Catherine Balet is a painter and a graduate of the École Nationale des Beaux Arts de Paris, who turned to photography in the 2000s. Her photographic work possesses a sociological dimension characterized by a reflection on the place of new technologies in our lives, for example in her series “Strangers in the Light”. Inspired by Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Ingres, to name a few, the artist reinterprets their paintings through the prism of modern society, creating chiaroscuros in the glow of cell phones and computer screens. “I don’t really define myself as a photographer, but rather as an artist who uses photography,” she explains. “Photography is a great tool and medium I use to express myself.”
In her series Moods in a Room – exhibited at the Bigaignon Gallery in Paris in February 2019 – Catherine Balet returns to the pictorial practice, creating collages based on personal photographs and images culled on the Internet. The result is a striking, surrealist mosaic. “I photograph people in the street, in fairs, anywhere I can capture a figure I find intriguing, but which will be transformed through a process of superposition. These figures are often caught up in technology which has generated new contemporary poses.”
Be it in public spaces – hotel lobbies, offices, airports, restaurants, and swimming pools – or in intimate locations, the artist portrays in her book men, women, and children in everyday scenes from modern life played out behind closed doors. Like a stage director, Catherine Balet distributes roles to those extras who, together, yet unrehearsed, participate in creating a fresco and writing a story that unfolds before our eyes. “For each image, I started with one of my paintings, which provided the raw material, and I let my imagination build the scenes as I went along, playing with the architecture of the setting and with the characters’ performance.”
Although, at first glance, they seem to move around in peaceful settings, the characters, busy or pensive, confront each other with empty stares, sometimes hypnotized by the screens of their phones or laptops. They seem isolated, turned inward, lost in their own worlds. In one of these images, a child bursts into the lobby of a residential building brandishing a revolver. No one notices the danger. Every protagonist is typing on their laptop, reading a book, or has their back turned to the scene.
In this closed off, digitalized world, Catherine Balet makes the moon appear. Light streams through the windows. Here and there, one can see remnants of forgotten nature: the frequent presence of a dog at its master’s side or a white horse which, from the far end of a field, looks on in amazement at the domestic life that goes on inside the house. The artist seems to be amused by our little lives of boxed-in humans, a little too “disconnected” from our origins.
Catherine Balet’s work is also infused with mystery. Bathed in a blue-green, nearly aquatic atmosphere, and entangled in a cubist mosaic, the characters seem to swim in formaldehyde, taking on an eternal aspect.
These different layers of images come to disturb the reading of the scene which is inscribed under our eyelids: are these not the vibrations of the characters’ thoughts? Like the faces superimposed on a single figure, Catherine Balet peels off the societal mask to reveal the true nature of the human being, inhabited by their emotions and thoughts. As we watch this psychological labyrinth drawn by the artist, we are suddenly overcome by a vertigo. Aren’t these vibrations of thought our very own?
By Marie d’Harcourt
Marie d’Harcourt is a Paris-based journalist at Blind Magazine.
Moods in a Room by Catherine Balet, Dewi Lewis Publishing, 120 pages, 71 colourplates, £35 / €49.
Catherine Balet is represented by Galerie Bigaignon.
A selection of her series « Moods in a Room » is currently presented at Photo London until September 12th 2021.