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September 9, 2008 - January 4, 2009 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA], West Hollywood

by Jody Zellen

"Fabiola," installation view, Dia
at the Hispanic Society, 2008.
Photo: Cathy Carver

Unknown artist, "Fabiola," painting, no date.
Photo: Francesci Esmay

"Fabiola," no date.
Photo: Francesci Esmay

"Fabiola," no date.
Photo: Francesci Esmay

Unknown artists, "Fabiola,"
selection of paintings, no dates.
Detail of installation by Francis
Alÿs at the Hispanic Society, 2008.
Photo: Cathy Carver

Francis Alÿs was born in Belgium in 1959 and originally trained as an architect. In the 1990s he relocated to Mexico City where he still resides, and shifted his practice from architecture to visual art. Although he works in many different media, he became well known for a series of paintings that he created and then gave to sign painters to copy. Last year the Hammer Museum hosted his first museum survey in the United States. "Francis Alys: Politics of Rehearsal" introduced Alys' multi-media works (including film and videos) to a Los Angeles audience. At the same time as Alys' exhibition was on view at the Hammer, The Dia Art Center in NY presented "Francis Alÿs: Fabiola" at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City. LACMA is the second of three venues to present Alys' collection.

Over the years, Alys has come to own over 300 images of Saint Fabiola. Purchased all over the world, these paintings, needle points and assemblages were created by amateurs. All had eventually found their way to flea markets and second hand shops where they caught the eye of the artist. Fabiola was a fourth-century Roman who divorced an abusive husband and later renounced all worldly goods under the influence of St. Jerome.  Her asceticism and charitable work for the early Church (which was extensive thanks to her personal wealth) would later earn her the status of sainthood. Her story became popular through mass and popular culture in the late nineteenth-century. A sentimental novel written by the English Cardinal Wiseman and a painting from 1885 by the French artist Jean-Jaques Henner helped bring her image to life. Although Henner's painting did not survive, thousands of copies have been made. Early in his career when Alÿs was thinking about collecting art, a Fabiola painting caught his eye. Over time he began to see them wherever he went. This led to his obsession with collecting them.

Alÿs' collection of Fabiola paintings are individually modest in size. Most depict the Saint facing to the left and cloaked in a red robe. While the quality of the painting and the details of the face and clothing differ greatly from image to image, the iconic persona remains the same. Framed against a dark background the Saint becomes an image of calm. That there is little variation between these images, even though they were painted at various times in countries spanning the globe, a testimony to the specific source of inspiration. Postcard copies of Henner's original painting do exist and may be the foundation of many of these images.
Not all of the installed works are paintings. There are needlepoints made from a commercial template, collages, as well as boxes and pendants. Numerous Fabiolas are also depicted facing right and wearing green (a reversal of the original form).

Although Alÿs was commissioned by the Dia Foundation to create an installation at the Hispanic Society, it can be readily reconfigured for different spaces, as is the case here. What was unique about the Hispanic Society exhibition was that it was not a contemporary art space. The walls were made of dark wood panels and the rooms were dimly lit. The paintings were hung salon style and filled the walls, hanging above cubby holes that contained dish-ware and other ephemera from the 19th century. This installation had a specific allure, one that fused the curiosity of the paintings with the specificity of the architecture. At LACMA the 300 Fabiolas will be installed amongst the European Collection. Here the installation will feel like an intervention—the artist using works from the collection rather than creating their own originals. While many people will make their way directly to the rooms containing the Fabiola paintings, others will happen upon it by chance.

Alÿs' project functions as a conceptual work. There is a precedent for artists who collect as well as for those who intervene in museum display. This installation draws from both. There are similarities, for example, to Jim Shaw's exhibition and book of Thrift Store paintings as well as to Fred Wilson's project entitled "Mining the Museum," where he reshuffled the Baltimore Historical Society’s collection to highlight the history of slavery in America.

Accompanying the exhibition is a detailed list with the provenance of each painting. While none were created by well known artists, it is telling that this documentation is included. Through his career, Alÿs has always respected and admired the work of so-called amateurs, seeking to place it in a different context. Also of note, Alÿs sent 62 Fabiolas to an exhibition in Estonia in 1997. When the works were shipped back he discovered that 26 had been replaced with crude repainted versions meant to simulate the originals. Of course, Alÿs retained these copies of copies for his collection, where they have become integrated into the whole.

This project addresses ideas that were controversial in the early days of mass media, and continue to be debated in today’s digital age. What is a copy? What is a reproduction? What is an original? What is worship and veneration, and what are their relationship to art? Among 300 similar works is there a best or better version? Or is it a matter of taste? Whether is is all seen as veneration or mockery, "Francis Alÿs: Fabiola" walks a narrow aesthetic path with assuredness.