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Talks & Interviews

The Garden of Virtual Beauty: A Conversation with Karine Laval

Vivid colors and florid imagery are just the surface of Karine Laval’s new series, Heterotopia. But the surface is important, too. With their glossy finishes, her photographs and sculptural installations create a luscious fantasy world. In her new exhibition, Artificial by Nature, Laval investigates senses of space, identity, and perception. Here, she speaks about the lure of artificial environments, Monet’s Water Lilies, and how her childhood in France—and travels abroad—have influenced everything from her choice of medium to her vibrant palette.

Karine Laval, Untitled 45, from the series Heterotopia, 2014. Courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery

Karine Laval, Untitled 45, from the series Heterotopia, 2014

Annika Klein: You lived in Algeria as a young person, as well as in the Caribbean. Has that experience informed your fascination with color?

Karine Laval: Yes, I think so. My upbringing and traveling, spending time in different—and what are perceived as very exotic—places has influenced my work. My whole family had a life of travel, particularly on my dad’s side. He grew up in several countries in Africa—Gabon, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, and Algeria—and moved around from one country to another every couple of years. The first time I went to Martinique I was six years old. My grandparents had moved there from Africa. One year, my parents sent my sister and me to spend the summer with our grandparents. They put us on the plane alone! We were probably among the first kids traveling trans-Atlantic by air on their own back then! Although I was young, I can still see my grandparents, behind the glass doors at the airport. I could already see the strong presence of nature outside, and I remember coming out of this airport and feeling that warmth taking me and enveloping me, the humidity of the tropics. Those lush green trees immediately surrounded us. I’m certain my sense of color and interest in the landscape in general have been inspired by those tropical landscapes.

Karine Laval, Poolscape #58 (Fire Island, New York) , 2010

Karine Laval, Poolscape #58 (Fire Island, New York), 2010

Klein: Your new body of work appears linked to the experience of these landscapes, but not as a literal representation. Is Impressionism also an influence?

Laval: Growing up in France, Monet is part of our culture. In his Water Lilies series, Monet began to deconstruct the image by veering toward abstraction. His paintings became more about light, color, and texture. For over ten years, my work has been inspired by and centered on water. I have even used water in the image-making process as an additional lens of the camera. In my Poolscapes series (2009–2012), I shot from above the surface of the water, which means you can see reflections of what’s outside the pool, while still seeing what’s under, what’s being distorted.

Klein: And this investigation led you further in to abstraction?

Laval: Yes, eventually my focus shifted from water being primarily a subject matter to being the substance and tool I employ to create the work. Since making Poolscapes, I have used the element to reveal transformed reality. So I naturally became interested in using other reflective surfaces, such as Mylar, mirrors, and glass, which echo the distortive qualities of water. My use of reflection is an attempt to explore the tension between representation and abstraction, and to further deconstruct the image. I started using Mylar, which I used with chemically-shifted film, in my series Altered States (2012).

These approaches are similar to how I worked for Heterotopia (2014–ongoing), because I worked with mirrors and glass, particularly with two-way mirrors, which mimic the reflective and see-through effects of the water surface. I moved away from the actual world, but not too far. Instead of the pool, I focused on the garden as a way to pursue my ongoing investigation of the notion of space and our relationship to the environment, both natural and artificial. Flowers are an obvious subject matter for their beauty, but they also offer patterns that can easily allude to abstract forms or alien bodies. I manipulate reflective materials to create layers that convey different meanings, emotions, and can also trigger the imagination of the viewer, as well as mine.

Karine Laval, ,Untitled #15 (Collision) from the series Altered States, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery

Karine Laval, Untitled #15 (Collision), from the series Altered States, 2012

Klein: The colors you use are vivid and fantastical, but there seems to be a sense of something ominous as well.

