Parres – Trilogy
British artist Melanie Smith has lived in Mexico City since 1989. Her first-hand experience of the contradictions inherent in the world’s third largest megalopolis undergoing rapid economic and cultural expansion – poverty and commerce, chaos and functionality, grime and beauty – is intrinsic to her practice. Fascinated by the ways in which historic and commercial influences translate into colour, materials and objects evident in the city’s streets, Smith takes a formalist approach to revealing the underlying structures, visual excesses and social behaviours of this specific urban context. Her work takes a wide variety of forms, encompassing installation, photography and video, but is fundamentally informed by her background in painting and, more specifically, her ambivalence towards the legacy of twentieth century abstraction.
Smith’s view fluctuates from macro to micro, from the air to the ground. In Spiral City 2002, a camera attached to a helicopter swoops over the ever-spreading, regulated grid of streets while her series of photographs of Tianguis 1998–2002 draws attention to the brightly coloured impromptu tarpaulin structures erected by street vendors which punctuate the grey surroundings like minimalist sculptural forms. For the series Orange Lush 1994 Smith tracked the most synthetic, abundant and seductive of colours throughout the city, gathering mass-produced plastic objects and presenting them as monochrome assemblages. For Smith, the colour orange is synonymous with authority, artifice and the industrialisation of the city. Smith has commented that she wants people to use ‘abstraction as a point of departure from the reality of what they are actually seeing’.
Since 1997, Smith has collaborated with Rafael Ortega on a number of film and video projects that shift attention away from the finished artwork to the processes behind its production. These works seem to negate abstraction’s drive towards a timeless autonomy by rooting it in a specific corporeal present. For example, Six Steps towards Reality 2002 draws attention to the absurd quantities of energy and labour required to achieve the appearance of effortless aesthetic ‘purity’. Six large, white projected images alluding to a reductive minimalist environment shot from small polystyrene models on 16mm film are juxtaposed with handheld video footage showing excerpts of the making of these images in Smith’s studio. The aloof, seamless image, divorced from context, seems far removed from the circumstances of its making; the camera crew, equipment and sounds of banging, chatter and laughter. Similarly, Six Steps to a Project 2004, shot in a cantina in Mexico City, documents the making of a one minute action involving film extras that never actually gets made. Smith and Ortega’s new trilogy of films Parres I 2004, Parres II 2004 and Parres III 2005, shown here together for the first time, further explores the construction and breakdown of pictorial illusion. Each is set in the small town of Parres, located just beyond the ever-encroaching outskirts of Mexico City, and shot on 35mm film instilling the imagery with a cinematic depth. Smith uses the most basic units of filmmaking, one camera and one roll of film, allowing the action to unfold in real time but underscoring the artifice of the process by including the tail ends of footage. The audio plays an important role in both sustaining and questioning the illusion and has been recorded and edited specifically for each film.
In Parres I 2004, a man walks towards the camera along a road winding out of a messy urban conurbation. As he approaches the camera he picks up a spray paint gun and begins to coat the screen with a fine white mist, moving rhythmically from left to right. As the layers of paint accumulate, the view beyond gradually obscures until the shadow of the protagonist’s arm against the opaque surface replaces his own image. Smith notes how the action creates a shift away from any narrative connotations implied by the setting into the realms of performance and then pictorial abstraction. A sombre melody sung by a lone female accompanies the imagery, as if mourning for the forgotten landscape beyond.
Parres II 2004 follows a similar scenario. The opening frames focus on a close-up of a woman’s blinking eye. The camera slowly retreats backwards to locate the figure in a waterlogged urban scrubland. She clutches a blue and pink woven plastic shopping bag, colours echoed in her pink top and the blue painted building behind. In tandem with the camera’s movement a heavy downpour rapidly bleaches out the scene until all that remains is a milky, streaky blur. As with Parres I 2004, a melancholy song accompanies the imagery, which stops abruptly as the rain clears and clarity is restored.
Parres III 2005 offers an exact reversal of the previous two films. A painted grey plane fills the screen which is slowly broken down by the actions of a window cleaner. There is a discernible pleasure to be had in tracing the drips of water and gestural smears of his cloth as the picture surface gradually deteriorates. As both the landscape beyond and the protagonist become visible through the glass the amplified sloshing sound of cloth being dipped in water is replaced by ambient village noises of dogs barking and a brass band playing mournfully in the distance. The unmistakable whirring sound of the camera takes over as the protagonist turns his back to the screen and walks towards the village, reinforcing the fact that we are observing a fiction.
In each of the Parres films the visible world is hidden by or revealed behind a monochrome image. Smith describes monochrome painting as ‘the exemplification of a kind of detached open window through which the spectator’s gaze passes in search of transformation’. Collectively, the trilogy seems to succinctly articulate the ambiguities present within Smith’s work; the complex dichotomy between the pursuit of the aestheticised image against the backdrop of contemporary urban life.
Text by Lizzie Carey-Thomas