Galerie Nathalie Obadia is very pleased to present China Girls, French artist Valérie Belin’s third solo exhibition. In the line of Super Models (2015), All Star (2016), and Painted Ladies (2017), this new series of photographs, realized in 2018, depicts young women posing “like actresses incarnating imaginary characters.” The title is directly borrowed from the vocabulary of the motion picture industry from the 1950s. Originally, a “China Girl” designated an anonymous actress who held the cameraman’s grayscale, used to calibrate the opening image in the reel leader, when processing the film. By extension, “China Girl” became the generic term to identify this first image.
This secondary role assigned to actresses gave rise to the stereotypical pose that Valérie Belin subtly reinterprets in her portraits, which depict three young women who are all strangely similar, aesthetically speaking, to the point that it is hard to tell them apart in the photographs that make up the series. Like contemporary geishas, they embody, according to the artist, “the role of a beautiful captive, inhabiting a wonderful environment.” Elegantly dressed, they kneel in the middle of a décor that is dense with motifs and knickknacks (oddities, fake antiquities, vases and bowls filled with flowers and fruit, etc.). The types of porcelain she uses (otherwise known as china) were the inspiration for each of the titles: Bohemian Glass Cup, Opaline Crystal Flask, or even Swan Neck Vase.
The phantasmagorical atmosphere that Valérie Belin’s works exude fits in with the exuberance of their setting, saturated with details, similarly to baroque still lifes. The comparison was already true for her series Still Life (2014), which, in its own way, evoked Dutch Golden Age painting in terms of the extreme density of images. It reaches its climax here, in the complex backdrops made up of excerpts of American comic strips and other elements, floral for example. The pictorially refined superimpositions of motifs compose lush landscapes that play an analogous role to that of the imaginary landscapes that make up the backgrounds of important portraits in the history of old master painting, from Leonardo da Vinci to Joshua Reynolds. While these landscaped backgrounds were primarily decorative, from the 18th century on, they also began to serve the function of reflecting the model’s psychology, exactly the same way that Valérie Belin does it with her China Girls. Thanks to the techniques of matte painting and overprint, the artist manages to blur the different planes and to create the illusion of scenery that is at once material and sensory, in which each element contributes to the psychological tension of the entire photographic series, which is in itself conceived as a “mental landscape” where China Girls are prisoners. These strange geishas, “delicate as flowers and strong and supple as willows” (according to the Japanese definition), are somehow transposed from a dream into an allegorical décor imagined by the artist.
By confronting backgrounds and abundant details in her compositions, Valérie Belin accentuates the general dramaturgy of the series, and progressively leads the spectator toward an unfamiliar sense of unease. The mysterious—unreal even—climate that emanates from each image is reminiscent of Blow-Up [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960], and in particular of that key sequence in the movie where blowing up a photograph reveals, in the background, the traces of a murder, leaving us to wonder if it did actually occur. In the game of cinematographic references, Valérie Belin also summons up that famous scene in the movie Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958], when the destiny of the protagonist merges with that of her ancestor “through a painting”—and more precisely, “through the attention given to the details in this painting” (the wavy hairdo, the patterns on the dress, the jewel on her chest, the bouquet of flowers laying on the bench…). In China Girls, we find the same deep preoccupation with detail and the same evocative power or images. The objects are imbued with a destabilizing fetishistic dimension. In 2003, Valérie Belin already interrogated the very role of the image with her series Mannequins. The same interrogations are also present in the series China Girls, where the models, though alive, seem frozen “like porcelain dolls.” The light contributes to this trickery, by casting shadows on the bodies and especially on the faces, which are inhabited by an impenetrable look that seems, according to the artist, to be “absorbed by a sort of interior and exterior off-camera.”
In short, there are no stars in the eyes of Valérie Belin’s China Girls. Instead, there is a glimmer of eternity, reflecting their condition as “beautiful captives.” Their suspended, willingly melancholy gazes exacerbate, along with elements of the scenery, the feeling of suspense, sublimated in every scene the artist imagines. Together, they paint a “mental landscape” heightened thanks to the refinement of the mise en scène and the dramatic use of chiaroscuro. This art of dissimulation and perversion is the distinctive brand of works by Valérie Belin, who, for the last twenty years, has continuously explored—between dream and truth, between fantasy and reality—the range of possible representation of animate and inanimate beings.