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Louise Bonnet’s Absurdist World of Grotesque Beauty at Nino Mier Gallery

Louise Bonnet, Figure with Tablecloth, 2021. Oil on linen, 72 x 60 in. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

Louise Bonnet: Vagabond

Nino Mier Gallery, Los Angeles

May 15 - June 19, 2021

By LITA BARRIE, June 2021

Louise Bonnet’s third solo exhibition at Nino Mier Gallery draws inspiration from Agnes Varda's enigmatic film Vagabond (1985) about a drifter, Mona, traversing the French countryside. These seven large paintings made during the pandemic lockdown evoke the feeling of being adrift - the new existential dilemma we all had to face alone with the loss of our usual structures for living.  

These paintings of discontinuous scenes recall still cinematic images from a pan shot, since we know they are part of a longer narrative but we can only imagine what happened before and after what we see. Bonnet told me she likes to watch movies with the sound off because it allows her a greater use of her imagination. Her paintings communicate powerful emotions even though the faces of the characters are unseen - either covered by helmets of blond hair or headless. Instead, she uses body contortions and hands to suggest the emotional states of her characters. She also eliminates eyes so that her figures cannot gaze back at the viewer because they are emotional receptacles rather than individuals. 

The Los Angeles-based Geneva-born artist draws as much inspiration from horror films as Renaissance and Medieval paintings - spiced by an absurdist sense of humor inspired by Robert Crumb and Basil Wolverton underground comix, which are popular in Switzerland. 

Trained in illustration and graphic design, Bonnet fell in love with the medium of oil paint - after years of working in acrylic - much as she fell in love with film as a child because it opened a door to a world where she could explore emotional depth through light effects. 

Louise Bonnet, Red Interior with Seated Figure, 2021. Oil on linen, 84 x 144 in. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

Bonnet uses chiaroscuro to create strong contrasts between light and dark and a sense of volume used by old master painters and in legendary cinematography - notably Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1974). Chiaroscuro was a technique made famous by da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Goya that draws on the traditions of “shadow-painting” in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Bonnet’s exhibition The Hours at Gagosian (Park and 75, New York) last fall was inspired by Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry to explore ways to structure time during the lockdown. 

When I spoke to Bonnet about how this new series of paintings is inspired by Vagabond, she said, “they are non-judgmental because Varda films are like this: not mean or cruel to the subject, but disturbing.”  Bonnet juxtaposes unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision using chiaroscuro for light effects that turn dream and reality into surreality. Her work has been described as “pop surrealism,” but it is far beyond a mere remix of source influences.  Her masterful skill set developed slowly from a childhood love of horror films, absurdist comix and classical religious paintings in which we see both beauty and pain in crucifixion and other horrors. Oil paint is the lifeblood of Bonnet’s artworks and the remarkable way she uses this medium enabled her to forge her own distinctive, signature style. 

Louise Bonnet, Interior with Orange Bed, 2021. Oil on linen, 72 x 120 in. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

The figures that inhabit Bonnet’s surrealist world have exaggerated abnormalities which embody emotional tension. These headless or faceless figures have inflated breasts and butts, with rubbery, supple hands and feet, bending and twisting like body contortionists. Their limbs stretch to the very edges of the canvas which suggests the limitations and constraints on their freedom. The obvious discomfort of these figures twisting themselves like pretzels makes us cringe. Bonnet allows us to feel their existential pain and physical discomfort and yet see the humor in it. Like Umberto Eco who praises the virtues of quirky bodies in his brilliant cultural analysis On Ugliness (2011), Bonnet concurs that ugly bodies are more interesting than beautiful ones because ugliness knows no bounds and is more fun.  

Bonnet situates her main characters in both interior and exterior spaces to heighten the emotional contrast between our private mental worlds, where we can feel claustrophobic - as we did during the lockdown - like her main character searching for a larger world outside. Bonnet told me these interior spaces are “like opening an Egyptian tomb and seeing a mummy.”  

Because these paintings play on the contradictions of disproportionate scale and volume, she uses bodies as metaphoric expressions of mental states. The diaphanous drapery and delicate garments stretched over protruding nipples and disproportioned bodies suggests the awkwardness and discomfort of inhabiting our own bodies. In Figure with Tablecloth, enlarged hands appear more awkward trying to hold transparent fabric to decorate a table. The oversized clenched hands of a reclining figure in Interior with Orange Bed and a seated figure in Red Interior with Seated Figure express determined self-control in tense situations. Both figures are watched by a pair of grotesque cherubs or sentries which serve as protective spirits that recall medieval paintings. The calculated wrongness in the physical distortions and strange abstract elements hold the viewer’s attention, as one is inspired to decipher clues like a detective in a crime scene. 

Louise Bonnet, Meadow, 2021. Oil on linen, 84 x 144 in. Courtesy of Nino Mier Gallery.

One work is more bracingly direct: Meadow is a revenge fantasy referencing a rape scene in the Varda movie. In an ominous wooded tableau, an aggressive assailant holds the leg of his recumbent victim with a gigantic hand but she retaliates by stabbing his wrist, unleashing a gushy stream of red blood in stark contrast to the dark background. This is the most explicitly violent scene in the exhibition, but it dramatizes the central theme of struggling to regain control.

Unlike the Varda movie which ends with the death of the protagonist, Bonnet suggests a more hopeful ending might be imminent in Landscape with Fig Leaves. In this Garden of Eden, the main character is naked and the figs appear like funny testicles. The protagonist is viewed from behind, with bulging buttocks looking out at an ocean view with her arm behind her, held by a hand that seems to pull her back and restrain her freedom and desire for adventure. In Bathers and Bather with Orange Mountain, headless torsos with enlarged turquoise hands and feet paddling in dark ocean water find more freedom in the outside world than living in their heads. 

Bonnet captures the zeitgeist of our time in these enigmatic vignettes which hold everything in suspense. Her unknowable faceless figures are often suspended in space and seem to defy gravity like the spirits around her. As with a cliffhanger in a serial drama, we are left in suspense because there is no end to this story any more than it had a beginning. Bonnet uses internal contradictions, unexpected surprises and non sequiturs to amplify tension, yet she pulls light out of darkness as a metaphor for hope amidst despair. WM


Lita Barrie

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.

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