Critics’ Picks

Éric Poitevin, Untitled, 2002, color photograph, 76 x 94".

Éric Poitevin, Untitled, 2002, color photograph, 76 x 94".


Éric Poitevin

French Academy of Rome, Villa Medici
Viale della Trinità dei Monti, 1
September 23, 2011–January 15, 2012

Éric Poitevin casts the same detached, apparently neutral eye on all his subjects. As far as studio shots are concerned, he applies a uniform scheme (monochrome background, no shadows, figure centered in the frame) to photographs depicting everything from the carcass of a slaughtered ram to a weathered tree trunk to the naked body of an elderly woman. One intuits that these decisions are driven by not only visual principles but also, we might say, moral ones: What his images exhibit is a refusal to establish a hierarchy among the natural kingdoms. In photograph after photograph, what first seems to be an element of detachment is revealed to be a form of laical piety—a severe compassion, more Stoic than Buddhist, for living creatures and for their bodies, vulnerable to the ravages of time.

The French photographer’s retrospective at Villa Medici underscores this spirit of egalitarianism through carefully calculated correspondences and symmetries. Large vertical prints depicting the carcasses of animals hung by their paws correspond to images, on the opposite wall, of tree trunks corroded by weather; the portraits that open the exhibition resonate with the photographs of skulls that conclude it. Although the show spans approximately twenty years of Poitevin’s work, chronology seems to count for little. The photographs are largely color C-prints, and all follow the same principles. An exception is “Les Réligieuses” (Nuns)—the only series, moreover, to have a title. Poitevin made these silver print portraits of sisters in garb while working as a fellow at the Villa Medici in 1990. The masterly black-and-white prints look almost like works by Hiroshi Sugimoto in reverse; while in the Japanese artist’s photographs, the wax of Madame Tussaud’s statues seems like flesh, here the opposite is true: Flesh seems like wax, fixed in an everlasting pose.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.