This project started towards the end of 2009 as a result of my ethnographic interests on popular culture in Ecuador, and the dialogue sustained with different cultural producers involved with graphic design, anthropology, history, and contemporary art. My first systematic approach to sign painting was during 2007, after being invited by Juan Lorenzo Barragan (a graphic designer based in Quito), to participate in a photographic survey for a book on hand-made commercial signs across the country.
A group of photographers contributed to this project, including myself. In fact, I have collaborated with Barragan on two other books (one on the tradition of ritual masks, and other on 111 icons widely considered as symbols of "Ecuadorean" identity):
I decided to focus my efforts on the coastal region, near the port city of Guayaquil where I live, more specifically in Playas and its surroundings. Playas is a small town, which depends on commerce, fishery and small-scale, mainly local, tourism. Each year, during the summer season, I visit this town attracted both by its long beaches on the Pacific Ocean, and its chaotic urban layout. Until very recently, this dusty and dirty city had been marginal to state interventions on urban planning and development resulting on rather decaying streets, abandoned houses, and general disorder. At the same time, it is a vivid, colorful place mainly due to its great tropical weather, its welcoming people, and a laid back atmosphere. Being at the margins of modernization and the large-scale tourist industry, some of the people´s traditions are still pretty strong. One can easily stroll along the whole city, which I did, while taking snap shots of over a hundred sign paintings that served for the purposes of advertising a broad range of mainly mom-and-pop kind of businesses. From restaurants to gift shops, and from shoe repair retails to bordellos. After several trips, I noticed that "Don Pili" signed some of the nicest works, and so I decided to follow up on his trail until I found his tiny workshop right next to a soccer field.
Victor Hugo Escalante Yagual, a.k.a. "Don Pili", is a former fisherman of about 60 years of age. While fishing since a boy--the main occupation for people of his generation--he also worked making small handicrafts and helping his brother to paint boats upon request from fishermen of nearby towns. Boat painting, traditionally, mixes religious imagery with mass media images such as TV cartoons or political icons such as Che Guevara, and elaborate typography which is used to name a boat after its owner, his relatives, and/or a religious patron.
For the last 30 years, Don Pili has devoted himself to the task of sign painting. In very recent years, he started working for the municipal government of Playas doing all types of related assignments such as painting walls, political propaganda, and advertisement for public works sponsored by the local administration.
Upon publication of the book Gráfica Popular (Quito, Dinediciones, 2007), which included assorted photographs of Don Pili´s work amongst hundreds of other sign painters in Ecuador, I decided to continue fostering a friendship with Don Pili. I found him very easy going, self-reflexive about his craft, and open to future collaborations, making him an ideal informant for ethnographic work on popular culture. In fact, it was his sense of pride about his mastery at mural painting that stroke me the most. When I conducted the photographic survey of his work in Playas, he pointed to the fact that his most superb pieces had been commissioned by brothels´ owners, and decided to take a tour of them in order to include pictures in the book.
Confronted with wall-to-wall, impressive, murals of almost naked female models, it was the first time that I was actually witnessing sort of a permanent solo exhibition of Don Pili's most powerful pieces. While taking photographs in 3 or 4 brothels, it seemed to me that the whole display resembled a one-man museum. Considering my interests on contemporary art, an idea started to take form amid my amusement: to develop a critique on the practices of art collecting through the language of sign painting. Conceptually, the point of departure was to visualize the unequal relations of power between what is considered "art", on one hand, and "craft", on the other, by assembling a modest but somewhat representative, collection of reproductions of well-known works made by world-famous artists. A collection with a twist, though: Don Pili would have to reinterpret each piece while reading them as motives for commercial advertising. Isolated works will not serve for my purposes. I was not interested on originality and authenticity, on the contrary, the serial character of image reproduction-derived from traditional sign painting and the standardization of icons to convene defined commercial messages-was the key which would hold the collection together.
A simple reproduction of the original works was the painters' immediate understanding when I commissioned him in a first series of three paintings. That was too passive, I thought, since I wanted to enrich Don Pili's repertoire getting him more acquainted with "appropriation", a key strategy in contemporary art. Without a common visual and/or conceptual vocabulary to relate to, I explained that I wanted him to think about the originals as if they were actual business signs, and that they needed his actual intervention in terms of thinking the images as illustrations, sort of references for inspiring the visual representation of an actual service, store or commercial venue. Point blank, Don Pili´s only question at the time, besides size and painting materials, was regarding their future practical use and, therefore, their actual display: where the paintings would be hanged? He elaborated: inside the stores or outside on the walls? Alien to the notion of a museum or a gallery, the question was basically instrumental and practical. Drawing upon his own background on the craft and the function of images for advertising purposes, it was clear that he was providing an interpretation of my project on his own terms. That was our meeting point, disagreements and misunderstandings: I had in mind a gallery, while he foresaw a storefront. A silent agreement was reached, one finally based on the unequal distribution of power relations surrounding art, crafts, and popular culture.
