Catherine Balet used to work as a painter until in the early 2000s, she decided to devote herself exclusively to photography: to start over and learn everything from scratch. Her discipline as a painter compelled her to learn all there was to know about her new medium: equipment, printing techniques, types of paper, mastery of lighting. She has tried her hand at all styles, particularly in her series Looking for the Masters in Ricardo’s Golden Shoes, in which she recreated iconic scenes from the history of photography.
Moods in a Room illustrates this apprenticeship and the radical transition from painting to photography. Since her “conversion”—some twenty years ago—Catherine Balet has constructed images the way one builds a tableau: by working through time. The very antithesis of the snapshot, her practice of photography is akin to painting. And, after all, she will never cease to be a painter.
Looking at Catherine Balet’s images is like observing an everyday scene unfolding behind glass. Looking from outside in. It is hard to see what is happening, as if one were not just behind one pane of glass but several, and the play of superimposed reflections got in the way of seeing. Like a guest voyeur, as in a theater, we witness moments of everyday life: a young woman click-clacking away on her laptop, another getting out of her bath, a dog pacing on the tiles, or someone sprawled on the couch in front the TV at night…
In each of these pensive and passive characters one detects profound solitude. The artist represents banal, and yet symbolic, moments. As the exhibition curator explains, such moments are emblematic of our lifestyle: “Isolated, faced with their own reflection or alienated in front of their screens, these hieratic figures function in the contemporary world, a world of modernity and of technology.”
In the beginning, there is no blank sheet of paper or canvas to be filled. In the beginning, there are images: images she has painted, images that make up her memories, images she has photographed, and lastly images she has gleaned from the internet. Day in, day out, year after year, she accumulates this raw material, which she will use to compose her photographic tableaus. Like Leonardo da Vinci, she superposes successive layers, some transparent, others opaque. Here, she adds a bit of glaze, there a touch of light. This is time-consuming labor which allows the artist to experiment and to push the limits of painting and of photography.
The scenes are familiar not only because of their banality: a strange sense of déjà-vu creeps into our gallery tour. Isn’t the woman leaving her bath Ingres’s Valpinçon Bather? And that electric-blue swimming pool, doesn’t it resemble the one painted by David Hockney?
Catherine Balet ushers celebrities into the intimacy of ordinary settings: Bacon, Manet, Monory, Botticelli make cameo appearances, slipping into the skin of a young couple or of a melancholy adolescent. Is it her former life as a painter that draws her to the history of art and to iconic images? Paradoxically, photography seems a way for Balet to pay a tribute to the history of painting. An hommage to the sources of art. Of her own art.
By Coline Olsina
Catherine Balet, Moods in a Room
Du 7 février au 30 mars 2019
Galerie Thierry Bigaignon, 9 rue Charlot 75003 Paris