“I photograph all the time – it’s a way of being alive and being connected,” the Belgian photographer says, as his first US solo exhibition is staged in New York
If all the world is a stage, Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert is dancing through life, choreographing his own signature blend of visual poetry. As one of the pioneers of colour photography, Gruyaert has travelled the globe creating an archive of atmospheric portraits of places, evocative landscapes of life that both define and transcend the times in which they were made.
“I’m very interested in the magnetic things about photography: how things are attracting and how things attract me,” Gruyaert, now 79, says from his home in Paris, where he has lived since the 1960s. “There’s a little mystery that I find fascinating.”
That sense of the enigmatic, ambivalent, not entirely knowable world infuses his work. This month, a selection of photographs made in France, Spain, Belgium, Morocco, Japan, India, Russia and the US between 1981 and 2017 can be seen in Gruyaert’s first US solo exhibition.
Hailing from a strict Catholic Flemish family, Gruyeart’s father saw art as a sin, but by the age of 16 the young artist knew filmmaking and photography were to be his calling in life. Growing up in Belgium, Gruyaert saw life in shades of black and white, until he visited the US in his twenties.
In 1968, a trip to New York introduced Gruyaert to Pop Art and the power of colour to transform the mundane into something magical. “I had been working in Belgium in black and white because I didn’t see any colour; it was a very dull place,” Gruyaert recalls. “Seeing Pop Art and walking around New York, I saw painters were interested in a certain banality, in consumption products, and a capitalist side – things that would be kind of vulgar as a European because it’s not aesthetical.”
Gruyaert immediately understood that colour could transform the commonplace into an exotic realm, working under a wide array of lighting situations in order to examine and explore the cultural sensibilities of his chosen milieu. In Moscow during the early 80s, the colours were muted, flat, and drained of life, while the colours of Marrakesh were so dazzling, Gruyaert sought out light situations that would keep them from overwhelming the image he made.
“It is a discovery: you paint with a different palette,” he says. “It is like having different love affairs. I prefer to be open for different experiences. I’m not always looking for the same. I like to be surprised.”
The element of serendipity that infuses Gruyaert’s work is a testament to the photographer’s presence of mind in the moment. “It’s a choreography, the way you move,” he says. “There’s a power thing going on, a strange possession. It’s a bit like a trance. I need to do it. I photograph all the time. It’s a way of being alive and being connected.”
Gruyaert’s connection to the world is more primal than words and ideas: it exists in the physical realm, and the pleasures of sight itself. “I’m not an intellectual. I have no concept. I don’t want to explain or say anything – I have no clue,” he says. “There’s one intention: being open and relating to things. It’s important to be sensitive to different cultures but there is no opinion about it. That’s why I am not at all a journalist even though I am in Magnum. But I am a documentary photographer, and in the end it’s important to say things about particular places and particular times.”
Eschewing the idea of objectivity in favour of the subjective response, Gruyaert embraces the immediacy of experience dictated by the qualities of light, colour, movement, and composition, which can make the still image endlessly fascinating. “What I love is to make is order out of chaos,” he reveals. “When things are complex, I am trying to make something which makes sense, which holds. I work for myself. I’m not thinking I am making art.”
Harry Gruyaert is at Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York from January 23 – March 14, 2020.
Artist Sophie Varin transforms her dreams into miniature paintings
For each issue, YY! art showcases the French artistic scene’s most promising young talents. Today, focus on painter Sophie Varin, whose miniature paintings inhabited by hazy characters invite viewers into a dreamlike world.
Portraits by Charlotte Krieger
Styling by Samuel François
Text by Matthieu Jacquet
28-year-old French painter Sophie Varin likes to describe her canvases as what you see immediately on waking from a dream, when reality is distorted in your barely opened eyes. In her atmospheric work, the effect is achieved through the vivid greens, oranges and purples of incandes- cent meadows, celestial pools and magical doors, oneiric situations peopled with blue and violet silhouettes haloed with bright light. The worlds she depicts are vast, yet it is the miniature that she has chosen as her medium, her post- card works as pocket-sized as a smartphone.
Initially attracted to video and sculpture, Varin turned to painting at the end of her studies in Rotterdam, imagining for her diploma a short detective novel that encouraged her to develop a more narrative practice. But it would be wrong to read her paintings as a silent storyboard for a linear script, since each scenario in a series has neither beginning nor end and is only related to its fellows by the author’s state of mind at the moment she made it. Working rapidly, almost impatiently, in a sort of frenzied spontaneity, Varin lays down her scenes in a single coat of oil which she dilutes on a non-stretched canvas. Wet, porous and applied with large brushes, the paint shuns all sharpness of line, haloing its subjects with diffused light. At once humble and greedy, Varin saturates her canvases in paint, which covers the sides and part of the back once they have been stretched onto the chassis.
