In praise of shadow - Pascale Lafay's works
Elegance is hardly ever regarded as one of the characteristics of contemporary visual art. It is often associated with that vague notion of the French touch, by which is meant a precious feel for detail and movement, rather than a tendency towards superficial beauty. Still, as it is also a way to present reality in both its terrible and joyfull aspects, elegance in art finds its origins in Burke's early romantic idea of the Sublime, which combines the two basic emotions of horror and pleasure into a third, new emotion.
After a period, in which artists were either seeking the excessive and the spectacular or trying to connect with social and political issues, the time has now come for a more subjective approach and for intimacy. The renewed attention for painting, for example, is one of the signs of this recent change. Within this context, photography, which has re-introduced reality, into contemporary art, seems to be an unexpected guest. Yet, the success of recent exhibitions of such contrasted figures like Woodman or Giacomelli, in both whose works the imagination plays a dominating role, seems to point into the same direction. In a more general context, the over-all presence of photographic images (including reproductions in books on art) leads us finally back into ourselves, and, from there on, to new artistic freedom, as proove the works from Pascale Lafay.
In her monumental work, Pascale Lafay stretches further the range of possibilities which photography offers since its beginnings. With simple means, she stages mirror-reflections of herself and her immediate surroundings, into an imaginary world refusing each contextual meaning.
Her past activities in the movie scene, as an actress and as a scriptwriter, may explain several elements in Lafay's works, such as the dominating idea of illusion, the suggestion of movement, both within a same image and within each series, or the fact that she represents herself in her recent images, seemingly replacing the earlier Paris and Roman statues.
Working in series, by itself, is a principle that Pascale Lafay has applied from her earliest beginnings as an artist. There is a story, which nevertheless has neither beginning nor end. It is circular and forms a closed circuit, in which images mutually influence each other. Each series presents a different number of images of a specific size and surface material, chosen according to its own theme and character. Each series is the result of precise selection, in order that each individual image can exist independently.
Apart from an impressive series of "Tunnels" (1999) realized after wild walks through empty trafic tunnels in Paris, Lafay's photography has come of age with "Statues I" (2000) and "Statues II" (2001). In these two series, the artist introduces a romanesque quality to an apparently simple subject. Considered as decorative objects, these classical sculptures, which furnish the old cities of Paris and Rome, wouldn't fit in any contemporary art program. The first series may call in mind Steichen's one century old, nocturnal image of Rodin's "Balzac", while the second one seems to evoke hallucinatory visions of lost beauty and power. Still, Pascale Lafay never illustrates nor represents any subject matter, but wants each image to speak its own, autonomous language the exact sense of which, like dreams, keeps escaping from any interpretation.
The Roman statues find themselves freed, not only from the law of gravity, but also from their museum status. In stead of representing them, the artist here presents a visual conversation with the dead. Regarding the statues on the site of the Roman Olympic Stadium, constructed under the fascist regime, the artist writes: "The statues got rid of their pedestals, and, lost in space, these monstrous athletes, these willfully aesthetical shadows, continued their battles." And, further: "I prepared myself to these encounters, forcing myself to make long walks, a way to join them by what is forbidden to them, i.e. : movement."
The images obtain their magical quality, both by the meeting itself (which is, in fact, the taking of the picture, through a lense covered with vaseline) and its transposition onto aluminium paper, which material reflects ideally the physical conditions of the encounter.
From this personal fight with the angel-of-image onwards, Pascale Lafay's imagery obtains the depths that we find in her more recent, monumental series, like the "Selfportraits" (2002-2003) or "Beat" (2004-2005). Realizing that her work space is basically herself and her camera's, the artist returns to her intimate reality, a wandering between bodily and mental seduction and the luring of death. The selfportraits, entitled "Elle comme moi" - a series of over 100 images, regrouped in sequences, each one printed on mat translucent paper on plexiglass, present fragments of the artist's body in different positions and under a variety of light conditions, reaching from hazy daydreaming to gothic horror. Their colourful, story-like transitions seem far away from the more contrasted setting of the "Beat" - series, composed of four sub-series of each ten monumental images. The female figure, under the bright sun or captured in flash-light, seems to run, jump, swim, float or fall between nowhere and nowhere. In both scenographies, the images have been realized with poor means and by the artist alone.
Whether we call it lyrical or melancholic, Lafay's work is based on the conclusion, that one has only one life to live. As paradoxical as it may look like, this is directly related with the artist's distinct love for aesthetic detail and material quality. At all times in fragile balance between the bright and the black sun, yet not exempt of humor, the artist transforms her vision of life into an object of imagination. Willingly, Lafay's "method" is empirical and based on the principle of trial and error, a strong memory of taken and untaken decisions, and on the inner projection of the future image and its material support.
Every single detail of the image is material, as material as are heat and cold, dry and wet, the colors of shadow and light. Here, I think of the older series of views in empty tunnels and of a recent series, "White snow", presenting intimate winter-views, taken through the glass-brick window of her studio, which draw this "materialness" to its extreme. Close to musical invention, Lafay uses throughout her works the whole a chromatic palette, ranging from the lowest to the highest registers, and back. It is this specific attention, which invites our eyes to move over its surface.
Each surface is fragile, yet unprotected, clean, yet full of history. The image defies the spectator to touch it, with the eyes, without touching it. After the first glimpse, the image unfolds itself progressively, detail after detail. A never ending striptease, as if to keep the dream alive. In this respect, semi-darkness is as good a condition to expose the image, as is day-light.
Generally presented on a certain distance from the wall, the image is, like ourselves, part of the architectural space. Frontally, it stands up against our view, which normally measures reality according to the horizon. Vertical versus horizontal. The metaphysical impact of Pascale Lafay's works is the dark layer underneath their seducive quality, which is neither naïve nor ironical, but a form of natural generosity.
Adriaan Himmelreich, Paris, may 2005