Painting with light
Shirley Rufin solo show
march 13th to april 19th
“A chacun sa chimère” (Everyone has their own chimera) is Shirley Rufin’s first solo exhibition. Most of the works presented were produced at the beginning of 2015, and there are some earlier works. Shirley Rufin’s creations have, however, already been available to view on the occasion of notable collective exhibitions: Entre – vues in 2009 at the Fondation Clément, Caribe expandido in 2011, Horizons insulaires in 2011 in the Canary Islands, in the Dominican Republic, in Cuba, and also, in 2013, as part of the BIAC (Biennale Internationale d’Art Contemporain – International Biennial of Contemporary Art) Martinique. Her career as a young artist has been full enough to discern successive stages within it.
Shirley Rufin is shaking up our perception of nudity and the imitative finality of the photographic medium.
She is tackling the taboo question of nudity in the post-colonial society of Martinique. The departure point for her research is the scandal caused in the 19th century by the naked women in the company of clothed men in Edouard Manet’s painting Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). This leads her to consider the taboo of nudity, not just in Manet’s time, in Europe and in the 19th century, but in 21st-century Martinique society. How do you conquer the taboo of nudity? How can you aim to show the body in today’s society in Martinique where, despite the licentiousness of the carnival, modesty remains significant?
To preserve modesty, the body is transformed so that it is no longer identifiable, and becomes anonymous – nothing more than matter, dead flesh.
In order to disrupt identification, the artist starts by using accessories – glasses, wigs and veils – to hide the face: Complaire or Chrysanthème 45, or the pose adopted by the model hides the figure: Pause 2005 or Echappée 2006.
Subsequently, the plastic artist targets fragments of the body, but since the treatment of the fragment becomes more complex, distinguishing it and recognising it becomes increasingly difficult, from Sans Titre 3 and 4 to Ecorché or Sans Titre 5.
There may be rare precursors in the 19th century, but the photographic fragment of the human body really took off in the 20th century. Photography then explores extensively the potential of the aesthetically-autonomous fragment, by turns realistic, formalised or ambiguous. In John Coplans or Yves Trémorin’s work, the fragment exposes flesh which is ageing and decrepit.
Two works from 2013, Souffle and Essence, take the fragmentation process to extremes, even as far as breaking the frame, since the image extracted onto a transparent film and stuck onto Plexiglas, is broken up into rectangles 13cm by 21cm, arranged on comacel (hard plastic), then finally restructured maintaining a space of five centimetres between each element. The insertion of extracts of poem no 29 of Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal (Flowers of Evil), Une Charogne, (A Carcass), confirms that Chimeras are bodies without the breath of life.
The body broken up in this way so that only fragments can be seen becomes an anonymous body, stripped of all symbolism linking Body and Soul. A body – matter taken back to its primaeval state, to an organic state. The idea of a “Chimère vaniteuse” becomes gradually established.
Finally, technical or chemical devices such as duotone reproduction, accentuating contrasts and superimposing negatives, and then chemical alteration by applying products used for engraving – chlorides and potassium sulphate – on photographic prints, make it increasingly difficult for the body to be seen clearly: Archéologie 4 and 5.
The body, still recognisable at the start (Archéologie 2 and 7) disappears – the superimposition of the same image of the body clouds the legibility (Fisher)
Sometimes it stands out against a one-colour background, black and opaque: Archéologie 1 and Fisher, but there can be fusion of the background and the shape: Archéologie 4
The body is skinned, stoned, flayed, lacerated, dissected, robbed of all human appearance, becoming an anatomical specimen – an organic specimen devoid of any transcendent life.
Photography is the tool that provides the means for this substitution in several stages. It is a complex process. After taking the photo, Shirley first of all obtains a classic film shot, black and white, printed on paper or transparent film. She then scans it to work on the image digitally. Two things act on this paper print in parallel: time and powdered chemicals, in a press where it can remain for hours, days or even months. This stage is essential, since it is this that brings out the grain, the texture, where an exclusively digital process would just smooth everything out. Then, a new digital capture of the result of this mysterious alchemy joins the first scan in a fusion where the artist perfects her creation. The finished work is larger, printed on transparent film, stuck onto Plexiglas, and reveals isolated remains on a black background – a “Chimère vaniteuse”.
