Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Vanitas: The Work of Rachelle Soucy

A type of Memento Mori, Vanitas is a genre of art that is often characterized by a combination of enticing still life objects such as fruit, and flowers, along with reminders of the transient nature of life such as skulls and hourglasses.  This juxtaposition was meant to point out the ultimate shortcomings of worldly pleasures and aspirations.  In the past, Vanitas made very predictable moralistic statements about keeping one’s hand on the Lord’s plow and steering clear of the temptations of the world, but they also made a great an excuse to paint and contemplate pleasures of the world.

Rachelle Soucy is an artist who has added her creative spin and considerable talents to this genre in two series of photographic compositions, Vanitas and Vanitas (2).  Ms. Soucy has gracefully agreed to share her work and a conversation about it on The Daily Undertaker (please click on the images to enlarge them):  

Pat McNally: Rachelle, your work certainly has a wonderful sensuality to it, along with some very clear references to mortality, and although there is a playfulness to your work, I do not sense an irony or distancing yourself from the genre itself.  Instead, you seem to be honestly engaging with this theme, rather than making a statement about it.  While your work gives the viewer a lot of food for thought, absent are the simplistic moral preaching and guilty pleasure elements that were often a part of Vanitas pieces in the past.  What drew you to explore this form?

Rachelle Soucy:  The entire series originated through playfulness and discovery. It was a playful experiment that led me to explore themes of Memento Mori and Vanitas – I started by arranging still-lifes on top of my scanner. I was quickly inspired by the shallow depth of field created by the scanner – it shows incredible detail that quickly drops into beautiful shadows. This aesthetic is uncanny in its resemblance to 16th and17th Dutch paintings of Memento Mori. Coincidentally, I was arranging all these symbolic items, flowers, fruits, shells, and hourglasses, which are typically present in these types of paintings to symbolize life’s fleeting moments, futility of pleasure and ultimately reminders of one’s mortality. For my first series, I decided to place myself amongst these items. So you are correct, I am not making a statement about this theme, more so I am engaging directly as subject matter – just as the flowers are decaying, so too am I. In general, decay is an unusual subject matter that I was intrigued by. I wanted to explore this genre personally by capturing myself in a fleeting moment and to remind myself of the shortcomings of vanity.

PM:  I have seen a lot of work done with scanners, but yours really stands out.  It seems that you have avoided the clich├ęs common to this technique and really made great use of the possibilities and limits of the scanners depth of field, creating a kind of dream world.  Could you tell us about your experiences using this technique, and why you chose it for this project?  

RS: Using a scanner is really just an untraditional or atypical form of photography. In a way, my work is a polished descendant of the “face-down-on-the-photocopier” self portraits most of us have enjoyed. With this technique you can achieve unmatchable detail, because the scanner magnifies hidden details such as wrinkles and pores and even miniscule insects. Also, the colour and shadows create this ethereal-type aesthetic that works with the themes of Momento Mori and Vanitas. I didn’t directly choose this technique for the project; it was more of a happy accident. It was the aesthetics of this technical process that influenced my exploration of these themes, and not vice versa. I think this creative process is rare in art making, especially with new media.

PM: The long format and multiple frames of your work really bring us out of the scanner and add to its otherworldly feeling; chopping up single images and bringing multiple images into a single piece.  Diptychs and triptychs have certainly been a part of artistic expression, particularly in  sacred works since antiquity, but in your work, it brings me to the idea of our fragmented experience in the modern world where we have many images bombarding us from different sources at one time.  Do you think that this fragmentation and information overload has changed the way we think and behave?

RS: In these works, there is intentional use of diptychs and triptychs as religious reference. Also, the fragmentation on these portraits reminds me of stained glass. This only references antiquities though. As a modern artist, I find that fragmentation and information overload has led me to create by sampling. This process allows me to combine old world aesthetics and themes with new media and technology – resulting in my Vanitas series. It may not be considered purist, but it brings about unusual combinations, novel insights and discoveries. It has allowed me to be more playful and experimental in my artwork

PM: The skull has become such a common image in our society, that either everything has become a memento mori, or perhaps through overexposure, it has lost its power to bring our thoughts to our own mortality.  Your work makes use of the human skull, but in a very subtle way.  This is certainly a departure from the genre tradition.  Could you share your thoughts on the ever-presence of the skull in our culture, and how you chose to use it? 

RS: I chose not to use a single skull in my work, which perhaps has a negative connotation or has been over popularized in our culture. Instead, I strung these carved skull beads into prayer beads, showing the skull in repetition - symbolizing prayer and meditation. I choose to use the skull as a quiet reminder of mortality and not as a logo of death.
PM: Your sensual use of hair in these pieces ties them together, and creates a kind of oceanic depth and surreal texture to the work.  I don’t think I’ll see hair in the same way again, which is something that art at its best, really can do; help us to see things in a new way.  Has your work and thought in this project changed the way you see death?

RS: This is such a compliment, thank you! It is the hair that ties both series together. Piecing different scans together was easiest by matching the hair in different scans … and it is this which connects all of the works. By piecing multiple scans together, I could create the illusion of long flowing hair, a type of hyper-portrait. So these portraits aren’t completely representational, there are still illusions at work in these portraits connected to vanity.
Rachelle Soucy

RS: To answer your question: It has made me view not only death, but vanity differently, and bizarrely how both are so interconnected. It took a personal unarming to show these self-portraits, especially in large format. There is no hiding or concealing in these portraits, they are hyper-realistic, so signs of aging and blemishes are on full display. As a culture, we are obsessed with youthfulness and vanity, which is perhaps a manifestation of fears associated with aging and death. These portraits show impurities as reminder of mortality, but done in a graceful and whimsical manner. Ultimately, this project simultaneously allowed me to address my own aging and grapple with my own vanity. 

PM: And that is a wonderful testament to the power of creative expression.  Through this process, pieces of the overwhelming and unknowable can be addressed and worked through, both for the creator and the viewer.  Thank you so much for sharing your work and your thoughts with us.
For more of Rachelle Soucy's work, please visit her flickr page.
For more posts on the intersection of art and death, visit Art and Death

1 comment:

Katie said...

Rachelle's work is so beautiful. This blog always has the most interesting stories, people,topics, etc. Thank you

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