Sandra Sánchez analyzes the work of young mexican painters Christian Camacho, Allan Villavicencio and Cristóbal Gracia, and their relation to the medium through the lens of the legacy left by the artist generation that rose to prominence in the 90s.
“Painting is no longer an autistic activity,” writes Cuauhtémoc Medina in the museum catalogue that accompanies the Francis Alÿs show entitled Relato de una negociación, presented at Mexico City’s Museo Tamayo from 26 March to 16 August 2015. The show was not a retrospective of the artist’s work but in fact featured projects produced in a variety of media.
Puentes, 2006-2008 consists of a series of actions in which the artist sought to join Florida’s coast with Havana’s and Spain’s to Morocco through “human chains” as it took on problems of migration, economics and politics in the neo-liberal system. Tornado, 2000-2010 reflected on Mexican politics as they relate to tornadoes that touch down in Mexico City’s Milpa Alta borough, focused on both these phenomena’s power as well as the calm that resides within them.
Afganistán, 2011-2014 explored war imagery’s circulation and configuration as well as abstraction’s faceoff with figuration in painting. The visit of the exhibition itself was similar to one that might be made to a theatrical stage, though not as a spectator from the stands, but rather as an onstage supernumerary as a scene was playing out.
In terms of its curation, the exhibition voiced a series of thoughts on art’s current-day status, above all with regard to painting’s place within it. Several curation labels spoke of that medium’s relationship to video and to each of Alÿs’s projects. In written statements that accompanied the exhibition, painting was considered not a separate medium but rather part of the whole, neither more or less important in terms of hierarchy, evincing no need to justify its appearance. With regard to this, Medina writes:
“Unlike the notion of the installation as “total artwork,” what Alÿs presents are random, changing and discontinuous “texts” that are transformed and revised from one presentation to the other. The complex lightness as well as visual and conceptual agility with which Alÿs relates his projects, ideas and experiences tests the way in which every painting, notation or video appears as part of a provisional society of signs,(1) and in an exceedingly eloquent fashion.”
Media-related debates are wide-ranging and as a consequence painting no longer appears as a stroke on canvas, but rather as part of a wider interweaving where a project takes shape together with other media and in tandem with digital-era image circulation. Let’s bring the medium out of focus to concentrate on the implications of “painting as project.”
Art as project is a constant in contemporary art production. A project is made up not only of the written remarks submitted to the gallery or foundation as a means of securing funds, but rather, is a proposal where a theme or need is taken on from the perspective of a number of problematics, not merely related to art or writing, but also economics, politics, poetics and history. Current-day relationships between art and other epistemological and technical realms can be expanded ad infinitum, even as every project circumscribes its own relationships.
“Art is no longer understood as the production of artworks but rather as the documentation of a “life-as-project” that goes beyond its own outcomes. This exerts a clear effect on the way in which art is defined today, since it does not manifest itself as a new object of contemplation the artist has produced but instead as the heterogeneous temporal framework of an aesthetic project documented as such.(2)”
Relato de una negociación makes this painting-related modus operandi evident in wider artistic and social realms. Not only is the painting-project relationship present in Alÿs’s work; it also appears in that of other Mexico City-based younger artists.
Christian Camacho’s Its purpose was to locate information capable of existing simultaneously in distant minds (2015) does not activate a relationship with social problems, but with problems related to production, perception and information assimilation in the contemporary world. The diptych is inscribed in that painterly language where elements like color, perception and frame allude to the discipline’s history. Nevertheless, these material elements point to a problem beyond technique and abstraction.
The diptych presents a constant reconfiguration of the gaze in other technological media, focused on the ways in which information is modified by the form in which it is presented in space. The “paintings” are formed by superimposed acetate sheets, emphasizing the current production of images in Photoshop or Instagram. The relation between planes it not generated by vanishing points or contrasts between tones anymore, rather by the CMYK colors the media permits. The hand is the printer. With regard to his work, the artist comments:
“I paint with an inkjet printer. I believe my favorite connections between media and supports are what happens when instructions reach the print heads and certain information is calculated on some kind of material. For me, a printer is a sculpture because it generates planes whose origin is not especially important.”
Allan Villavicencio’s work also transits between media in pursuit of a problem. Taking up issues like the blockage of city space, barricades and the collapse of form, constructions and reflections in his exhibitions can move from painting to installation to sculpture while maintaining as a constant the relationship between the body and the material structures it inhabits.
