The accretion of history in the city is a fundamental inspiration for Alexandre Farto aka Vhils. His enormous mural-esque portraits draw from his own political context and question the relationships between the individual and the globalised world.
At the heart of Vhils’ practice is destruction, creation and the city. His trademark technique uses hand and power tools to hack, scrape and carve urban surfaces that emerge into representational portraits of predominantly anonymous people that he describes as “everyday heroes.” After exhibiting next to Bansky at The Cans Festival in 2008 which was subsequently published on the front page of The Times newspaper, Vhils has been an important name in the street art world. In addition to his acclaimed street art, over the past decade he has worked across multiple mediums that cross between sculpture, mural and installation, and exhibited at high-profile international galleries and museums. Doors, window-frames, explosives, concrete, light-boxes, metal, and brick are all used in his work to create energetic textural surfaces that echo the nonstop aliveness of urban space. From the seemingly violent acts of drilling, chiseling and blowing things up, Vhils makes work that is profoundly symbolic and explores the impact of time on our contemporary identities—both collective and individual.
Vhils’ solo exhibition in 2018, Annihilation, at Over The Influence in Los Angeles, centres around globalisation and the environment. Diminish Series #03 (2017), a highlight of the show, is a large panoramic cityscape of LA on a stack of billboard posters assembled as a relief on the wall. The brilliant white of the background is etched with the angular blocks and skyscrapers of the city which reveal the colourful layers of the advertising images underneath. The sides of the work expose the edges of the posters that are stiff and neatly cut to the same shape, iterating a section of the earth’s geological strata, and functioning as a fossil of the city. Symbolically, these connect economic growth with its ramifications on the environment—a potential recipe for Annihilation—and question our complicity in mass consumption and material desire.
As is the case with many street-based practices, a core of political activism runs through Vhils’ work. As a child growing up in Lisbon in the 1990s, Vhils was inspired by the old murals of insurgents from the Carnation Revolution of 1974 that endowed the city streets. He observed over the years, as Portugal entered the European Union and developed economically, how revolutionary icons became advertising billboards. As the paper peeled and decayed, Vhils became fascinated by the accumulation of history in the infrastructure of the city. This posed important questions that he sought to explore in his work: to what extent are we made up of the environments around us? How does the visuality of a city affect our desires, opinions and personal choices? In this way, Vhils’ work becomes an intervention—a contribution to the daily social fabric of our lives. Abrasive yet beautiful, Vhils’ oeuvre pairs his harsh physical process with an open dialogue that provokes generative self-reflection with poetic style and biting grace.