Alberto García-Alix’s photos from the 1980s and ’90s, nearly three dozen of which are on view in an exhibition at Kamel Mennour titled “Lo que queda por venir” (translated as “what is yet to come”), feel familiar: bikers pose, people dress in kink gear, the youth rebellion is in full swing. Featuring those on the margins of the Spanish society of which the artist was and is a part, these shots are recognizable by their symbols, now ingrained in the photography-as-art and pop culture canons, both of them largely defined by the United Kingdom and the United States.
García-Alix grew up in Franco’s Spain, where creative expression was actively suppressed. He left the comfort of his family and dropped out of law school at 19, right after Franco died, and joined others in a newfound freedom as part of La Movida Madrileña, a youth movement of the 1970s and ’80s whose most famous member was film director Pedro Almodóvar. García-Alix deepened his connections with those considered outcasts, who became his primary subjects.
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His photos from this time depict his friends as their unabashed selves. This personal approach is evident in the shots of those in their kink gear: La dominanta (1997) portrays a woman wearing a too-tight latex or pleather dress cinched with a heavily studded belt, cut low to expose her black structured bra, and stopping just short of the top of her gartered stockings; she wears a police-style hat emblazoned with the brand name ZADO. Fists on hips with a cat-o’-nine-tails in her left hand, she stares down the camera with confidence, freely expressing who she is to García-Alix and his lens. In another photo, Elena, la mujer que enseña sus botas (1997), the peroxide-blonde Elena, with slicked-back hair, looks directly at the lens as she lies on a couch draped with fabric. She wears a molded black corset attached to her neck via multiple chains of what look like soda can tabs, and holds her left heel in the air, bringing her left knee near her face, making prominent her bikini-waxed vulva.
In the 1990s, photographs of people in sexually hardcore clothing—or exposing their genitals—had less shock value in the art world in the US than in Spain: Robert Mapplethorpe had already exhibited his bondage and gay sex photos, and Nan Goldin, her drag queen and drug-culture images, in the previous decade. García-Alix’s photos would have beenfitting companions to those works, even if they were never shown alongside them: they too seek to document the groups that had broken with mainstream culture.
Before 2000, García-Alix had just a handful of solo shows outside his own country; since then, he has often shown abroad with Kamel Mennour in Paris. The artist’s relative isolation, though, is also what makes his work from the ’80s and ’90sinteresting from a sociological viewpoint, as they capture a less familiar scene of cultural change. This is evident in his shots of youth—whether evoking the counterculture, as in the 1988 group portrait of the band Peor Impossible; or lust, as captured in Santiago y Carmen (1988), in which a muscular man in a tank top leans against a wall and stares at a young woman seated on a stool—which happen to mimic trends exhibited in the US and the UK, whose punk culture was exported to Spain.
García-Alix is still quite unknown in the Anglosphere, even though his pictures from that time (as well as his current work, not on view here) showcase his ability both to evoke feeling and document the times. (He used to shoot for El País, though the major Spanish newspaper “never showed tattooed people,” according to the artist—his personal work remained separate.) Even his artistic origin story has the air of a legend: He says he turned to photography after a bad heroin trip during which he had a worrying vision of his future; later in his career, to protect his friends, he destroyed some of his negatives so they couldn’t be used against them by the police. That his photos convey an intimate sense of an era’s misfits, but aren’t ranked with Mapplethorpe’s and Goldin’s, is a shame.