The camera and the flesh

Ariane Lopez-Huici's portrait photographs have a definite performative aspect. By acts of supreme cajoling, this diminutive photographer gets all kinds of people, big and small, to reveal their radical, often radically unconventional, beauty. In her black-and-white photos, the frequently naked subjects are seen dancing, lounging and, sometimes, coupling in both art-historically redolent poses and states of wild abandon.

The camera and the fleshThemes like exoticism, orientalism and racial mixing that might otherwise degenerate into voyeuristic depictions of the Other or narcissistic depictions of the self are, in her work, deftly deconstructed and reconstituted with feminist brio and French critical savvy. Often the artist seems to impose a kind of mock-anthropological distance between the subject and her lens, hut just as often, the photos appear to plunge us deep within the subject's id.

Recently, the photos have taken on a less private, more streetwise edge. On yearly trips to Africa with her husband, Alain Kirili (a French sculptor who often works collaboratively with local artists in Mali and Senegal), she has photographed African men, usually clothed: a spirit man, a birdcatcher wearing a Jacobin-looking cap, gargantuan wrestlers (whose encounters she documents during pre-match). In her midcareer survey, "Ariane Lopez-Huici: Visions of Excess," at the Muse de Grenoble, the affinities between different types of performance--posed tableaux in a bare-bones studio and impromptu moments against a mud-caked wall--made me realize how her photography has remained remarkably consistent, yet pliable and open-ended. (A second survey show, titled simply "Ariane Lopez-Huici," was on view at IVAM in Valencia, Spain.)

The Grenoble show covered Lopez-Huici's photographic work from the early '90s to the present, though it was not presented in chronological order. Included were examples of her best known '90s series, including a nude depiction of a Puerto Rican family ("Deedee and Her Son, Danny," 1997), an oversize naked white Silenus and his lithe female partner in Giambologuesque poses suggesting abduction ("Holly and Valeria," 1998), and the pairing of female nudes in tableaux with faintly lesbian overtones--an Asian and a black woman, arms and legs entwined ("Toshiko and Toni," 1998). Absent were her more recent shots of three women in a bordello in Mali (included in the IVAM show), and in general, the representation of her post-2000 work seemed fragmentary.

The artist's biography, detailed in the catalogue, reveals her exposure to an intense visual culture. Born in 1945 of a Chilean Basque father and a mother from the Lorraine, Lopez-Huici grew up in Biarritz. Her great-aunt was Eugenia Huici Errazuriz, a patron of Stravinsky and Picasso in the 1910s, and a much-painted figure of the London and Parisian art worlds. After art school in the '60s in Perugia and Paris, Lopez-Huici embarked in 1970 on a five-year stint as the assistant of Brazilian film director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, the father of Cinema Novo, shuttling back and forth between Paris and Rio. In 1977 she married Kirili, and in 1980 they began to divide their time between New York and Paris. Their loft in Tribeca is often home to world-class jazz concerts (the hands of pianist Cecil Taylor are the subject of a series by Lopez-Huici, not in this show). In Paris, their tiny 18th-century courtyard house near the Place des Victoires seems to dictate smaller salons. These dramatically different spaces might sum up the divergent aspects of Lopez-Huici's work, which is at once intensely private and vertiginously public.

The feminist edge in her work involves a self-conscious attempt to broaden the canon of beauty--no anorectic mannequins for this artist, but rather austere unfoldings of Rubenesque flesh--which seems to be one of Lopez-Huici's dominant concerns. That's why I might quibble with the subtitle of her survey, "Visions of Excess," a phrase that tends to reinforce the strand of Romantic orientalism in her work. To my mind, it's the surprising instances of beauty, with their moral and physical implication of limits, rather than excess, which rendered this survey so memorable.

It makes sense to see Lopez-Huici's work, in part, as an outgrowth of her involvement with new Brazilian cinema. During her years of working with Pereira dos Santos, she absorbed lighting techniques and improvisation, and the esthetic of avant-garde film (Jonas Mekas and Maya Deren are two cited heroes)--all of which bear upon the ad hoc look of her mature, quasi-cinematic photographs. According to the artist, Cinema Novo was a form of resistance against the rightist military regime, and the movement's dominant figures, Pereira dos Santos and Glauber Rocha, routinely spent a couple of weeks in prison with the release of each new film. Conversely, these directors, who had been much inspired by the French Nouvelle Vague, were lionized in Paris at the time, and the heat of their best-known movies, such as Rio 40 Degrees, Macunaima and How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, can still be felt in Lopez-Huici's photos.

The anthropological cast to some of her photographs suggests a link to the tradition of Lent Riefenstahl and Carol Beckwith, who have substantially documented the Nuba people in lavish full-color coffee-table books. Yet none of these characterizations--feminist, cinematic, anthropological--quite defines Lopez-Huici's production. Rather, it's a combination of all these factors, digested through the particular temperament of spare black-and-white photographs, at times teasingly ironic, at others towering and august, that makes Lopez-Huici's work feel both free-flowing and iconic.

In the Grenoble show, the photos were presented as series, anywhere from 3 to 5 shots blown up into large-format flamed prints, producing a sensation of movement across and through pictorial space. The serial presentation enhanced the illusion of spontaneity and improvisation. Which is the defining moment for each subject?, we ask ourselves; which is the best print (and which would we choose for reproduction in an art magazine)?; or are these constructs the very kinds of notions Lopez-Huici is trying to break down? (Many of these shots, as well as variants, have been presented uncropped and unframed on other occasions, notably in her scrappy '90s shows at the now-defunct AC Project Room in New York.) Now framed and enshrined in a museum, they nevertheless summon that more low-key, all-bets-are-off moment of the early and mid-'90s.

One of the best keys to understanding Lopez-Huici's orientation stood literally outside the show. Toak (1995) is a 20-minute black-and-white film shown on a single monitor. Made in collaboration with writer and filmmaker Chrystel Egal (who shot the film and edited it with Lopez-Huici), it is a work both classically austere and demanding in the vanguard sense. (It exists in two versions, with and without the improvised accompaniments of jazz musician William Parker; the silent version was shown in Grenoble.) We sat in comfortable armchairs to watch a middle-aged white woman with long dark hair dancing nude in what appears to be a darkened loft space. The lighting is fitful, with a dramatic handheld lamp that often obscures much of the woman's form; the technology is primitive, reminiscent of early Warhol black-and-white films. We see her lunging, making early modern dance moves a la Mary Wigman--crawling, leaning, supporting herself against a metal structure and thereby flexing, making Atlas-like strides. The woman's dance feels brave and primitivistic, endurance-bound--an assertion of strength, frustration, sometimes desperation (though no emotion is facially delineated). To my eye, the choreography doesn't really go anywhere. At times the performer seems almost to be lashed to the metal structure that, the longer we look at it, begins to reveal itself as a sculpture by Alain Kirili. The woman--whose pudendum we see up close in shots that self-consciously recall Courbet's Origin of the World--turns out to be none other than Lopez-Huici herself, performing en pleine forme in the couple's Tribeca loft. This work--the title decodes as "To A.K." (to Alain Kirili)--emerged in the Grenoble show as Lopez-Huici's strongest hid for high-serious feminist credibility. Made on the occasion of her turning 50, Toak shows her physically pushing herself to the limits, and it pays off.