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Belgian artist Alÿs reinvents a saint at LACMA

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Seen one, seen 'em all?

Well, not exactly. When it comes to the several hundred pictures of St. Fabiola in a marvelous new installation by Francis Alÿs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it's obvious that all these different copies derive from the same original, since they display a nearly uniform composition. Yet, no two copies are exactly alike. Originality resides in the hand of the copyist -- an incongruous state of affairs if ever there was one.

The installation consists of 307 pictures of St. Fabiola, a 4th century Roman noblewoman who, under the influence of St. Jerome, renounced her worldly wealth and became a Christian ascetic. Having grievously sinned by remarrying before the death of her first husband -- a reputed wife-beater whom she divorced -- Fabiola had a lot of atoning to do, according to the tenets of her church.

She built a hospital, gave extravagantly to the poor and moved to Bethlehem to study Scripture. Pope Siricius, who is said to have left his wife and children to enter the clergy and was eventually elected pope and who decreed that priests should be celibate, forgave her.

The pictures on view were found over the last decade or more in thrift shops, flea markets and antique stores in Europe, the United States and Mexico, where the Belgian-born Alÿs lives. Some are signed, many are not, and most appear to be the work of amateurs.

They're devotional pictures painted by the faithful or, in the case of some jewelry and a few souvenirs, no doubt commercially produced. All are based on the same long-lost work by the once-fashionable, now largely forgettable French academic painter, Jean-Jacques Henner (1829-1905).

Oil paint on canvas is the favored medium, although there are lots of others: needlepoint, collage, charcoal, carved and inlaid wood, plaster, reverse-painting on glass, colored foil, enamel, etc. One is even made from seeds and beans. Thirty works are shown in a display case -- the jewelry, a commemorative plate, decorated boxes and other souvenirs. The oldest dated work I found was made in April 1922 and the most recent in August 1992.

The composition is almost always the same: a left-facing profile of a middle-aged Caucasian woman with a slight overbite, wearing a red veil and posed before a plain brown background. Variations include changes in hair color beneath her veil -- blond, black and auburn, rather than brown -- and in the dark background's hue. Her general facial expression subtly shifts; sometimes she seems to grimace, elsewhere to daydream.

Other alterations are more extreme -- a right-facing profile, say, like a flopped photograph, or a bright green veil rather than red. One work shows Fabiola from three viewpoints, as if attempting to capture the long-dead saint in three dimensions.

Here's the weird part: “Francis Alÿs: Fabiola” is an analog exploration of digital experience. In analog culture, data is measured by physical variables, which is what a viewer catalogs in the presence of all these handmade Fabiolas hanging on the walls. In digital culture, by contrast, data is electronic, represented by notations of numerical digits; every digital image is a mutable copy with no fixed original. That's also what a viewer sees here. These two cultures coexist in Alÿs' surprising work, and the low-key collision is wonderfully destabilizing.

Technology hovers in the show's ether like the ghost in the machine. After the era of European colonial expansion, the 19th century Catholic church seized on a new technology to extend and consolidate its message globally. Chromolithography, a chemical process developed in Germany and France for replicating paintings in large numbers of colorful prints, multiplied the power of painting that the church of Rome had long employed.

Raphaël’s 1518 masterpiece, “The Great Saint Michael,” housed at the Louvre in Paris, was among the most popular, and thousands of chromolithographic copies were sent around the world. The Fabiola portrait by Henner, a well-liked member of the French academy who had won the Prix de Rome, apparently was another. If St. Michael was the field commander of the Army of God, think of St. Fabiola as his Florence Nightingale.

The fact that religious faith is the critical pivot for Alÿs' meditation on mediation makes the marvelous work even more powerful. Profound cultural belief systems likewise operate at art's core.

The way this Fabiola collection is displayed is also important. On the third floor of LACMA's Ahmanson Building, in a gallery next to the Renaissance art, a room painted Prussian blue is installed in the Victorian manner common when Henner worked. The paintings are stacked four and five high around three walls, while the objects are laid out in a traditional vitrine. A visitor passes through a doorway flanked by a Titian portrait of a Venetian aristocrat and a Veronese allegory of seafaring navigation to arrive at Alÿs' "collection within a collection."

The catalog from New York's Dia Art Foundation, where the show was organized, makes appropriate reference to L.A. artist Jim Shaw's celebrated collection of strange but earnest thrift store paintings, which made a splash nearly 20 years ago. The differences between brilliant professional artists such as Titian and Veronese and Fabiola's passionate amateurs, with their ramshackle charms, are obvious yet striking. But a second suitable comparison is much closer at hand.

Cindy Sherman's self-portrait photographs, 50 of which are installed at LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum, resonate with Fabiola. Like the paintings, Sherman's photographs are installed in a Victorian manner, stacked on the wall to challenge established hierarchy.

Sherman shows herself in the guise of movie stars, comic book monsters, magazine cover girls, tabloid heroines, fetish figures, society page matrons, clowns on circus broadsheets, the protagonists (male and female) of famous paintings and more. She is often unrecognizable beneath elaborate makeup and costumes.

Which one is the authentic Sherman? Unified notions of individual identity in self-portraiture get shattered, while the relationships between media imagery and traditional art are provocatively questioned. Asserting that art is a playground of imagination, "Francis Alÿs: Fabiola" arrives at something similar -- even though it takes a very different angle of approach.

christopher.knight @latimes.com

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Noon-8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesday, Thursdays, noon-9 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Ends Jan. 4. (323) 857-6000.

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