Alternative ways of seeing

The ways in which we perceive and interpret images has been one of the most challenging questions of 20th century art theory. Ernst Gombrich’s famous aphorism that «there is no innocent eye,» suggests that the ways in which we read and interpret images is an intricate process subject to social, psychological or cultural conditions. An exhibition held at the Xippas Gallery considers the process of visual perception through the work of two contemporary French artists, Valerie Belin and Stephen Dean, both recently awarded the Altadis Prize (Belin is also short-listed for this year’s Marcel Duchamp Prize). Each artist works in a completely different style but both share a similar interest in subverting our standard reading of images and revealing their less obvious aspects. Ambivalence and ambiguity are techniques used by both artists, as is exploration into new, fresher and perhaps less culturally reliant ways of seeing things. Valerie Belin constructs large, black-and-white photographic portraits of women. Taken from five different series of the artist’s work on portraiture – Moroccan Brides, Black Women, Transsexuals, Models and Mannequins – the photographs are about female identity, hybridity and the construction of gender roles. But they also stretch beyond such considerations into bringing out a portrait’s formalistic aspects. By making the images large, frontal and two dimensional, each detail is brought out and obtains a surreal, almost decorative effect. The sitter’s skin, eyelids or mouth become surfaces filled with visual qualities, thus turning the portrait into something like an object. Caught between the real and the artificial, allusions to gender and an interest in texture and composition, between social commentary and a surgical, purely visual analysis of the image, Belin’s portraits challenge the viewer to seek more than one meaning in the images with which he or she is confronted. In stark opposition to the work of Belin, Stephen Dean’s work is all about color. «No More Bets,» a video that Dean filmed in Las Vegas at night, and «Fuse,» an installation of aluminum ladders made of dichroic glass plates, show the artist’s fascination with color and his distinctive style of «painting» through media other than painting. Dean actually thinks of his videos as paintings: «Pulse» which was shown at the 2001 Whitney Biennale and was filmed in India during the Holi festival (which involves participants throwing color powder pigments onto one another) and «Volta,» a piece concentrating on the fans at a football match in Brazil and which was presented at the 2003 Istanbul Biennale, transform reality into beautiful, sometimes almost abstract, compositions all based on the potential of color. Like the Las Vegas film, they are about how color activates texture, rhythm, movement and all our senses. «Fuse» has the same magical, sensual effect as the color of the dichroic glass changes with the time of day and the physical distance between the viewer and the work. What first appears like an austere, minimal installation becomes something like a vitraux, a vivid and constantly changing palette of colors and light. His use of trompe l’oeil which was an important aspect of his former work (mass-produced objects which by slight manipulation seemed like paintings from a distance but as the viewer moved closer became what they really were) also continues in these works. Stephen Dean turns things around and into something completely different from what they originally were thus leading the viewer into new ways of seeing. At the Xippas Gallery (53D Sophocleous, 210.331.9333) through March 20.

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