Viviane Sassen, Pikin Slee

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Prestel Publishing (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 33 color and 60 black and white photographs (plus an index of thumbnails). Aside from a small explanatory statement by the artist, there are no essays or texts. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the vast majority of photographs that we encounter in our daily lives, whether it be fine art or snapshot vernacular or somewhere in between, the meaning being communicated is straightforwardly legible – we look, we recognize the content, and we readily discern the visual message. This consistent, immediate obviousness is what makes Viviane Sassen’s photography so immediately recognizable; her best pictures are disruptively disorienting, stubbornly rejecting our presumption to understand them, resolutely kicking us off balance. In both her images for fashion clients and for her own personal artistic work, she has developed a truly original visual vocabulary, rooted in a rigorous formalist approach, but then twisted and pulled off kilter into something entirely and often puzzlingly her own.

This book contains the results of a single, self-contained project – a photographic trip to the isolated river village of Pikin Slee in Suriname. Its physical remoteness (a three hour canoe trip upriver) feels like the first clue – Sassen has set herself a test, in more ways than one. Her self-imposed task is to find a way to take the huts, palm trees, and inhabitants of this remote village and make them her own, at least visually, without the benefit of her usual, more elaborate techniques (staging, colored filters, props and the like). It’s a “back to basics” approach, mostly executed in black and white, pushing herself to pare back her methods and rediscover her voice in simpler forms. What these pictures lack in jarring visual confusion, they more than make up for with nuances of elemental sculptural grace; it’s as if she’s turned the volume down on her aesthetic style, letting it be more subtle than is normally allowed to be.

Pikin Slee offers remarkably little in the way of visual attractions (huts with thatched/corrugated roofs and planked siding, cooking fires, oil drums collecting water, palm fronds and jungle vegetation, the narrow path of the river) and yet, Sassen has found plenty to keep her busy. Many of the pictures might be mistaken for classic textural Modernism after a quick glance, but the images each have some kind of compositional kick that tweaks the balance from grandly perfect to freshly energetic. Bright white contrast set against deep darkness often provides the punch: a rope handled bucket, a length of gutter, the stripes on a track suit, a measuring cup, a pair of sunglasses. And many of her other signature techniques are in use here, but are employed with more simplicity and restraint: silhouetted heads (with a splash or dusting of unexpected color), disorienting combinations of patterns (palm leaves and an optically active printed dress), bent bodies in inexplicable layers, obstructed views that block faces (a checkerboard plastic bag), and blurred foregrounds that interrupt crispness in the back (buckets and river reflections). Each approach creates mystery where there is none, turning a bag of soap, a yellow rubber glove, or a cassava bread into something with enigmatic interest.

It takes a certain kind of confidence to consciously strip away all the bells and whistles from your already successful style and ask yourself the hard questions about whether your core vision is unique enough to stand on its own without unnecessary adornment. This book, and the many strong images it contains, is proof positive that Sassen’s eye is uncommonly distinctive, even when her visual pyrotechnics are muted and streamlined.

Collector’s POV: Viviane Sassen is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (here), where this body of work was shown earlier this year (here); at this point, she does not appear to have consistent representation in New York. Sassen’s prints have not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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