Valérie Belin: All Star @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against cream colored walls in the main gallery space and the smaller side room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2016. Each image is sized roughly 68×51 and is available in an edition of 6+2AP. A catalog of the artist’s recent work entitled Valérie Belin 2007-2016 has recently been published by Damiani (here) and is available from the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Until the arrival of the digital age and its high powered software tools for image editing, the best options a photographer interested in the layering of imagery had were in camera multiple exposures, darkroom techniques like sandwiched negatives and photomontage, and the cut and paste physicality of collage. But as we all know, we’ve now entered a new universe of manipulation, and while many photography purists are still wringing their hands over the changes taking place, a few bold explorers are pushing ahead against this traditionalist tide, testing the aesthetic edges and boundaries of what is now possible and embracing the arrival of new expressive options.

In the past decade, Valérie Belin has consistently pushed down on the throttle of manipulation, with each successive project increasing the velocity of her separation from her contemporaries. Starting with the smooth faced perfection of seemingly interchangeable models and mannequins, she has iteratively investigated layering and superimposition. She has combined brides with bodegas and video stores, juxtaposed curvy mannequins with cluttered mid century interiors, set female heads with sculpted hair and pearls against exploding seas of flowers, and placed nude mannequins inside swirling vortices of futuristic geometric abstraction. And in each step along this path, Belin has enhanced the complexity of her manipulations, moving from straightforward transparent intermingling to creating multi-layered, almost three dimensional pictorial space where forms and motifs jostle and collide with the central subjects.

In her newest series All Star, Belin has once again extended her overlapping visual vocabulary, pushing and pulling with more depth and dexterity. She begins with head shots of models styled with a kind of noir sleekness, with pulled back hair, red lips, patterned shirts, and blankly pensive expressions, setting each of these subtly melodramatic portraits against a backdrop of a comic book cover. The old school comics are of course filled with eye catching action and colorful moments of heroes, rescues, battles, and disasters averted, their bold mastheads setting a range of moods, from “Super Girl” and “Captain America” to “Confessions of the Lovelorn” and “Haunted”. So combining the two provides Belin with plenty of opportunities to bring the face and its surroundings into dialogue. There are moments when the model seems to become an imaginary character in the story around her (with a nod to Roy Lichtenstein-style dramatic isolation), and others when the cover graphics create something akin to a futuristic fashion magazine.

Part of what is going on here is a breaking down of the simple notion of overlapping imagery. Belin uses transparency and bring forward/send back software technology with mastery, allowing visuals to show from underneath, portions of others to dissolve from on top, and individual fragments to jut forward, the faces and comics further augmented by graphical riffs on the patterns in the models’ shirts and the geometric flights of fancy seen in her previous works. The resulting conglomerations shift and shimmer, like disappearing thoughts or dreams, the component parts mixing together in a swirl of wall covering effervescence. Again and again, emotional opposites are put into dissonant conflict, the comic book easiness of good versus evil transitioning to more nuanced visual tussling between confidence and fear, attraction and rejection, or triumph and despair.

More broadly, Belin has consistently found that exact point where streamlined beauty threatens to tumble into something uncomfortable, and depending on your reaction to that unsettled duality, that tension either gives the pictures their heft or makes them feel uneasily overmachined and concocted. What I find most compelling about these pictures is how Belin has created her own brand of technically-aware photographic expressionism, where the layers of imagery are so tautly tangled up that the pictures threaten to disassemble before our very eyes. Her all-over compositions feel thick and rich, with a crispness and precision that pushes toward the point of visual overload. They are at once romantically painterly (especially when the shirt patterns go wild) and unabashedly hard edged and technical, and that interplay creates harmonic vibrancy.

At first glance, these pictures might look like the kind of big wall eye candy that is aimed at loft decorators and collectors who outsource their taste to art advisors, and I had a moment of wanting to discount their combination of nerd boy (or nerd girl) superheroes and good looking women. But Belin’s newest images are undeniably taking risks and pushing limits photographically, and doing so with an increasing sophistication of construction and an edginess of mood that is worth watching carefully. She’s still figuring out how to use her manipulative powers to build more complex narratives, but this body of work is a significant step forward in turning innovative digital layering into something durably original.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $36000 each. Belin’s work has only been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past few years, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $20000.

Read more about: Valérie Belin, Edwynn Houk Gallery, Damiani Editore

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