Slavica Perkovic

Galerie Jean-Pierre Lambert

Slavica Perkovic’s “Morts Imaginaires” (Imaginary deaths, 1990) might also be called “Portraits of the Artist as Still Life.” Looking at these photographs—black-and-whites and Cibachromes of a woman variously lying, sitting, or standing in and among strewn flowers and floating fishes—I am struck by their impenetrability. The images are as elusive as “imaginary deaths” would suggest, not only in their meanings (is this really death, or afterlife, or some kind of a Jungian dream?), but in their very making. For these sturdily classical tableaux—frontal, centered compositions in shallow stage spaces lined with flowing drapery—appear behind a screen of blotches and scars created by the selective burning of the negatives. The result of this double mise-en-scène is an ambiguous mix of spirituality, sensuousness, seduction, and violence, which becomes all the more provocative for the fact of being expressed in the first person singular: with two exceptions (which substitute reproductions of Ingres odalisques), the model is the photographer herself.

In the black and white photos, which were the point of departure for the series, the visual distancing takes on the feel of time: the burning process has produced a chalky patina that transforms the tableaux into a cross between the Pompeii frescoes and Georges Méliès’ magic cinema. With the shift to Cibachrome, the effect is more dreamlike, as if time were suspended altogether in the play between the heightened colors and textures and the deforming passage of the flame. This produces, among other things, an eerie yellow glow where the gelatin itself has been burned.

Also heightened is the suggestiveness of the subject matter: like the odalisque, the artist/model is clearly offered to the viewer as an object of desire, with her robe pulled down below her breasts or skirt hiked up to her waist, or with a bouquet of red roses placed between her thighs. But unlike the odalisque and other traditional symbols of feminine availability, her pseudo-lifeless body shows little enthusiasm for the implicit task of gratifying the viewer’s gaze. There is a certain element of tease in this anatomical hide-and-seek, but there is also a pointed challenge to the comfortable familiarity of voyeurism as practiced in the last five hundred years of European visual arts. Not only is the model uncooperative, but she is the artist, and on which side of the camera does that leave the viewer/voyeur?

Perkovic came to Paris from Zagreb, Yugoslavia, in 1978, and she came to photography from art history, theater, and filmmaking. If, as she insists, it is her “Slavic soul” (along with an interest in reincarnation) that accounts for the spiritual resonance of these photographs, their sense of color, space, and time have clearly been shaped by her study of Renaissance and Baroque painting, of theater, and of experimental cinema. Undoubtedly it is in the ongoing combination, and confrontation, of her cultures, languages, and callings that the work acquires its rigor as image and idea. The “Morts Imaginaires” are not a linear series of variations on a theme, but an accumulation of contradictions: between memory and death, religion and science, painting and photography, men and women, looking and seeing. As such, they are also a graphic record of risks taken, and a no-less graphic reminder of the necessity of taking risks.

Miriam Rosen