“I think that’s my whole practice: to freeze the scary things—rage, death—so you can look at them from the outside. In freezing events, you’re able to remove yourself from all these feelings and fully look at them. And they don’t look back at you. I think that’s why I don’t ever paint eyes. You can be a voyeur.” 1
Louise Bonnet, 2020
“Since […] 2014, Bonnet has probed the limits of the human body in her pictorial output. Her figures are at once monumental and helpless, their physicality is pushed to the limits of plausibility, treading the fine line between beauty and ugliness. In the artist’s representations, exaggeration and physical constraint take the lead, as single bodies fill the canvases stretching and bending in uncomfortable postures. Their sense of unease is palpable and made even more so by their extreme physiognomies. Feelings of fear, loss and neglect are evoked by these figures, whose bodies map out the effects of the mind. Caught in a push and pull between action and inertia, Bonnet’s imagined beings are in a perennial state of tension. Fundamentally through her eclectic approach to figurative painting Bonnet challenges and addresses normative aesthetic values, as well as ideas concerning identity and representation.” 2
Flavia Frigeri, 2020
Throughout her practice, Louise Bonnet has continuously explored and challenged the confines of figurative painting. Known for her depictions of distorted bodies and exaggerated proportions, the Swiss-born, Los Angeles-based artist translates universal feelings into human form. Often depicted in barren environments, Bonnet’s solitary figures capture the current zeitgeist while questioning normative ideas about gender, sexuality and shame. Works by the artist are included in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, Denver; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and Bowdoin College, Museum of Art, Brunswick.
In Untitled, 2021, a new work on paper by Bonnet, a fleshy figure bends forward, exposing its undulating, nude body to the viewer’s gaze. Devoid of facial features, the figure’s agony is only conceivable from its lactating breasts, from which tear-like droplets cascade down and fall onto a barren surface. Perfectly spherical in shape, the teardrops recall the sorrow depicted in Man Ray’s surrealist Larmes (Tears), 1933, of a lamenting woman (fig. 1). Similar to Bonnet’s large-scale painting Wailer, 2019, the tears in Untitled seem to contain a world within, redefining the conventions of sentimentality in aesthetic form (fig. 2).
The uncanny protagonist of Untitled is the physical manifestation of contradictions: its facelessness allows for absolute anonymity, whilst its body is exposed to our scrutiny. The figure's body is pushed towards the edges of the composition; at the same time, its bending extremities occupy the majority of the surface in a horror vacui-like fashion. Its depiction seems humorous yet provokes a feeling of unease. The use of coloured pencil on paper allows for an interplay of different opacities of hues, sheens and densities, applied by Bonnet to carefully insinuate the figure in the deserted interior. The fair-skinned protagonist with its long, carefully coiffed hair stands in strong contrast to the minimalist background kept in red and ochre tones, creating a chiaroscuro effect that further intensifies the spotlight set on the solitary character.
Instead of creating a narrative, Bonnet allows us a glimpse into the figure’s emotional turmoil, seemingly suspended in time. This cinematographic quality of Untitled reflects the artist’s deep appreciation for the work of film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and David Cronenberg. The suspenseful moment is visible in earlier works such as Untitled, 2017, where an androgenous figure is captured in similar agony (fig. 3). While Bonnet’s characters are exposed to our watchful gaze, the artist treats them with respect and compassion, a feeling in turn reciprocated by the viewer.
Deeply rooted in art historical tradition, Untitled reflects the artist’s ongoing exploration of Christian medieval iconography and painterly technique. As argued by Flavia Frigeri, “fragments of art-historical memory are, in fact, called to mind by the lusciously tactile forms, which hark back to a system of highlights and shadows reminiscent of Old Master paintings.”3 One might draw a visual comparison to Jean Fouquet’s Melun Diptych, c. 1542, which contrasts values of chastity and motherhood in the form of a highly stylised and sexualised Madonna figure (fig. 4). Untitled echoes this form of suspended narrative, while subverting the trope of the traditional female portrait, intended to be consumed by the predominantly male gaze. Instead, Bonnet’s work positions itself in line with the practice of Surrealist painters like Dorothea Tanning, who captured the body with the ambition to reclaim its agency and identity (fig. 5). With Untitled, Bonnet firmly positions herself in this art historical narrative by presenting us with an image of existential dread that further destabilises and questions traditional conceptions of femininity.4
Converging ideas of beauty and ugliness, power and helplessness, Untitled questions societal norms by bringing our attention to bodily features traditionally shamed and often concealed. Winding its voluminous body and secreting unidentifiable fluids, Bonnet’s protagonist forces us to confront and accept our own animal nature.
“The breasts aren’t really breasts anymore, but rather what nipples do to a sweater – which is a lot more interesting. I mean, what is anything except its consequence over something else?” 5
Louise Bonnet, 2018
Louise Bonnet (*1970, Geneva) lives and works in Los Angeles. Recent solo exhibitions include Gagosian Gallery, New York (2020); Galerie Max Hetzler (2020 and 2018); Nino Mier Gallery, Los Angeles (2018 and 2016) and Half Gallery, New York (2017), among others. Bonnet’s works can be found in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, Denver; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and Bowdoin College, Museum of Art, Brunswick.
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1. L. Bonnet and M. July, ‘Louise Bonnet’, Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2020, p. 80.
2. Flavia Frigeri, ‘The Twilight of Beauty: Louise Bonnet’s Interrogation of Bodily Forms, Louise Bonnet, exh. cat., Berlin: Galerie Max Hetzler / Holzwarth Publications, 2020, p. 43.
3. Ibid., p. 49.
5. L. Bonnet, Louise Bonnet. Press Release, Galerie Max Hetzler, September 2018, https://www.maxhetzler.com/exhibitions/louise-bonnet-2018/press-en/
Louise Bonnet, Untitled, 2021, Photo: def image
Man Ray, Larmes (Tears), c. 1933, Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles © Man Ray 2015 Trust / DACS, London 2021
Louise Bonnet, Wailer, 2019, Photo: Joshua_White / jwpictures.com
Louise Bonnet, Untitled, 2017, Courtesy: Nino Mier Gallery and Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Photo: Lee Tyler Thompson
Jean Fouquet, Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim, c. 1542, inv. no. 132, Photo: Hugo Maertens, Collection KMSKA - Flemish Community (CC0)
Dorothea Tanning, Voltage, 1942, Courtesy: The Dorothea Tanning Foundation © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021
Installation view, Louise Bonnet, Galerie Max Hetzler, London, 2020, Photo: Andrew Smart, AC Cooper Ltd.
Installation view, Louise Bonnet, Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin, 2018, Photo: def image
All works by Louise Bonnet: © Louise Bonnet. Courtesy of Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin | Paris | London.
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