Famed for His Videos, Francis Alÿs Is Also a Ravishing Painter. Now He’s Getting His First Paintings Survey Ever.

The artist has long painted en plein air on his travels, including to conflict ridden-regions.

Francis Alys Photo: courtesy Artangle
Francis Alys. Photo: courtesy Artangel.

Francis Alÿs is best known for his films, installations, and performances called paseos in which he wanders through urban streets. For the past three decades, however, the Mexico City-based, Belgian-born artist has also been quietly painting en plein air, sometimes in extraordinarily remote or conflict-ridden locations. But these artworks have never been given their own show—until now.

Later this year, the Liverpool Biennial will present a selection of his delicate paintings, its organizers announced. Alÿs completed some of them when he was embedded in northern Iraq with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who were driving ISIS out of Mosul. 

Francis Alÿs, Outskirts of Mosul (2016). Image courtesy the artist.

The Liverpool Biennial is the largest festival of contemporary visual art in the UK. This year, with an exhibition titled “Beautiful world, where are you?,” it celebrates its 20th anniversary. The event will take place from July 14 to October 28 in the port city in the north west of England.

Alÿs is one of more than 40 artists from 22 countries chosen by the biennial’s co-curators Kitty Scott, the curator of Modern and contemporary art at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Sally Tallant, the director of Liverpool Biennial.

Francis Alÿs, Color Matching (2016). Image courtesy the artist. Photograph by Akam Shex Hadi.

Tallant tells artnet News that Alÿs makes what he calls his “tiny paintings” everywhere he goes, but has never shown them before as an exhibition.

Alÿs did, however, include a small preview of this body of work in a powerful video shown in the Iraqi Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Called simply (Untitled, Mosul, Iraq, 31 Oct 2016), it showed the hand of the artist attempting to paint a battle going on around him. Later, he wiped all the pigment away. 

The Liverpool Biennial will present paintings Alÿs created during a trip he took to Iraq in 2016 under the auspices of the Ruya Foundation as well as during his travels to other volatile regions, such as Israel and Afghanistan. Another painting captures his visit to a billiard hall in China.

Francis Alÿs, Shanghai (1997). Image courtesy the artist.

The paintings “speak of the idea that he is able to move around the world while others are not,” Tallant says. Cheekily describing the works as “Paintagrams,” she notes that they can convey far more of the world’s complexity than an Instagram post could. 

Other high-profile artists presenting work at the Liverpool Biennial include the veteran French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who recently received a special honorary award at the Oscars for lifetime achievement. For the exhibition, Varda is creating a three-channel video installation from her films Vagabond (1985), Documenteur (1981), and The Gleaners (2000).

In a statement, Varda said: “Beautiful world of art, what can we do to make it beautiful? — that is where I think it is our duty as artists to be conscious, but also build something that is more beautiful than ugly.”  

The Liverpool Biennial, titled “Beautiful world, where are you?,” is at various venues from July 14 to October 18, 2018.


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