Laval: The colors and floral environment are very seductive. But, as you say, there is also something ominous, or something unnatural and strange. The landscapes are clearly a projection of my imagination and my fantasies, but also the product of playfulness in the process of creating the images. I see these landscapes as worlds that don’t exist yet, but which could exist beyond us. The acidic colors act as a vehicle to translate a world in transition or mutation, oscillating between a psychedelic vision of nature and a toxic and artificial post-natural world. They could also belong to the world of virtual reality.

Klein: How is that sense of otherworldliness reflected in the way you choose to present your work?

Laval: I integrated the process of image-making in the final presentation: I chose to face-mount the images to Plexiglas because this is the material some of my mirrors are made of. The effect is sleek and alludes to the screen of the computer. It’s also a very liquid, glossy finish, again referring to water. I purposely picked the high gloss finish because I welcome the reflections on the surface. It’s another layer, and it also reflects the gaze of the viewer.

Karine Laval, Untitled #7, from the series Black Palms, 2014,

Karine Laval, Untitled #7, from the series Black Palms, 2014

Klein: You become part of the work.

Laval: Yes. Also the thickness of the Plexiglas gives some depth, and a three dimensional effect. With Heterotopia, I’m introducing my first sculpture. There is a new technology where you can print directly onto Plexiglas; one sculpture has multiple layers of this printed Plexiglas as well as a two-way mirror, which reveals or conceals what is behind it, or both, depending on which side you’re on and how it is lit. As you move in front and around the sculpture, your perception of the image changes. I see it as a metaphor for what photography does. It reveals, but it conceals at the same time.

Klein: Do you feel that the direction you want to move into is more sculptural?

Laval: Yes, for the past few years I’ve wanted to present my work in relationship to architecture. My work is rooted in the landscape and the identity of space anyway, whether it’s about the natural environment, or the built environment, swimming pools, or even my more recent abstract work. When we speak of space, we speak of three-dimensionality, so I think it’s natural that I’m moving in the direction of sculpture. But I’ve also worked in video for about ten years and have made immersive, multimedia projects with nonprofit organizations and alternative spaces. I’m interested in mixing sound, as well as moving and still images to create an environment, an experience for the viewer.

Karine Laval, Untitled 56, from the series Heterotopia,

Karine Laval, Untitled 56, from the series Heterotopia, 2014–ongoing. All images courtesy the artist and Benrubi Gallery, New York

Klein: You’ve mentioned other mediums. What are your origins with photography?

Laval: My grandparents lived in Bièvres, a small village near Paris, where the first museum of photography was opened in France. They owned a restaurant where Nadar once developed his film in the bathroom, and the pictures he developed there included some of his first aerial photographs of Paris. I have very vivid memory of going to see my grandparents and visiting that little museum where there were daguerreotypes and old cameras from the nineteenth century. And when I was about eleven or twelve, my grandfather gave me his camera, which I still have. When I started my career—my adventure with photography—I was drawn to photojournalism. I was full of ideals. I worked at the UN for four years. The first photographers that really struck me were photographers working in black and white mostly, such as Josef Koudelka, Gilles Perez, and William Klein. I love the way Klein exploded the frame. And love Daido Moriyama for the same reason. In my younger years I was drawn to William Eggleston and his the way the intensity of his colors almost look like fields of paint.

Klein: For Heterotopia and Black Palms, what led you to make works about perception and seeing?

Laval: Even as a child, I have always been interested in perception. Perhaps it comes from the perception of my own identity—another kind of perception that’s not necessarily optical. My own identity is about knowing where my family came from, but also my own sexual identity, which I was aware of from an early age. When you have those feelings and that questioning within you, it translates into the way you see the world, or the way you want to see the world. And of course my encounter with photography and cinema at an early age made me question perception. I remember when I was a teenager The Twilight Zone was showing on TV in France. I was watching that and wondering what is that world that we don’t see. Is it possible that there is really a world beyond our field of vision? With this body of work I tried to enter that world, that fourth dimension.

Annika Klein is the Editorial Assistant at Aperture magazine.

Karine Laval: Artificial by Nature is on view at Benrubi Gallery, New York, through July 1, 2016.

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