Finding a room of one’s own in the world

ali portrait cropped

Alicia Paz is an itinerant artist who has travelled from South America to North America only to settle, for the time being, in Europe. Her work is the receptacle of her life experiences and the sharply contrasted cultural and social environment she has immersed herself in along the way. The art education she gleaned in the various countries she lived in demonstrates itself in the multifarious and interwoven techniques she uses (collage, acrylic, oil, pastel). Her art is a happy conundrum and digested reflexion on Pop Art, Surrealism and Post Modern art with a hint of Japanese influence, particularly in her landscapes.

Having been exposed to arts from an early age thanks to her stepfather, she decided upon leaving school to pursue a career in the arts. Though she did not know what path precisely. Art practice at UC Berkeley (USA) was not specialised enough. L’ École des Beaux-Arts in Paris was a joyful and bohemian experience. It is, however, during her London years at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art that she gained a better understanding of what it means to be an artist.

Young orphan 1024While studying in the US, Alicia met her future husband. They decided to move to Paris where she enrolled at L’École des Beaux Arts. At the time, the philosopher Yves Michaud was the director. Under his enlightened leadership, the French establishment was modernised. Artists and art visionaries were invited to teach, injecting fresh new perspectives on an otherwise fairly static art scene. The Chinese-Canadian photographer Ken Lum from The Vancouver School of Photography counted among them. He took a two year residence in Paris and Alicia Paz was lucky enough to attend his seminars.  His teaching approach really struck her. Another achievement of Yves Michaud’s direction was to entice commercial art galleries to take a look at Les Beaux Arts’ budding talents. This is how Alicia secured a first exhibit that in turn led to a fruitful collaboration with Yvonamor Palix Gallery based in the area of the Bastille. She was represented by her for 6 years. Her Paris years were rewarding and nurturing but when an opportunity arose to move to London, she welcomed it thinking that it would be just as simple to work on the other side of the Channel.

Alicia had decided on Goldsmiths College over other art schools where she had been accepted because of their highly critical and intellectually rigorous approach. Having settled in London, she continued to pursue actively her practice while adapting to British culture and seeing as much contemporary art as she could take in. But shortly after her arrival, she was faced with life changing events which affected her deeply and would take years to assimilate. This put her in a very fragile position and the “muscular” teaching approach of Goldsmiths College was not what she needed at that particular moment. So when the time came to enrol for an MA, she couldn’t muster the courage physically. Her body balked at the task. It would take a few more years before she would go back to complete and further her self-exploration by enrolling at the Royal College of Art. Her two year course provided a highly supportive environment. The tuition offered, individually-oriented rather than seminar-based, corresponded more to Alicia’s needs at that point. Her early years in London had been very rich and eventful on a personal level and also on an artistic level (making sense of all the varied artistic influences and experiences she had gathered along the way). However, by the time she completed her Master’s degree, she had found “her place” in London and this final diploma certainly gave her a sense of closure and a new-found stability and optimism.

Dawn 1024Travelling across different countries and getting imbued with different social and cultural backgrounds felt a bit like travelling back and forth in time. Her first experience as a student in the US (majoring in Art & Mass Communications) after an upbringing in Monterrey, Mexico, made her realise that she had no desire to work in TV. In France, she familiarised herself with the Old Masters. She was also introduced to the Canadian school of photography (Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace and Jeff Wall). Their work questioning conceptualisation vs. reality and issues of identity in relation to language and portraiture found an echo in her painting. Yet while in France, Alicia Paz was faced with an insoluble dilemma: on one hand, her paintings were very successful and her style (quotation and references to allegorical images-her Painting Allegories phase) was much appreciated. On the other hand, because of her success, she felt compelled to stick to one genre and she also felt guilty for concentrating solely on painting while the death of painting kept being announced and the visual arts were roaring at the door.

