By LITA BARRIE, October 2021
Louise Bonnet’s surreal universe is inhabited by strange characters with absurd abnormalities that make us cringe, squirm and laugh. Faceless or headless with gargantuan hands and feet, rubbery fingers and toes, misshapen breasts with protruding nipples and inflated butts, they are ill at ease in their own skin. In Bonnet’s most recent paintings this awkwardness is accentuated by bodies leaking urine and lactating breasts squirting milk. Everything is askew and this calculated wrongness makes us feel their physical discomfort because we all know the pain and embarrassment of bodies we cannot always control, much as we might try. These peculiarly flexible, contorted figures even stretch their extremities to the edges of the canvases as though they are trying to crawl out of their own skin to escape the confinement of the universe they inhabit.
Bonnet’s characters have no identity or clear gender because they function as emotional vessels for a more empathic understanding of the funny complexities of the human condition. Everything is a contradiction in Bonnet’s absurdist universe because she is taking the piss out of high seriousness, even though she has a deep respect for feelings and the power of art to communicate them. Bonnet explores pain and anguish in horror scenarios but always maintains a wry sense of humor, as comic relief.
The Geneva-born, Los Angeles-based artist grew up with the Swiss love of absurdist humor. Bonnet is steeped in R.Crumb and Basil Wolverton comix, a knowledge of the tenets of Medieval and Renaissance painting, mixed with an obsession with horror movies and developed her skill set as a graphic artist through a rigorous training at Haute-ecole d’art et de design. Bonnet relocated to Los Angeles in 1994 and worked in design and illustration, raising a family with her ceramist husband. She began to exhibit art in 2008, however it was when Bonnet changed from acrylic paint to oil paint in 2014 that she came into prominence. Her passion for classical painting and cinematic lighting was ignited by the new possibilities of the medium for creating depth and volume. Few artists have the chops to handle paint as well as Bonnet because she combines drawing skills honed from childhood, an understanding of classical lighting techniques like chiaroscuro used by old master painters and cinematographers and a fearless exploration of emotional contradictions that is offset by humor - that makes her vividly imaginative paintings unique.
Bonnet has created such a distinctive oeuvre that she is earning a highly respected position in art history. Her prolific output since she began using oil paint, is staggering. In the last year Bonnet has had solo exhibitions at Gagosian in New York and Brussels, Nino Mier in Los Angeles and now an exhibition at Galerie Max Hetlzer ( September 11 through October 30, 2021.) Each series of paintings builds on her previous paintings but every painting is a world unto itself, in which everything is held in suspense, like a cliffhanger. Bonnet’s disrupted narratives recall still cinematic images from a pan shot which allow the imagination to reign supreme. Her mystery horror scenes are filled with tanatalizing clues for the viewer to do their own detective work about what might have happened before or could happen later. Bonnet’s paintings have no logical meaning, instead they embrace fairy tale logic because they are constructed to fire our imagination.
Bonnet invited me to her studio to see her Bather paintings the day before they were sent to Paris. We decided to use this as an opportunity to record an interview for Whitehot Magazine. When I arrived at her studio, in a charming mid-century modern house in the heart of Atwater Village, the paint was still wet and she was still finishing the paintings. On her work tables I saw how carefully her paint brushes were organized according to their different widths. It reminded me of the knives in my father’s restaurant kitchen - which recalled a laboratory. Needless to say, it was great fun to visit a phenomenal talent who is on the top of her game.
LITA BARRIE: How did this new series of Bathers paintings for your exhibition at Galerie Max Hetlzer evolve from your last series of Vagabond paintings at Nino Mier Gallery earlier this year?
LOUISE BONNET: It is a bit of a continuation because the idea of water became part of some of the Vagabond paintings. I like the fact there is an above and an under with water that shows different parts of something. It hides, distorts shapes, changes them. The fact we are bags of skin with water inside them, makes the barrier of skin so small and fragile.
I like the idea of nature invading by going in and out. In a lot of Renaissance and Medieval paintings for example, bodily fluids like urine for example can be a positive. There are paintings for example where angels urinate on a woman in bed to give as a fertility symbol, as a gift for her wedding. I’m interested in the body that we cannot control.
BARRIE: Because the body leaks?
BONNET: In the Greek mythology, in the story of the Gorgon, Perseus cuts off Medusa’s head and puts her body under water and the liquid that came out created coral. If you take coral out of the water it petrifies.
BARRIE: You have played with distortions and exaggerated feet and hands for years. Then your heads, which used to have gigantic droopy noses, that recalled R. Crumb became smaller and smaller. Now they are faceless with only helmets of hair.
BONNET: I was thinking about faces more as volumes, not really people. I let my subconscious run wild and this is what comes out.
BARRIE: They are more like emotional vessels for human emotions we all feel.
BONNET: Yes, exactly. I see them as vessels to show emotions rather than as people. You can feel and observe emotion much better through body language sometimes than on the face.
BARRIE: Your paintings are like pan shots from the middle of a movie where we don’t know what happened before or what will happen next. They are disrupted narratives that create a powerful sense of suspense that reminds me of a cliffhanger. You leave a lot of room for the viewer to use their imagination. You told me you like watching movies with the sound off. Is this related?
