Swiss artist Louise Bonnet probes the limits of the human body in her paintings, pushing its expansibility on a fine line between beauty and ugliness into the real-surreal. Voluptuous torsos and bulbous extremities besiege her paintings, an arresting parade of odd-looking noses, nipples, and wig-like clusters of mostly blonde hair whose glamour always comes with a sense of incompletion. Gender is alternatively exaggerated or completely neglected, sharpening the figures’ enigmatic character. Held between cartoon-like joyousness and the masterful formality of modernist sculpture, they are stretching and bending in uncomfortable postures in an endless time loop. In her essay, Flavia Frigeri describes these paintings as the twilight of beauty suffused with an art-historical memory. “Through her eclectic approach to figurative painting,” she writes, “Bonnet challenges and addresses normative aesthetic values, as well as ideas concerning identity and representation.”
THE TWILIGHT OF BEAUTY
Speaking of the mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Roland Barthes described the artist’s hyperbolic painting as “an art of fabrication.” In Barthes’ words: “When Arcimboldo intends to signify the head of a cook, a peasant, a reformer, of Summer, Water or Fire, he ciphers the message. Ciphering means to hide and not hide simultaneously.” By framing Arcimboldo’s work in these terms, Barthes complicates our understanding of the artist’s oeuvre beyond an amusing curiosity. The odd Arcimboldesque “double image,” in fact, comes to embody a tension between encipherment and decipherment that conjures the presence of multiple levels of reading. Perception is called into question here and a kind of mental whiplash is demanded of the viewer. Bonnet’s paintings operate under a similar premise in that they also revel in “an art of fabrication.” Meaning is deciphered, as what you see eschews literal legibility. This is particularly true when it comes to the figures’ assertive physical presence. Oversized and overactive, they engender a convergence: of gravitas and cartoonishness, of emotional integrity and ridiculousness, of beauty and ugliness. Borrowing once again Barthes’ words: “The message is hidden because the eye is distracted from the sense of the whole by the sense of the detail.”
Bonnet’s featureless heads neglect the face’s deep-rooted physiognomic tyranny, while simultaneously reveling in a condition of incompletion which enhances their enigmatic character. Her arresting parade of tragicomic beings commingles elements of the beautiful and the grotesque. The goofy countenances of many of her characters suggest a cartoonish alarm and yet, for all their outrageous humor, Bonnet’s paintings are indebted to long-standing European and American pictorial traditions. Fragments of art-historical memory are, in fact, called to mind by the lusciously tactile forms, which hark back to a system of highlights and shadows reminiscent of Old Master paintings. This feeling of old-fashioned pictorial techniques and stylistic forms is enhanced by Bonnet’s choice of oil painting, and even more so by the depthless dark backgrounds against which many of her figures are set. To a certain extent, it could be argued that the artist follows in the postmodern legacy of artists such as Glenn Brown and George Condo, who elaborate a contemporary lexicon of art-historical cross-references. In Bonnet’s case the material qualities of Old Master paintings are conflated with traces of surreal thinking, mostly visible in the profoundly compelling oddness of the characters and their settings. Most significantly, however, Bonnet’s ludic extravagance wantonly provokes a sense of bewilderment in the viewer’s interpretation of these works.
In collaboration with Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris | London