Imagine if we find evidence of alien activity in outer space. What exactly would the alien’s activity be? Suppose our first proof of extraterrestrial existence was an intergalactic artist, who, while during a break from the rest of her race, was spotted by a passing space probe. Although NASA has yet to meet this unearthly life form, Alicia Paz’s ‘Untitled’ 2004 fuses Japanese monster model catalogues and glossy magazines to invent her Martian double. The alien’s beautiful visage hovers before her reptilian head as she shuffles through a wasteland of smouldering ashes. Lit by a radioactive glow, her body morphs into globules of paint with pigment trickles across her thighs and shoulders like viscous varicous veins. Propped up on an easel behind her, a canvas displays the abstract form of her tumorous handprint, gleaming from her silvery Midas touch. Paz’s self-portrait seems particularly ambiguous – is she portraying herself as a monster or hiding within a protective shell? Is her face her own, a mask, or a reflection of our own gaze?
Paz’s fascination with masks, puppets and dolls is apparent throughout her work. In a series of paintings from the late nineties, Paz lifted images from postcards of 18th Century porcelain figurines to explore the tension between the artifice of representation and the veracity of actual processes involved in painting. In her more recent work, Paz again turns to miniature collectable items, in this case, cheap plastic toys, glossy magazines and comic books. Far from being naive pawns, Paz’s company of kitsch characters appear all too knowing of their function within the paintings, to the point where it is difficult to discern whether it is director or the cast that are in control. In ‘Untitled’ 2002, an oversized Barbie dolls plays ventriloquist to the decapitated head of a snarling woman whilst in ‘Untitled (Traitors)’ 2002, a cartoon boy seems to pull the strings behind a dancing toddler. Paz’s paintings explore different levels of control, often allowing the characters to drive the internal mechanisms and generate their own narrative.
The self-reflexive element of Paz’s work is also evident in her references to the processes and tools involved in painting. Like the narrative, Paz’s paintings develop from the inside out, with the painting’s protagonists becoming responsible for the upkeep of their own world. In ‘Untitled (Traitors)’ 2002, a lanky youth touches up the background with a decorator’s paintbrush. As Paz writes, many of her works “seem to be ‘self made’ in so far as they encompass an ‘author’, as well as a motif. In relation to the art of the 60s and 70s, I underline the processelements in the painting, even though, paradoxically, the finished work continues to be a representation of that process.” Like a hall of mirrors, Paz’s paintings trace the stages of artifice between herself, her fictional counterpart and their work of art.
While Paz’s paintings reveal the mechanics of their own creation, they also manifest a tendency to self-destruct. In the mid-nineties, Paz made a series of images in which cuddly rabbits slapped decorator’s paint across a Goya masterpiece and scribbled on Velazquez. Although no longer pitching ‘high art’ against ‘kitsch’, Paz’s iconoclastic streak continues in her new work, where the characters are often under attack within the canvas, bombarded from all sides by explosions and bombs or swallowed up by gloops of paint. In ‘Untitled’ 2002, the bald Barbie looses her leg to a bright pink blast as a green missile flashes in the sky above. Whilst resembling comic strip detonations, these abstract outbursts of paint also create a contrast to the figurative content of the collages.
Paz’s paintings often combine trompe l’oeil collage effects with areas of impasto, drips and scraped paint to both undermine and assert the painting’s surface. For her new series of paintings, Paz chooses the traditional technique of oil on canvas to depict her sci-fi scenarios and urban allegories. In ‘Untitled’ 2002, Paz tangles fragments of women’s faces in a web of pulsating paint. Based on cuttings from glossy magazines and comic books, the women exude a sense of sassy self-assurance as they dodge the silver vapour trails and custard explosions that lick, curl and splurge around them. The rippling texture of the silver paint and flashes of yellow lend the painting a baroque sensibility. To further assert the picture plane, Paz punctuates the surface with silver buttons which imbed themselves in the canvas like a spray of bullets.
Paz’s paintings often resemble a single scene from a comic strip, in which all action is suspended in a frozen frame. Where previously the figures remained distinct from their backgrounds, Paz has begun to integrate her characters with their surroundings, merging their forms with other areas of paint and deepening the space. The spatial layering creates the illusion of a puppet theatre, extending backwards in discrete layers. ‘Untitled’ 2002 assembles a cast of toys, catalogue models and cartoons within an idyllic Mediterranean cove. Each creature is defined by its own painterly finish – from the slick sucked polish of the bald Barbie to the boldly outlined sapling in the foreground. Consequently, the various paint qualities become characters in the scene, using the reproduced images as vehicles to drive their own formal conflicts and convergences.
By cannibalising science fiction, glossy catalogues and second hand comic books, Paz exposes the duplicitous nature of representation and the fictional essence of painting. Paz’s canvases become artistic battlegrounds, where critters wrestle super heroes, mass produced kitsch combats high art’s masterpieces and techniques, and the abstract clashes with the figurative.
Holly Walsh 2004
Holly Walsh is a regular contributor to Frieze Magazine.