JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2012 and 2015. The works are shown in three sizes: 12×12 (in editions of 10), 16×16 (in editions of 10), and 28×28 (in editions of 10). A retrospective monograph of van Meene’s work was published by Aperture in 2015 (here). (Installation shots below, courtesy of Yancey Richardson Gallery.)
Comments/Context: Hellen van Meene’s newest photographs add a layer of haunting fairy tale mystery to her portraits of awkwardly alluring adolescents. With each successive project over the past decade, she has expanded her repertoire of observant details, starting with the simple elegance of pure light and empty rooms and slowly building up to pared down scenes embellished with carefully chosen wardrobes, furniture, and matched dogs. Seen together, the images offer a progression of increasing pictorial sophistication, using photography to reinterpret the traditions of classic painting in ever more engaging ways.
This show gathers together work made over the past handful of years, and is thematically pushed toward the subtly surreal. Several recent images find her models with their hair neatly brushed down into their faces, almost as if their heads have been spun around on their bodies like Linda Blair in The Exorcist; in at least one case, it looks as if the girl’s dress is being worn backwards as well. With their faces silkily covered, van Meene’s sitters are even more uncomfortably unknowable than usual, their small gestures and poses our only clues to their symbolically blocked states of mind. In the images set outside, tall stems and spiky pistils tower overhead, further enhancing the mood of disquieting unease (or impending suspenseful horror). While all the trappings of van Meene’s attentive meticulously-crafted grace are still in place, the obscuring hair adds just a hint of brusque dissonance to the gentle tranquility.
Other images leverage narrative fragments of fairy tales and ghost stories to upend the elemental settings. Bodies are removed entirely – an empty dress hangs loosely in the air without any visible occupant and a perplexing form of only hair and dress seems to slump in a chair – and additional weirdness starts to appear – a rigid plank of a girl levitates over a couch, while another angelic sitter slumbers on a massive stack of mattresses like The Princess and the Pea. Even fairy dust is in use, a moment of magic transformation taking place for two girls in their frilly skirts as blown flour/chalk tumbles through the air.
Van Meene’s pictures from the past year edge back toward formal reserve, bringing a refrain of allegorical strictness to her poses. A pair of portraits use isolated spots of brightness instead of the blanketing purity of light streaming in from a side window, directing our attention at young women in pleats (one holding a parakeet) and highlighting the luscious textures of their clothing and the frozen folk art expressions on their faces. A second group mutes the background with a rumpled curtain and softens the light into dappled splotches, the girls standing ramrod straight with gracefully elongated necks, a mink stole with feet dangling over a stoically blank faced shoulder.
When all the pictorial pieces come together just right, van Meene does classical beauty as well as any contemporary photographer out there; her 2013 portrait of a girl with a red dress pulled off her shoulder is achingly harmonious and well-proportioned. And yet, she’s clearly experimenting with compositional combinations to try and create more friction and tension in her photographs, extending beyond refined elemental ease toward portraits with more bite, and walking a knife-edge between unadorned naturalness and something more mannered. It’s those fleeting moments of unconventional elegance and idiosyncratic beauty that she’s trying to bottle, and the search for such rarities inevitably leads to some unevenness (and oddness) as she moves back and forth. In the end, this show offers us evidence of a photographer in the active process of searching, looking for new avenues into a genre that turns on nuances.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at either $6000 (12×12 or 16×16) or $7500 (28×28) based on size. Van Meene’s work has become intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past few years; recent prices have ranged from approximately $2000 to $6000.