We got started after settling several issues regarding prizes, sizes, advance payments, and deadlines. Of foremost importance for the project, we gradually managed to talk about the images in order to define the texts that would accompany them; agreement was reached after a careful discussion on which kind of store could gain from advertising a given image. A method was formulated in terms of general rules to follow:
- An artwork will be chosen out of a previous pool of selected images elaborated by the ethnographer. I proceed with this based on my previous knowledge on contemporary art, and the celebrity of certain artists on the global market.
- Don Pili should propose the main potential use of a given painting taking into consideration the literal message that a selected original piece of art could suggest for commercial purposes.
- Texts will be chosen to accompany the image as if meant to decorate a storefront, advertising a specific service or business.
- The name of the original artist or the title of an original piece will be used as an inspirational source to accomplish the former task.
The originals were selected from a Taschen book on Collecting Contemporary Art, which would serve as the main reference for The Full Dollar Collection. This is not a specialized book on art history; it is rather an assemblage of interviews meant to target wanna-be collectors. Its cost in Ecuador is about one third of the minimal wage of a worker, such as Don Pili's, monthly salary. Its luxurious presentation, and the snobbish tone from the telling series of interviews with assorted power players in the contemporary art scene, this book called my attention because it provides an insider view of the art world from whom actually makes more money out of it, i.e. private collectors, gallery owners, merchants, dealers, and all sort of advisors. Both the grandiloquence and crudeness of some of the testimonies stroke me particularly since I operate in the art-world from a marginal place such as Ecuador.
Again, the dialogue amongst Don Pili and myself about the relationship between words and images was telling about the different, somewhat conflicting, perspectives on my project as a whole. To begin with, "contemporary art" is a completely empty label for Don Pili; in fact he had not seen a single one of the "master pieces" included in the reference book before hand. Having not a clue about the artists' work or, by that matter, of art history, it seemed to me a clear advantage. His lack of knowledge on the subject would serve Don Pili to freely associate the originals with the instrumental side of The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art: to produce what resemble actual signs, and to dig upon what he knew best, that is to make sign paintings, only this time using unfamiliar images as iconographic references. Instead of drawing upon his repertoire for illustrating food dishes, hair saloons, mini-markets, restaurants, bars, tailor shops, bazaars, schools, hospitals, churches, night clubs, and brothels, this time he would have to use some of the most expensive works elaborated by globally known artists. Far from being naive, Don Pili's take on those images was based on a repertoire previously constructed by gazing mainly other sign painters, and photographs and advertising used in newspapers and magazines.
The first three commissioned pieces were an installation by Paul McCarthy, a painting by Gilbert and George, and a sculpture by Sarah Lucas
After a month or so for accomplishing this assignment, I returned to Playas to pick up the series. To my initial deception, Don Pili produced what it seemed to me a highly standarized set of reproductions. He was more concerned with showing his skills at providing faithful copies of the originals. Indeed, he made several remarks on how great resemblance they actually have to each other. The letters, on the other hand, were flat and plain, and used a formulae that it seemed to him was the less possibly intrusive on the images as such (yellow letters over a blue background on the lower part of the image). Working as separate captions, he wanted to keep the lettering apart from the figures in order to avoid superposition or contamination. He wanted the painting as a whole to be easily read by people, to fulfill-what he understood was-the goal of advertising in actual storefronts.
Again, my gaze was encapsulated on "art" while Don Pili's was fixed on street "signs".
Showing creativity for him was to highlight his own skills as a self-taught artist: to paint as good as a famous painter (never mind that he provided renderings of photographic reproductions of an installation, a sculpture, and a painting). The closer he could get there, the better, from his perspective. On the other hand, creativity for me was exploring Don Pili's own form of image-making and the aesthetical code that he embraced, what I have seen depicted on walls all along Playas. As for the first results, the pictures created by Don Pili were, however, both promising and intriguing. Even though they betrayed my expectations for "originality", they were entirely new works of art. Even though Don Pili has hidden his legacy as a typographer, the captions worked as powerful, critical, commentaries.
Over the next months and during the first half of 2010, further conversations developed in order to assure that Don Pili would show his full skills at typography for the following series. I wanted him to explore on his own visual vocabulary inasmuch as possible, and also to highlight the mix of colors that form part of the classic repertoire in which sign painted letters are decorated. Also, I wanted him to develop a totally independent reading of the originals. Their meaning for the artists that have created them was irrelevant, never asked upon, and never discussed. Neither it was of importance the artists, their intentions, their status, or their background. Actual images were selected and negotiated before a new series was commissioned mainly on the basis of their potential use for advertising.
At one point, I left the book with Don Pili for a few weeks in order for him to fully scrutinize it and select whatever image called his attention. Written in English, the intellectual context in which collection as practice was discussed was also entirely missing for the painter. Detachment from art history was both a conscious strategy on my part, and Don Pili's. He seemed delighted with the idea of reproducing "masters", yet another way to show his authority as a self-made, professional painter, and to highlight his status as a local legend amongst his colleagues both in Playas and the small region of the city´s immediate influence on tiny, isolated villages such as Engabao and Puerto El Morro. Some symbolic and economic capital was gained for Don Pili in this enterprise, as I have expanded my anthropological understanding on image-making while witnessing a crucial feature of popular culture in the making: its infinite capacity to incorporate the most disparate influences.
Instead of taking it as a fixed, out of history, entity, the project The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art (2009-present) attest to the possibilities of expanding the dialogue between ethnography (with its well-known interest for actual people, concrete locations, different perceptions on visual memory, and the social life of images) and contemporary art. As of June 2011, the collection is composed of approximately 15 original paintings by Don Pili (most of them are household paint on wood, size: 1.20 cmts. by 80 cmts). Besides the three above mentioned, it is worth including some of the works commissioned for the purpose of properly contextualizing this ongoing project. Besides Gilbert and George, Sarah Lucas, and Paul Mc McCarthy, I am proud to own appropriated works by the names of Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Lisa Yaskabage, Mariko Mori, and Martin Kippenberger, amongst others. All of them original Victor Hugo Escalante Yagual's artworks. Five pieces of the collection were exhibited in May 2010, at an independent space in Lima, Peru, as part of a collective show of Guayaquilean artists dealing with the notion of "visual contamination".
While criticizing idealized notions of "authenticity" in the anthropology of popular culture, this project also served to foster my own critical stance towards the market-oriented world of contemporary art. Discussing some of the effects of juxtaposition and appropriation is a productive way to approach the collection created so far. Indeed, part of what Don Pili achieved on the series--which continues to develop as of June, 2011 (with renderings of the likes of John Currin, Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, Raymond Pettibon, and Charles Ray)--is to exploit a key feature, in fact one of the main staples of traditional sign painting: the hilarious, the capacity to create laughter out of mixing images and texts from different sources, to ridicule art collecting as a practice, and to mock the snobbish stance derived from the link between economic power, private property, and the commercial value upon which contemporary art as a global market holds nowadays.
I foresee the Outpost residency as an opportunity to develop some of these ideas in a completely different setting, and, in some ways at least, to take them to the next stage. I see a possibility to visualize different traditions of sign painting in the Los Angeles area of Highland Park, to dialogue with professional sign painters of diverse painting backgrounds, artists of different stages on their careers, and business owners, in order to create works that will have a functional purpose as means of advertising for storefronts. Making clear the possibilities of contemporary art for confronting unequal relations that are inherent to the field is part of my goal. Being an anthropologist rather than an artist, part of my mission is to foster research on sign painting, to dialogue with students and to develop an ethnographic look at this legacy. Photographic surveys of Highland Park´s storefronts, and further debates on the social life of these images in the competing visual economy of advertising, is a key part to a project that was born in ethnography and, at the end, I hope, will go back to anthropology.
As in the past, projects sponsored by Full Dollar, since 2004 my ghost enterprise in the contemporary art circuits, will involve assorted collaborators. Artists and non-artists will engage in developing this space of multiple encounters and disagreements. The translation of The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art into a completely different setting (from the village of Playas, Ecuador, to the megalopolis of Los Angeles, USA), by the mediation of an art institution such as Outpost for Contemporary Art, will open an entire new set of questions, methods, negotiations, and debates along the process. At the core of all these, issues of authorship, power, and conflict will emerge: between ethnography and art, between art and crafts, between crafts and popular culture, and, in turn, between popular culture and contemporary art. How much of the origins of this project, with its clearly critical and political aims, will be kept on its next reincarnation in Los Angeles is an open question due to issues of history and context, and, of course, the ambivalent magic that surrounds an art institution.