Los Angeles

Hellen van Meene

Marc Foxx Gallery

The modestly scaled, square color images included in Dutch artist Hellen van Meene’s first solo US exhibition depict seemingly vulnerable pubescent girls in poses and stages of undress that hint at sexual awakening. Because the photos address a time in life when the most common of experiences can be the most deeply personal and revealing, the viewer feels like an intruder—yet not an entirely unwelcome one.

In Untitled, 1998, a girl in her underwear awkwardly cranes to press her cheek against a smooth railing; in Untitled, 1999, another girl presses her cheek against what looks like a clothesline, carving a groove into the soft curvature of her skin. Both scenes afford the viewer insight into a self-knowledge being gained by the young women in the pictures; these are moments when they are becoming aware of their capacity for bodily sensation. Or perhaps, knowing that they are being watched, they simply show their ability to signal such awareness. All the images in this exhibition blur the boundaries between public and private moments, between voyeurism and innocent observation on the part of the photographer/viewer, and between distinctions as to whether the girls depicted are acting naturally, being posed, self-consciously posing themselves, or, more strangely, naturally assuming artificial poses.

Among the five “Series Blanc” images, 1995–98, is a picture of a girl in a white lace dress clearly meant to be worn with an undergarment she lacks; at face value, the implications of this image are varied and obvious, but what remains unresolved is whether this situation involves an unaware girl being subjected to a sophisticated sexual coding or merely documents one of those moments when a youth begins to understand titillation, fetish, and transgression. Or is this a choreographed simulation of such a scenario? Such ambiguity is van Meene’s métier. Witness the girl with her leg draped over a railing; the girl who just hung her stockings in a tree; the girl in strapless bra and glistening makeup, with subtle marks on her skin, wearing an expression somewhere between a grin and a grimace. One girl lowers the neckline of her dress, revealing her shoulders as well as a scuffed elbow that could be innocent or sinister. Another clasps her hands at her chest in what could be an intensely emotional moment or a bad acting job—or is it an intensely emotional moment registered via the mimicry of a bad acting job?

The core question that remains unanswered is not only who is the subject and who the object of these photographs, but who is subject and object in a larger world where these young women are positioned and position themselves on the receiving end of myriad gazes.

Christopher Miles