Viviane Sassen, Roxane II

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by oodee (here). Hardcover, 152 pages, with 114 black and white and color reproductions. Includes a poem by Maria Barnas. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in 1960, Yves Klein organized a series of performances where nude female models were covered in his signature International Klein Blue paint and asked to press their bodies against large sheets of paper, creating expressive silhouettes and blotchy abstractions. While some (both at the time and in the years since) have accused Klein of exploitation and grandstanding, others have seen the “Anthropometry” paintings as a new and innovative kind of artistic collaboration, where the subjects became active participants (or performers even) rather than simply passive objects.

The ghosts of Klein’s project haunt Viviane Sassen’s new photobook Roxane II, from the blue silhouette on the cover and the blue endpapers to the paired blue breast imprints shown in the first photograph. But beyond these obvious aesthetic echoes and borrowings, Sassen has more importantly steeped herself the spirit of Klein’s cooperative attitude, encouraging the artist/model relationship to blossom into an intermingled and symbiotic back-and-forth.

Sassen’s collaboration with Roxane goes back several years, in particular to their first Roxane photobook from 2012. In that series, Sassen’s roots in the fashion industry came through strongly, with Roxane posed on city streets and in rocky landscapes, her stylish clothes and accessories always taken into account in Sassen’s off-kilter compositions. Interspersed with tree bark abstractions that mimic the textures of peeling paint, the photographs have an unpredictable energy. The two partners seem to have built an almost immediate sense of trust, which allowed them to move quickly to the riskier edges of formal experimentation.

Roxane II in effect “gets the band back together”, and with all the preliminaries now behind them, they have together thrown open the gates of improvisation. In the intervening years, Sassen honed her craft, pushing her unbalanced frames to more sophisticated extremes and mastering her control of shadows, color tints/gels, and deliberate interruptions. To the new project, Roxane has contributed a willingness to pose nude (there were no nudes in the first series), and together they have added the Klein-infused ideas of body paint and bodies making painted impressions, and extended those techniques one step further by introducing overpainting on the final prints themselves. Throw all that into the collaborative blender with a renewed sense of common purpose, and out pops Roxane II.

As a genre, the female nude carries with it a lot of male gaze baggage, which Sassen disregards with consistent aplomb. This is a resolutely female to female conversation, and while some level of confident sexiness enters the dialogue, it never takes the form of the sinuous curves of Modernism. Roxane’s poses, and Sassen’s framing of them, push more toward unlikely angles and Merce Cunningham-style avant garde dance gestures. The images are filled with bending, contorting, and extending Roxane’s leanly muscular arms and legs into complicated layers, and seduction really never enters the picture, except in a few cases of light male gaze mockery.

Almost none of the images in this photobook are straight nudes, in the sense that each pose is augmented by some additional compositional device. Brightly colored backdrops and walls isolate Roxane’s body, while shadows (both linear/geometric and natural, like leaves and branches) criss cross and overlay, mixing aesthetic schemes. Other props like modeling clay, thick heeled black boots, dangly earrings, and splashes of greenery give Roxane something to react to, and filters cast colored strips across the contours of her body.

Paint enters the conversation repeatedly. Various body parts get a layer of color, from obvious feminine zones like Roxane’s face, breasts, bottom, and crotch, to more unlikely places like underarms, interior thighs, the bottoms of her feet, and the hair on her head. The paint offers Sassen yet another way to thoughtfully abstract Roxane’s body, the added color upending our normal sense of the proportions and surfaces of the nude form, especially when only one small part of the body is given this highlighting effect.

Paper imprints of painted body parts (particularly breasts, but also hands, feet, and other random touch points) take this idea further, acting like “negatives” and offering us hints and afterimages of nudes we don’t actually see. Sassen also overpaints some of the photographs, using swirling, tactile brushstrokes to blot out backgrounds, color in body parts, or further decorate or disrupt her compositions. And so the ideas break down and reconverge, again and again, the collaboration evolving and recalibrating itself with each picture.

While some may see the paint in these works as gimmicky, Sassen’s interest in exploring the limits of mixed media within the boundaries of photography feels genuine. Sassen’s images have always had an undercurrent of intentional schism, and that urge to dislocate and interfere with typical patterns of photographic seeing is largely what gives her work its vitality and originality. In Roxane, she has found a fellow traveler who is willing to venture out into these unexplored territories, and having an adventurous creative partner has made Sassen’s aesthetic trailblazing that much more daring.

Collector’s POV: Viviane Sassen is represented by Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (here). 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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