verge on Surrealism in the larger works and the comparisons between the two only serve to intensify this abstruseness. The present work depicts a hand in contact with the head of a man. In the original, the hazy, masculine-looking hand belongs to a suited arm, its gesture appears malicious and aggressive, powerful even – the uniformed arm of the law perhaps. The larger work, painted by Juan García, is by contrast resolutely feminine, gentle and even seductive. The protagonist’s tight collar here has been loosened, his hat is vibrant and his skin appears colourful and alive. Nevertheless as Monika Kästli notes, “it is never clear who is moving what and why” – an observation which is intensified by the vivacious visual splendour of the large work, at once demanding the viewers immediate attention and dispelling any clear message (Monika Kästli, ‘A Shifting Round Dance of Images’, in: ibid., p. 44). The most fundamental result of this ambiguity, aside from its dramatic recourse, is the opportunity to consider the directness of advertising in a contemporary art context. The present work soars into the enticing mystery of its subject only to return to the humble proposition of its conception – the germinal urge to enjoy simple, beautiful things. 

Contemporary Art Evening Auction