Today based in Brussels, Varin continues to refine her pic- torial rhetoric of imprecision. While her substantial image bank is ever expanding, she never lets it take over her point of view, always drawing inspiration from the hazy imprint such images leave in her memory. Her meadows are devoid of flowers, her paths and mountains lose their angularity as though drawn with the rounded strokes of a child, while her interiors are pared down to the essential, vibrating to the accidents of approximate perspective. As for the little figures that people her scenes, they have become almost spectral: gender melts away in a process of disembodiment that produces a neutral silhouette, vague and mechanical gestures, and faces frozen into grimacing masks.
In an era that celebrates the individual identity, Varin swims against the tide, towards the universal, an ideal that as a child she found in folktales. Drawn into her world, the viewer is caught up in the web of work whose subject and emotion can be neither identified nor authenticated, trapped as it is in un- certainty, an ambiguity that was nicely encapsulated in the title of her first solo exhibition in Paris: Ni Bien Ni Mal (Neither Good Nor Bad)… Instead she haunts the in-between, where art is at its most fertile.
Sophie Varin is represented by the Sultana Gallery in Paris.
Singapore-based illustrator Kezia Gabriella’s works are chaotic but “in a good way”
The illustrator combines distorted shapes, a combination of patterns, giant hands and an unusual perspective in her colourful work.
Singapore-based art director and illustrator Kezia Gabriella’s work is inspired by the beauty of the everyday, “like a conversation that I had with my partner, things that my neighbours said, an article that I read, food that I had for lunch, and so on,” she tells us. Despite this, Kezia’s works are anything but pedestrian, instead, they are filled with vibrancy thanks to a bold colour palette, a combination of digital brushes, and unique compositions and characters.
Currently, Kezia works as a freelance illustrator alongside running a creative collective called Antinormal with her partner Nicholas Oh. A career within her chosen medium wasn’t always the plan, however. “During my childhood, I used to draw on any surface I could find — school textbooks, walls, invoices in my parents’ office — I was borderline obsessed with it. However, I used to think of drawing as a hobby and did not really consider it as a career choice,” she recalls. This all changed after Kezia completed her degree and started working full-time – as illustration became a way to unwind from her hectic 9-6 day job in the advertising industry.
She started off by “illustrating hilarious office stories or things that I overheard from my friends,” she recalls and, soon after, quit advertising to purse a career in illustration. Today, Kezia primarily produces editorial projects and brand illustrations, each complete with her oddly-shaped human or animal characters as the focal point. “Usually their poses and proportions don’t really make sense, and I use body gesture, a lot of stretch and squash, and dead-panned expression to showcase the emotions,” she describes. These distinctive figures are based on objects that Kezia finds around her home “like bottles, lamps, and food packaging,” which she then slaps “a face, arms and legs” on to.
While the colours and characters of Kezia’s work change, one thing that remains the same is their energy, something which seems to stem from her restlessness and need to experiment. “The way I approach my works is ever-changing. I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with just one way of doing things,” she remarks on why she constantly flips between techniques and media. This also applies to the kinds of projects she likes to work on. “I get excited when there is an open-brief that challenges me to work with a medium that I’m not familiar with,” she says. “There’s a beauty in not knowing how your work will turn out.”
This means that Kezia’s portfolio is full to the brim with exciting work, both for clients but also with self-initiated projects. Recently, she completed a piece for a column in Medium called My Therapist Says. While editorial often requires you to be literal, Kezia was able to introduce abstract patterns into this piece “as visual cues to portray self-interests in a conversation.” In another project, she created illustrations for the packing of an artisanal beer brand. “The brief was to create an artwork that visualises the flavour profile of the brews,” she explains. “I played with vibrant colours and loose outlines for my characters, creating a scene that brings the flavour to life.”
In a more personal project, Kezia’s been producing works that are inspired by Henri Matisse. The series consists of artworks depicting modern life, “like being a coach potato, doing chores and being occupied with our phones – all painted in his colour palette.” While these pieces are inspired by the famous artist, they very much bear the hallmarks of Kezia’s work: distorted shapes, a combination of patterns, giant hands and an unusual perspective. “I like drawing crowds, clothes, and people interacting with each other because there are a lot of things going on,” she says. “A lot of people say that they don’t know what to look at when they see my work. I want to emphasise freedom and randomness as the core of my works. It’s almost chaotic, I think, but hopefully in a good way.”
