Valerie Belin: Creating the Appearance of Living Flesh in Plastic

Belin’s work has often returned to the depiction of the human form at transformative moments. She has not only photographed bodybuilders, but also brides and trans women at the very beginning of their journey into becoming female. The series Transsexuals is the earliest body of work included in this exhibition, made in 2001.These passport-style portraits reveal every minute detail in the face of their subjects. Belin removes all trace of context or narrative from these images, presenting a typology of surface details. Despite this fascination with surface, Belin’s series is truly an examination of the frontiers of identity and gender, presenting the faces of those longing to be ‘other’.

Belin’s 2003 series, Mannequins, is perhaps her most well known. The works documented a series of shop-window mannequins that had been cast directly from human models. It was the perfect and lifelike nature of the mannequins that drew the artist to photograph them. Belin’s portraits of mannequins aim to imbue life into something inanimate. Her use of composition and soft lighting heightens the ambiguous and uncanny nature of these inanimate objects, creating the appearance of delicate, living flesh in place of a cold, plastic surface. Belin has stated mannequins represent the ‘perfect stereotype’, and in her work they become a metaphor for the ‘perfect woman’. This idea, in Belin’s hands, is at once alluring and unsettling.

The recurring theme of constructed or idealised beauty in Belin’s work addresses issues of reality and fiction within the photographic image. In 2006, Belin began to use colour in her works, and gradually began to experiment with various digital manipulations. Her series Supermodels (2015) revisits the very same life-like mannequins of her 2003 series, this time superimposing abstracted, digital shapes over the graceful plastic bodies. Belin appropriated ‘ready-made’ patterns found on the Internet, which she subsequently reworked and fused with her portraits.These patterns undulate across the photographic surface, cutting through the mannequin’s body in places, revealing the form to be false. Belin has stated that she began to use superimposition as a technique in order to ‘make viewing the image more complex, more disturbing, less immediate, less evident, less univocal.’

The 2016 series All Star interweaves photographic portraits with graphic imagery from comic books. Suggestive snippets of text and violent imagery burst through the surface of these portraits to infer the chaotic and agitated state that lies just beneath the calm surface of the subject’s often-vacant faces. These visually and psychologically complex works imply an overwhelming internal world inhabited by the young women in the photographs and suggest the psychological impact of life lived in our image saturated, media-conglomerated age.

Belin revisits and develops the motif of constructed beauty in her most recent series, Painted Ladies, in which each portrait is named after the specific brushes used to paint the model’s faces and the equivalent digital retouching tools used by Belin in post-production.The resulting imagery not only explores the relationship between painting and photography, but also manipulation – of both image and viewer. The Painted Ladies series, in particular, highlights society’s increasing acceptance of edited realities as fact. Belin here executes an exaggerated performance of the very processes that drive our modern, technology and image driven world.

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