When the painting paints itself – about Alicia Paz
One finds in the work of Alicia Paz a delicate balance of strong pictorial engagement and thoughtful distance.
A certain ease and virtuosity permeate her paintings, as well as a subtle irony. Alicia Paz is a serious and talented artist, and she positions herself with lucidity in her own time. The medium of painting, so often said to be at its end, has attained a new vitality. This is true even beyond our borders, where already in 1993 Thomas McEvilley diagnosed the “return of the exiled”. This is also true in France thanks in part to the contributions of young women painters such as Michaele Schatt, Valérie Favre, Carole Benzaken, Sylvie Fajfrowska, Rebbekah Berger, to mention but a few. Such painting in renewal develops in entirely new conditions.
On the one hand, the medium can no longer tackle its subjects in a state of innocence. Innumerable channels and means of communication are means of escape for the never-ending stream of images that reflect our society, and through which society reflects upon itself. Let us think of “reflection” in all its wealth of meaning: as thought, as a mirror, as a form of self-consciousness. Painting cannot simply devote itself to the service of reflection, as if this flux of images did not exist.
Neither can it develop a critical deconstruction of itself, its elements, its theories, or of its ends, after all of the formalist approaches that have become attached to the analysis of this practice and its purification. Basically, there is nothing left to deconstruct, unless perhaps one does it sniggeringly in an ironical manner that has become somewhat tedious.
Precisely due to these critical/formalist discourses that have so marked XXth century art, painting cannot yet present itself again with conviction and innocence as an activity or as a body of work that is sufficient unto itself. However one looks at it, there is considerable guilt in resurrecting naïveté.
Such a situation is intensely constraining. It does impose limits with respect to any positive aspect, as if it were obviously necessary today to adopt a particular approach. The choices available to the artist are determined by exclusion; one cannot be excessively literal or ironic, but rather, one must rely on an accurate reading of contemporary conditions, and have confidence in the means if this art.
Such resources can include the use of colour and surface, as well as the use of appropriation of media images. Mannerisms and narcissistic effects, however, are better left aside in favor of a direct approach, as is clearly evident in the work of Alicia Paz: her paintings avoid cumbersome detours and address the point directly, arriving at a particular kind of image.
As to the intellect, it must be accounted for with everything that we know of history, as well as our undisclosed ability to move ourselves through images.
As we are, we bring to painting today considerable visual baggage, saturated with a multitude of styles, periods and schools, as well as with countless ways of making and manipulating images, ranging from painting itself (its share is more and more restricted) to cinema, advertising and television.
It is therefore natural that we think of our world as one filled with images and narratives – and disoriented within those images and narratives. There were, not so very long ago, extensive periods in culture in which images were rare and their inter-connectedness reduced, when painting was determined as much by style as the effect of its images was powerful. The contemporary situation is quite different: it is one of stylistic pluralism, of images that have become commonplace, and of our ability to move freely among them. Alicia Paz takes all this into account. Her work associates art-historical references with images deriving from popular culture and formal pictorial methods. Historical references include Goya and Velazquez, but also take into account along the way various clichés of modernism: drippings, monochrome backgrounds, scraped layers of fresh paint. Images that have become commonplace are those of art of the past (being henceforth part of our visual universe by way of an “imaginary museum” which has shifted towards advertising) but also those of XVIIIth century German porcelain, or even stuffed animals and clowns from the world of children’s toys and contemporary kitsch objects. There is a relationship between Alicia Paz’s iconography and that of artists such as Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley, in that their work is rooted in American popular culture and in a kind of post-pop art developed in the context of a junk culture that has gone from the desire to consume to satisfaction with that which is fake.
In her pictorial approach, Alicia Paz not only invokes the theme of the painter aping reality, as well as that of Vanities and other allegories of painting, but also uses the effects of heavily textured surfaces, splashes, stains and marks. The technique of acrylic paint plays a part in this economy: its speed is very modern but it also permits one to ape (always the ape!) the effects of languor, sedimentation and richness. The paintings are enveloped in a kind of perfection, plastic and smooth.
All of this, however, could amount only to an intellectual mixture.
I am not really one to encourage silliness in painting but the intellect may also be too sterile and to versatile in a field where in the end feelings and sensations are what make the difference. The problem with many contemporary painters who make, more or less explicitly, the same diagnosis as that which I have just described is that they are sometimes too intellectually removed from a situation in which it is almost absurd and, in any event, ridiculous to become involved. If one has the feeling of knowing much about everything, and furthermore, of no longer being able to adopt a viewpoint on anything (not even one’s own, since even identity itself is fragmented in time), the remaining solution is to be flexible and to know how to move while in constant metamorphosis. This explains a distinct and seductive tendency today towards versatility as a strategy that allows both escape and supremacy. As the artist’s multiple masks parade one after another, she or he can claim avoidance of the system’s appropriation. Except that such mutations are condemned to another form of appropriation: the principle by which change itself is ruled.
Alicia Paz has said herself that she has been tempted by formal eclecticism. The paintings she presents today however are evidence, on the contrary, of a decisive choice of vocabulary. A strong coherence brings together in each work allegories of painting, a collection of stylistic traits, the choice of cultural images seen indifferently as highbrow or popular culture. What synthesizes these elements is not their juxtaposition, although there is an affinity between them. The synthesis emerges something like a narrative: each canvas conveys the doing of the painting. Pencils form a grid in front of a fragment from Velazquez, itself crossed-out with pencil strokes. A clown paints his self-portrait in the form of a skull. A stuffed bunny paints over a work by Goya with an industrial paint roller. A rough-painted porcelain monkey turns around in order to paint the background. Each painting is painting itself. The subjects ape the artist, while she herself apes tradition: which itself comes back to us directly as an image of highbrow and popular culture inextricably linked. We travel in time only to return to our visual universe and simultaneously we enter into the illusion only the better to rebound from the raw canvas or some material sign of paint.
Alicia Paz states: “I wish to make paintings that describe the world and yet see themselves as an integral part of that world”. She has, in this respect, an acute sense of our experience in a society in which everything that happens and everything we do is continually channeled into a complex circle of reflections: we see things but we also see ourselves seeing them, through all the means available to us. Surveillance cameras, news cameras, or microphones, dealing with live situations and in real time, are the paradigm of such proliferating reflection: we see ourselves seeing what we see, we see ourselves doing the things that the screen helps us to do. In this socially generalized reflection that engenders a new system of vision, and, even more, of individual identity, art today has a particularly ambiguous position and, as a result, a rather difficult one. It reflects and it allows one to see, simultaneously. It is a reflection and it permits reflection. As commonplace as an advertising image and yet searching for a bit more clarity. In fact, it would be more appropriate to say that art allows one to see when it does more than simply reflect.
My feeling is that Alicia Paz’ subtlety as an artist lies precisely here, in the fact that she doesn’t only reflect a situation but recomposes it in a suggestive manner. The painting paints itself. This gives us pleasure and also a little clairvoyance.
Yves Michaud 24/11/96