How did you go about making the images we can now see in your series Painted Ladies?
This series stems from a fortuitous encounter with an advertising image I saw in the street. It was a publicity campaign for a brand of shoes. The ad showed a girl wearing very specific, very strange makeup. It wasn’t makeup in the traditional sense of the word, but rather paint; this young girl had a painted face. This image caught my interest because it manifested aspects of my own obsessions. From there, I set out to find out who made this photograph and who did the makeup. I encountered the makeup artist Isamaya Ffrench, who is extremely talented and who is famous in the worlds of both film and fashion. She collaborated with me on this series. Next, I tried to find works of art which were painted in such a way that could give her a foundation to work with. I picked some fauvist, expressionist portraits… Painters like Matisse, Kirchner, Kokoschka… During the shooting, the makeup artist had these references on her computer and, in her hand, she had her brushes. She used the brushes as a means of mediation between the works of art and the model. It was almost as if Ffrench was a part of the design. The young girls were like blank canvases onto which she would paint the fresco of a face. Myself, as an artist, I felt as if I were trying to create a living being from scratch thanks to photography and thanks to painting…
You once said in an interview, “Photography has the power of to make something that no longer exists seem alive or to mummify the living.” Is one of these processes privileged in Painted Ladies?
In this series, it’s really an inextricable mix. There is no dichotomy that would be more salient, more visible than another. It’s not like in my series of storefront mannequins (2003), which showed plastic objects that appeared to be alive. Now, this is a whole other matter. Here, we are dealing rather with a sort of confusion, or with a troubled boundary between a being of pure flesh and a digital being, a being fabricated using tools that are both traditional as well as used in the digital era. There is a digital aspect to this series, mainly stemming from the creation in post-production of the background and the overall style.
I felt as if I were trying to create a living being from scratch thanks to photography and thanks to painting…
Painted Ladies is a series that comes after many others in which you worked with mannequins. What is it that fascinates you about mannequins?
What fascinates me in this object is its characterization of a stereotype. I think that a mannequin, or for that matter a live model, that is to say, a fashion model, embodies the fantasies of an age, or rather the representation of the fantasies of an era along with its problems, its fears, and its dangers. That’s what I find fascinating. This is made possible because the object represents the stereotype of beauty in vogue at a given moment, and at the same time, it has an empty presence, characterized by futility. It is both powerful and empty. It embodies the power and the vanity of the stereotype. By “vanity” I mean something that runs deep, like simulacrum. This object, or this person, is devoid of life. They are but a simulacrum of life. I show them for what they are. This is why I was able to speak, when analyzing my work, of an attempt to “deconstruct the stereotype” by representing it, but representing it a sign of failure, through the effects of art, through the effects of photography, and through the formal work that I do.
Indeed, deconstructing stereotypes through their accumulation is your artistic approach… In any case, compiling multiple layers, as in Painted Ladies where you are painting the models… Is it a question of putting stereotypes together so that they cancel each other out?
Yes. That’s what my work has been about for a few years now. It involves overprinting which adds another layer to the stereotype and by the same token helps to deconstruct it. As I think back, for example, about the first overprints I did, the Têtes couronnées [Crowned Heads] (2009), I superposed several shots of the same young woman—a real girl, by the way—taken at slightly different angles. As a result, I stripped her life away by removing the skin texture. But overprinting, on the other hand, gave the model a certain quivering quality, which might be the quivering of life. The alchemy of layers always lends complexity to the image.
In your oeuvre, you also explore the concept that has been very present in the history of art since the nineteenth century, namely, the “uncanny,” as defined by Freud, and which you seem to deliberately provoke in the viewer. That is to say, your art is willfully unsettling. How does one make an unsettling image?
I have no idea! There is no recipe… The uncanny, in Freud, related to what he experienced when he glimpsed his own image in a double reflection of glass panes on a train and failed to recognize himself. If we apply this experience to my photographs, it means that when one looks at one of my photographs one doesn’t recognize what one is looking at. In the case of the series of shop window mannequins, for example, the viewer feels unsettled as they look more closely, contemplate the image, and realize from the details that everything in the photograph is fake. The makeup was painted by hand, the eyebrows are painted, the pupils are painted, the skin complexion is too perfect, and thus the falseness rises to the surface. And here, one begins to feel uneasy… The viewer thinks, “Wait a minute, it’s not as simple as that… What is this picture?” So here is a simple example of what may be going on when one looks at one of my photographs.
You are returning to the Rencontres d’Arles. This year, the festival is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. What are your thoughts about the Festival?
The Festival has evolved a lot and it has followed the developments in photography. One might say that the founders of the Festival have defended photography from the moment it was becoming auteur photography in France. They did a remarkable job. They defended key artists and original photographers of the era. Over time, photography evolved. It was folded into the domain of arts in general, and the Festival gradually opened up to include artists utilizing photography. Today, the Festival is a true reflection of this complexity and the various uses of photography. There is not one photography; there are multitudes. The Festival reflects this and at the same time it upholds a prospective vision of discovering young photographers, emerging artists, as well as leaves room for artists who already have an established career, but by showing works that haven’t been shown before, which remain original.
Just like your Painted Ladies.
Yes, just like it.
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Valérie Belin, Painted Ladies, Mécanique Générale, July 1–September 22, 10am–7:30pm, Arles
Painted Ladies, Limited edition, By Valérie Belin and Eric Reinhardt, Published by Editions Xavier Barral