BONNET: Sometimes, you can see a movie with the sound off and usually what you make up is better than what is actually happening when the sound comes on.
BARRIE: So you had a childhood love of looking at medieval paintings in Switzerland, then fell in love with movies which you told me are often horror movies. It's such an interesting connection to love medieval paintings and horror movies.
BONNET: Yes, body horror. When you see these religious paintings as a kid they are the most horrifying thing you have seen. But we are allowed to see them, you even have to see them, they are education, you are supposed to understand the Bible, etc… through them.
BARRIE: Are you catholic?
BONNET: No, but my grandmother was Roman Catholic and she took me to a lot of church services in the mountains in Valais where we would spend summers sometimes where they had very old-school implements and imagery. A lot of plastic roses and crying Virgin Mary statues. As a child, it’s really strange to be sitting for hours in front of this very realistic dead, bleeding man nailed up on a torture contraption.
BARRIE: An important link between film and medieval painting is the use of chiaroscuro or pulling light from dark, which filmmakers often called “ Rembrandt lighting”. You are brilliant at pulling light out of dark paintings, particularly out of your forms. Were you consciously aware of chiaroscuro?
BONNET: Yes, I am interested in what comes out of the darkness, what stays hidden also.
BARRIE: You pull light out of your forms as though they have their own light source. Did that happen when you changed to oil painting?
BONNET: Yes, in oil you can do that.
BARRIE: You obviously learned many techniques at school but it was when you changed to oil paint that your work really took off. You also create a lot of spatial depth using light effects.
BONNET: I grew up with comics and it’s possible I could have taken some oil classes but it seemed too foreign for some reason. But it's true that when I changed from acrylic to oil I was finally able to paint what I wanted and everything came together.
BARRIE: We can see and touch paint which is different from the flatness of images we see on Instagram.
BONNET: Instagram is a great tool now but work can be very misunderstood because we don't see properly. There is no sense of scale, of depth, of brush strokes.
BARRIE: What do you like about painting on a large scale?
BONNET: I really like that it is lifesize or more because it is a different relation to the viewer,that envelopes. I want to take up space. That is why Louise Bourgeois is so great. It is important that women take physical space.
BARRIE: I love that. Women are taught to cross their legs and hold their arms together whereas men take up space by spreading their legs and arms out. That's so funny . Do you think you will ever do 40 feet tall paintings like Albert Oehlen ?
BONNET: I'd love to if I can figure it out.
BARRIE: Why did you like the groundbreaking book Umberto Eco wrote, On Ugliness?
BONNET: Researching ugliness specifically and historically while paying attention to all the psychological aspects of it was really very interesting.
BARRIE: Throughout art history artists have seen unconventional beauty in ugliness . Like Joel Peter Witkins empathetic photographs of physically deformed models, hermaphrodites,teratoids, bearded women, dwarfs, giants, people with horns, tails or without limbs, genitals or eyes. Or the great masterpieces of people with so-called “abnormalities” by Hieronymous Bosch and Francisco Goya, that subvert socially accepted conventions of physical normalcy. Whereas the Hollywood idea of beauty is usually limited and cliched - although it is opening up more today to be more inclusive of different ethnicities and body types. But conventional ideas of beauty are still predictable whereas we can see and feel much more in ugliness, that is unexpected.
Your paintings explore a lot of fascinating contradictions to create more complex aesthetic emotions; like combining humor with pain or unexpected positive outcomes to horror.
BONNET: My paintings are never just one thing. Ugliness or Beauty actually don’t interest me very much. Complicated feelings and emotions rarely come out as just one easily readable object. I am also interested in all the trickery we all employ to fit an ideal, to hide the fact that we are apes, and more specifically the shame that comes when it doesn’t work. That’s interesting.
BARRIE: The Walmart idea of emotion is just one thing. It is so shallow and schmaltzy that it reminds me of fascism because it is just sentimentalism.
BONNET: True it is like fascism because you were not allowed to feel what they didn’t tell you to feel.
BARRIE: As women we were told what to feel and to be just one thing that was expected.
BONNET: With fascism women especially are not allowed to have complicated ideas or emotions, or even time to think, it could make you wonder if you really want to spend your life being inseminated. I really think that men (not all, obviously) can never get over the fact that we will always know that our child is ours but they actually will never know 100% and that makes them nuts.
BARRIE: Exactly. Why did you move to Los Angeles?
BONNET: I came here because I wanted to take a year off after art school in Geneva. The physical openness means you can see freedom. People here are always so supportive. In Europe you are always so judged because the class system is still there. For me it was liberating. Although sexism is obviously here, it is different.
BARRIE: Right now you are in an exciting place with consecutive solo exhibitions at Nino Mier Gallery in Los Angeles, Gagosian in New York and Galerie Max Hetzler in Paris within only twelve months. You have broken through internationally which few women artists can do. Are your daughters excited?
BONNET: Yes, they can see it is possible. It's incredible. WM
Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.view all articles from this author