Aesthetic decisions need to be made at all of these stages. The strength of the contrasts in the paper print influences the strength of the oxidation and so the final colours; the choice of the oxidants determines the colours – the acids will produce a tonality that is more red; copper more blue. The nature of the paper and the matt finish of the protective transparent film will also have an impact on the final result.
“I use a technical and chemical process which tries out the different developing baths to treat the sensitive surface of the paper. This manipulation creates variations that bring about a duality between the beautiful and the ugly. The bodies in these images, material to start with, lose their concrete nature and become icons, pure images looking like skinned beings.
It is through this whole process that I can skin and recompose the body. This process would be more difficult using paint as a medium, since then I think that the interpretation and the point of view I would show would be much more oriented towards the first phase.”
Could Shirley take up for herself Christian Boltanski’s phrase: “I paint with photography”?
The young plastic artist practises a modern technique where photography functions like an artist’s material.
Painters and photographers have long lived in parallel worlds. Think of Baudelaire’s indignation, when he wanted to confine photography “to its real duty, which is to be the servant of the arts and sciences, but the very humble servant, like printing and shorthand, which have never created nor supplanted literature”. (1)
It is a long road that led to photography being recognised as an artist’s material during the eighties, even if from the sixties onwards Land art, body art and conceptual art had integrated photography as part of their practice. The only mission they gave it, however, was documenting ephemeral or procedural works created far from the art circuit.
Still today, the photography of photographers (2) has nothing in common with the photography of artists (2). The former remains focussed on the question of representation, whereas artists use photography within their art in response to specifically artistic problems.
Shirley certainly uses photography, but as a plastic artist rather than a photographer. Representing and capturing reality is not her idea. She does not use the imitative capacity of photography, whose status changes from that of document to that of artistic material. She may use the technical provision of photography, but she diverts it from its traditional use and experiments with its potentialities.
In comparison with other photographic or pictorial evocations of tortured flesh, Shirley’s works have developed a singular quality. The suggestion of flesh seems less brutal and more aestheticised that in the works of Helen Chadwick (Enfleshing, 1989), Thomas Florschuetz (El Farolito, 1996) or Doug Prince (Epaule Empreintes n°7,1993 ). These four artists are interested in formal experimentation rather than the imitative tradition of photography. Thomas Florschuetz abolishes all subject and all identity by photographing the body very close up, broken down into fragments at the limit of the abstract. Doug Prince transforms the body by transfer, bringing the body into direct contact with photo-sensitive materials. Shirley Rufin mixes film, digital, and some engraving techniques.
Besides the painters, she shares with Jean Dubuffet (Le Metafisyx, Corps de dame-pièce de boucherie, both from 1950) the wish to take the mystique out of the representation of the female nude. Where Francis Bacon deforms the body by distortion, mutilation, or dislocation, Shirley’s technique eats into the surface of the epidermis. For like Arnulf Rainer, who conceals his self-portrait under crossing-out, scratches, injuries and scars, Shirley inflicts wounds on the models’ bodies with acid attacks.
Trying to get beyond the taboo of nudity has led Shirley to create “Chimères vaniteuses”, that remind everyone, as do the Vanitas paintings, of the fleeting nature of life and the insignificance of earthly goods. The work increasingly liberates the earthly body which eventually attains an abstract nature and a luminosity that is reminiscent of a stained glass window. The tortured flesh there in the beginning mutates into a pure halo of light, a breath of life.
1 Charles Baudelaire, “le public moderne et la photographie”, Salons de 1859, Paris, La revue Française, 1859
2 André Rouillé “La photographie, entre document et art contemporain”, Paris, Gallimard, 2005