Alicia Paz, builder of worlds

Michael Szpakowski

I’m not sure it’s correct to speak of Alicia Paz having anything to say. I know she has things for us to look at and those things could well make us feel  (and those feelings will be strange and fresh, as if felt for the first time, and hard to articulate in language, as if we are returned to childhood and not completely sure yet how to process such feeling) and we will want to reflect on those strange and wild stirrings and quite possibly to discuss them with our companions and further afield (and for some of us, I hope many, this will prompt a return to the work to begin the whole cycle again).

I’m not sure it’s correct to speak of Alicia Paz having anything to say but I know what she is - she is a builder of worlds.  A female (and this matters) demiurge. She builds worlds in which stories sweet or savage and sometimes both seem to hover before us, their narrative on the tip of our tongue but eluding, resisting, being pinned down in language. 

And this is curious because I know she is very keen on language. Whenever I see her (and more than any other artist I know) the conversation, aside from art, is “What are you reading at the moment?” or “Try this book, it’s good”.

And since I’ve started talking about her as a person I don’t think it’s irrelevant to describe her a little further, the world-builder.

She is quiet and thoughtful, with a slight air of melancholy. If you ask her a question or make an observation she thinks hard before replying and her replies are always measured. There is nothing of the attention seeker about her. You also have the sense that everything you say is being carefully filed away for future reference. The last time I saw her she told me she had spent some time recently  working her way through a book called ‘Ornament and the Grotesque’ ( subtitled: ‘Fantastical Decoration from Antiquity to Art Nouveau’1).

And, indeed, after you have known her for a while - this sober, softly spoken, smart and self-effacing person - you realise that she has a voracious and quite incontinent hunger for images. She sniffs them out, hoovers them up, chews them thoroughly and spits them back out, reconfigured, repurposed for her own use.

Big deals are trees, monsters, kitsch, flowers, women and girls, masks, dresses, pattern, jewels, absence or restraint of hands,  encasement, baubles, necklaces and of course the everyday  business and tools of being a builder-of-worlds  - pencils and palettes and brushes and the like. Did I say trees?  Trees.

And as to how she renders this world on various surfaces? Well, it has become more and more outrageous. What stands out in the early work (“ I had something to prove” )is a formidable technique, in particular some striking trompe l’oeil passages  in her virtuoso paintings of porcelain figures set perspectivally ‘in front of’ ‘backdrops’ of varying degrees of realism.

Nearly twenty years later each piece (the big canvasses but also - look! - the works on paper)  is a labyrinth of technique, so packed with energy it is as if the stuff of them strains to leave the surface altogether - accretions of glue and glitter, built up over months, protrude,  branch or twig-like, inches out from the canvas. Paint varies in its application from the thinnest trail of a drip or an almost anaemic wash to fat bulked out relief-map impasto. Sponges, jewels, glitter, digital prints, shells, Easter birdies are collaged on (and playfully, in an echo of her earlier self, these objects are also sometimes rendered in spot-the-difference paint). Increasingly sections contain passages of intensely worked patterning (and this seems to be there for the best of reasons, because she wants to). Dear viewer - look closely, then look again!

The works are full of humour. Of course they are full of all manner of other things (and this fullness - such fullness - such ripeness-  is for me what defines them) but I do want to call attention to the humour, dark it’s true, of the Beckett or perhaps, better,  the Buster Keaton or Roy Andersson variety, but humour nonetheless. A humour of deadpan incongruity - the pointed hat of the central tree bound woman in ‘Rapunzel’ or the lobster woman’s pencil (to be wielded just how?) in ‘Bête-Belle’. More generally, these are worlds of intensely lyrical lugubriousness.

Then there’s colour. There’s a danger of cliché when one addresses colour in Paz’s works. The obvious thing is what a superb (and strange) colourist she is. Colour is so vibrantly present and displays so little concern for any questions of conventional decorum or elegance. It’s an exotic bird strutting its feathery stuff.  It’s every lazy Central and Latin American cliché one can bring to mind - Carmen Miranda, Tropicalismo, Day of the Dead . But that laziness does a necessary job as long as one allows that here any hint of cliché is also a hint of transcendence. Further:  one has the feeling that Paz somehow disposes of more colours than most painters and that if one could but somehow sit down and count them this intuition would be amply borne out.

Last thing to spotlight in this all too brief survey - the female.  All the grown up women who appear in the works display a distant but quite definite resemblance to Paz. It’s not so much the actual physiognomy but an attitude, the thoughtful melancholy described above.
The portrayals of younger girls are inextricably entwined with the things of childhood, often as refracted through various kinds of popular culture. When I asked her about early visual influences three of the things  she mentioned were comic books with young girls as central characters, in a world identifiably ours but one in which witches etc. (notably ‘La Brujita Alicia’2) roamed. It would be a category error of huge proportions to baldly assert simply that this work is somehow ‘feminist’. What it seems to me, as a man looking in from outside,  it does is to portray and honour, without nervousness as to where things point ideologically a complex of actually existing things about femaleness. I find these worlds educational.

How to look at this work

Well of course, there’s the usual gallery gavotte, up close, out at a distance and back up close and this, as far as it goes, will serve you well here and should be respected. But there is more - I want you to feel dizzily lost in these wor(k/lds)s. I do, ecstatically so. 
Recourse to mathematical metaphor in art writing can be a tiresome thing but there’s one that fits here, as long as one remembers it is metaphor. You’ve heard of the idea of a fractal where one can zoom further in and in to this mathematical object, and every zoom into apparent smoothness reveals more and more detail, mirroring the initial surface appearance and structure. 
Well, Paz’s work is and isn’t like a fractal. It is in the sense that there is a rich dialectic between local and global going on in her work. When one studies an area of a canvas in detail one realises that it is an independent kingdom with rules and customs entirely of its own - both in terms of what is depicted and how. It’s a bit like London, where Paz now lives, where one turns a corner and the character of an area has changed completely within yards. In Paz’s work the deeper in one goes the more of this one finds. 
Where the metaphor breaks down is that each “local” area does not echo, duplicate or repeat the surface but is a neighbourhood, nation, world - what have you - entirely unto itself. This is rich work, not simply in the sense of an art critical term of approbation but in the literal sense that there is so much going on in it, it is so intensely alive and it makes such big demands upon us, its completers.

Michael Szpakowski 21 October 2015 

  1. Alessandra Zamperini, Ornament and the grotesque: fantastical decoration from antiquity to art nouveau, (Thames & Hudson: London; New York, NY, 2008).
  2. Oscar Szymanczk, Historia de las historietas en la Argentina: compilación, p.67 (Editorial Dunken: Buenos Aires, 2014).


Michael Szpakowski is an artist, composer & writer. His music, artwork and films are featured internationally.