Ultimately, it’s this element of chaos that means Kezia’s work portrays what she loves about illustration so much: “There’s no so-called ‘right’ way of doing things because there are many ways to visualise the message that you want to convey.” This means it’s a medium which “encourages everyone, artists or non-artists, to create and voice their opinions,” she concludes, astutely.
Oli Hillyer-Riley documents a close knit, and under-threat, surfing community in Nigeria
Oli met the young community while in Nigeria working on a job for Vans, and was immediately taken by the love and passion they had for each other and the sport.
Born and raised in Bournemouth and now based in London, photographer Oli Hillyer-Riley uses his camera to capture “the emotions, reactions, experiences and friendships of whom I’m with,” he tells us. Borne from his fascination with people, Oli’s practice also stems from his love of extreme sports growing up. “As a teenager, I would hoard hundreds of sports magazines, Thrasher, Carve, Ride Bmx were amongst my favourites. I remember being inspired by the individuals who were pushing the boundaries to get the shots. I aspired to be in that position.”
Oli, therefore, relishes any shoot where he’s pushed physically or mentally, “whether it’s treading water in 20-foot waves (more elegant than getting out the water with flippers) or being in a studio for a highly demanding commercial job,” he adds, “anything to get my adrenaline going excites me.”
Recently, Oli was commissioned by Vans to head to Nigeria and photograph some of their professional surfers. And it was in Lagos that the photographer discovered more than he was bargaining for, in the form of the Tarkwa Bay surf club. “The community, which is primarily made up of children and teenagers, don’t have a lot, but the ocean and the connection between the two is unparalleled, something that I hugely admired,” Oli explains. This admiration prompted him to, not only carry out his commission for Vans while in Nigeria, but also to produce another body of work titled No Wahala. Now published as a book of the same name, the series documents this young surfing community, and the process of them getting to know each other.
“It was the love and passion these surfers (using broken boards) had for each other and the sport which made me spend a week side by side with them,” Oli explains. “I wanted to know everything, what made certain individuals tick, what made them laugh and what pissed them off.”
Coming into a community for a short while and photographing it, only to then leave, often presents photographers with a moral dilemma. And Oli was keenly aware of it. While he was meticulous in making sure he documented enough to create a strong body of work, “I would only photograph when necessary” with the majority of his time spent simply enjoying his newfound company. It’s an approach he often takes when working, and before picking up his camera, he will “read and observe those I am photographing,” he tells us, “[if] I see a situation or behaviour that evokes emotion and reality, then I make it my aim capture it.”
GalleryOli Hillyer-Riley: No Wahala
In turn, the images in No Wahala possess an effortless joy to them, feeling more like an album of photos from a holiday with friends than a standardised documentary photography project. To achieve this look, Oli worked with what was around him – natural light. “We made certain aesthetic decisions partly due to the light, as the children would only hang around in two spots. You’d have dusk at one location which created a hazy ‘golden hour’ look and the other location creating a blue cool hue,” he explains. “From this, certain portraits and action shots were captured in one or the other location, but personalities also had a big part to play. You’d have some individuals who were real live wires, full of energy and the golden hour haze really matched this, in comparison some older teenagers were timid but kind and caring, and as a result, the blue cool hue location felt akin to them.”
Initially, the goal was for the profits of the book to go to NGO worker John Michelletti who oversees the progression and development of the surfers through the Tarkwa Bay surf club. This money would be used to buy new surfboards, swimwear and even subsidise travel to nearby countries for surf competitions. But, on Tuesday 21 January 2020, this peaceful beachside community was violently evicted by the Nigerian Navy during an operation to stop oil theft from pipelines that run across the island. Hundreds of innocent families were left destitute – their homes and personal belongings destroyed. “Right now, our main priority is taking care of the kids and their families,” says John. “We’re using any funds that the club had saved to provide food, aid and assist with rebuilding homes, or relocating affected families where this is not possible.”
The profits from No Wahala will now go to helping the community of Tarkwa Bay in any way possible and is available to purchase on Oli’s website.
Oli’s next project will also focus on a community of young adults, this time in and around London, he tells us. Having been several years in the making, it looks at teenagers who have found a passion in their specialised bicycles as a means of escaping gang life. “At the moment my interests lie in telling the stories of youth culture no matter where in the world or what the background,” he says, concluding, “I find them to be surprising, diverse and full of personality worth showcasing.”