This exhibition, the debut UK show from Louise Bonnet, packs quite a punch. Large canvases show swollen female figures, wildly disproportionate. With their pointy boobs, big fat bums, tiny heads and odd-sized feet, they’re all uncomfortable, striking contorted poses, often constrained by ropes, shrouds and veils.
The oil paints are smoothly applied to these women, giving a vaguely inflatable, inorganic sheen to their skin. Not for Bonnet the textures and discolourations of Lucian Freud or Eric Fischl, those modern masters of the epidermis. But her bodies are, all the same, ineffably corporeal, real to us, in the fullness of their discomfort. All the more impressive, when you consider that none of her figures has a recognisable face.
“I am interested in the body. In what having a body feels like, or how we try to hide the way it feels. To contain it or control it. How it brings shame and humiliation because we cannot control it,” Bonnet has said. Born in Switzerland and based in Los Angeles since the 90s, she used to work with mainly gouache, ink and acrylic paint. But she started with oil paints in 2013, on the recommendation of a friend, having watched some YouTube tutorials. And she immediately saw her new style: “It was so clean! … I suddenly could do these shapes and create this sort of 3D effect. You can really have depth and have a real world rather than a flat appearance.”
To me, the colours, poses and textures call to mind a mid-century, post-Surreal aesthetic: Salvador Dalì’s palette, Tamara de Lempicka’s monumentality, with a twist of Monty Python. The show notes offer Cindy Sherman and Lucas Cranach. Bonnet herself has offered a more down-to-earth artistic influencer: cartoonist R Crumb. In that same interview, she also cited the Italian novelist Umberto Eco, whose On Ugliness is her favourite book.
I find her figures far from ugly. Those big round butts made me smile. The contortions - especially of the massive feet, arches bent at right angles - made me wince. But, days after seeing them, I’m finding it hard to get them out of my mind.
Louise Bonnet: New Works is at Max Hetzler (London). January 16 2020 - February 29 2020