“We can understand the scale of my paintings, sculptures and objects as a kind of watchtower. Through the ravages of destruction, acid colors, overflowing matter and arbitrary construction, I’m after a thick, black, symbolic abstraction of thought that surrounds us as post-historic subjects—a black tide that expands in the presence of empire.”
Finally, Cristóbal Gracia initiates a series of paintings by studying a sculpture that forms part of the Ruta de la Amistad public sculpture circuit constructed as part of Mexico City’s 1968 Olympiad. Painting couldn’t exist without the question around the life of sculpture in public space. Gracia updates the pictorial language to point out to the deformation of the gaze in contrast to the initial intention of sculpture:
“The original sculpture is popularly known as the montón de papas fritas, i.e., “the French-fry pile.” A part of the project involved putting on a French-fry-eating contest in front of the sculpture as a symbolic method of disassembly and the sculpture’s destruction as well as a way of facing off its popular and official readings as it called into question the “abstract” aspect of a work understood figuratively. The red spots that appear on the painting are made with ketchup and Valentina brand hot-sauce, which moves them toward their figurative reading at the same time it simulates the quite violent action of bloodstains on a firing wall or a smooth surface, since this sculpture is inextricably linked to Mexico’s infamous 2 October 1968 student massacre.”
Camacho, Villavicencio and Gracia’s artworks share a medium but have quite different ambitions. Does that suggest the present essay reiterates painting’s already-discussed problem in global contemporary art? In Mexico, discussions surrounding painting have taken on an important role today because in the 1990s, Mexican artists now on the international scene such as Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Luis Felipe Fabre, Eduardo Abaroa, etc., broke off from the splinters of muralism and neo-Mexicanism to take discussion of art beyond geographic borders and nationalist imperatives.
A consequence of the movement was an “apparent” abandonment of painting. That said, to continue to wonder about painting’s pertinence leads to Byzantine arguments since production in that medium has obviously never ceased. What has changed is the intention behind executing the brushstroke, or the problems that come out of it. Along these same lines, Medina comments:
“Certain painting practices, like Francis Alÿs’s, place a radically antimodernist effort into the painting—offering themselves up for constant interlocution and articulation with other forms of artistic practice. Hype about what will become of painting and the hysteria that would have us forcibly restore it within a virtual media monarchy tends to distract us from paying more attention to changes in its function and the possibilities its new articulation gives rise to in relation to other forms of the visual. Once one reiterates the mythology of the apocalyptic end, or glorious restoration, to judge painterly production, the chance opens up to experience a painting newly inserted in the social circuits from which the autonomy of modern artistic practice aspired to liberate it.”(3)
I’m going to walk back on the tightrope. I understand painting not being an autistic activity not just as awareness of how modernism operates when the figure of the genius collapses; the problems practice opens up have to do with each piece’s singularities and the way they circulate.
In their materiality and narrative, painting’s problems have not ceased to dialogue with their own traditions. Nevertheless, though painting continues to demand time, this is not solely made manifest on the canvas—in the layout of what is shown—but rather, in the project of which it forms part. That time does not close in on itself. If painting distances itself from digital images it is because it demands an understanding in counterpoint to internet-circulated images’ immediacy. Time! Time! Painting demands a willingness to perceive and understand its relationship with problems and imaginaries where locality matters. Whether geo-political, narrative or poetic, that locality no longer operates in solitude.
Groys, Boris. “La soledad del proyecto” in Volverse público. Las transformaciones del arte en el ágora contemporánea. Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2014.
Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Un arte enjambre” in Francis Alÿs. Relato de una Negociación. Una investigación sobre las actividades paralelas del performance y la pintura. Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, 2015.
(1) Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Un arte enjambre” in Francis Alÿs. Relato de una Negociación. Una investigación sobre las actividades paralelas del performance y la pintura. Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, 2015, p. 45. Translator’s rendition of Sánchez’s Spanish-language citation.
(2) Groys, Boris. “La soledad del proyecto” in Volverse público. Las transformaciones del arte en el ágora contemporánea. Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2014, p. 77. Translator’s rendition of Sánchez’s Spanish-language citation.
(3) Medina, Cuauhtémoc. “Un arte enjambre”… pp. 33. Translator’s rendition of Sánchez’s Spanish-language citation.