In a way, her move to London, if painful, turned out to be also very liberating. Suddenly, she was not forced to comply with one style. She could explore and challenge herself. In fact, that is exactly what Goldsmiths College expected from her. They argued her art was too polite, too 80’s and too French! Alicia was in sync with her time and the work of Post Modern artists like David Salle, Dexter Dalwood and John Currin found a definite influence in her art. Her portraits referred to iconic figures, cartoonesque heros or pop icons. Her collage -an eclectic melange of cultural influences across countries and ages- were directly in tune with her era but her art was deemed too obvious, not digested and subtle enough. As Alicia pointed out to me: these were all true statements but how could she change?  It was not as simple as pressing a button.

Chinoiserie 1024As it is often the case with artists, life leaves an indelible mark on their art though sometimes in the most convoluted and unexpected way. Alicia has always been interested by the dichotomy between the appearance of things and their reality. Her painting reflects that tension. Their wealth of details (thanks to collages of images cut from magazines and newspapers combined with the gritty textures of acrylic and oil) renders them overcrowded if not overpowering- as if something is about to explode or implode- hence the apocalyptic vision d’ensemble of her paintings. Her exploration of the multiplicity of language, style, quotation and mannerism has a lot to do with her own quest for identity. Alicia learnt very early on that she had been adopted yet it is only as a mature person that she tried to rekindle this connection with her father. This happened while at Goldsmiths College when she was invited to teach an art class for two weeks at the National School of Fine Art “La Esmeralda” in Mexico City. The encounter with her biological father, his wife and her half sisters, though charged, went very well. However, it was such a turning point in her “life narrative” and provoked such an emotional and psychological turmoil in her that it would take years to assimilate and put behind her.Farfalla 1024

All of these experiences, as a kind of existential roller-coaster in the space of a few years, contributed to my questioning and re-shaping my practice to reflect a personal negotiation and integration in terms of identity

Alicia Paz has classified her works according to different themes. The names are very telling: Painting Allegories, Displacements and Encounters and right after the reunion with her biological father, there is Apocalypse & Utopia. Obviously an artist’s work cannot be limited to the sole interpretation of their personal private life. Yet it is revealing that Alicia has always liked trompe-l’oeil and that her painting resolutely dwells on the notion of artifice and illusion versus reality just as she was raised by her stepfather but knew all along that there was a real father somewhere out there. Another recurrent aspect of her work is the dichotomy that inhabits most of her portraits. It runs through all her work but is particularly obvious in her Artists and Monsters series where beautiful female faces (Alicia paints almost exclusively women’s portraits) are adorned by monstrous, formless bodies perhaps as a direct referral to the changes experienced when she was pregnant. Authors such as postmodern feminist and philosopher Christine Battersby and her “female genius”, Mary Shelley (the author of “Frankenstein” and daughter of philosopher and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft who died in child birth) and even Virginia Woolf’s work, feed Alicia’s intellect and corroborate her line of thought or questioning. She has always been attracted by uncanny appearances verging on monstrosity but these days through her trees series, she seems to have reconciled all these contrasting forces into a more peaceful cohabitation. The trees, a recurrent subject of Alicia’s work in the last few years, are a direct homage to Mexican majestic trees, with their spread out branches. They are an anchor point that allows her to express all these other possibles while retaining a general sense of harmony.South of the River 1024

I feel that the UK as a nation is constantly exploring and re-defining its own identity. Being ‘British’, and being a ‘Londoner’ in particular, is a process in flux, a communal exploration benefitting from a cultural openness that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere.

Alicia Paz likes living in London because of its rich cultural tapestry be it from the island itself or from the four corners of the world. Not a week goes by without her attending some private or public viewing. The latest exhibit she wants to see is Fiona Rae: New Paintings at Timothy Taylor Gallery. Over the course of her years in London, her work has garnered lots of attention from her peers and from galleries, particularly Houldsworth Gallery  and The Blue Coat in Liverpool. An exhibition of her work will take place at the University of Greenwich on April 12th, 2013. In the meantime, if you can hop on a plane, be sure to check out the Kunstmuseum Magdeburg in Germany where her work is presented among her peers.

Photos by Stephen White and Anthony Lycett

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *