By Mark Feeney
A very different sense of style and fashion is on display in "Valerie Belin: Made Up." Belin is a French photographer, and this is her first US solo show. There are 17 pictures in the show, and they're very large. Most are in the vicinity of 5 feet by 4 feet.
Style, artifice, and their ungainly stepchild, affectation, have long drawn Belin. She's done photographic studies of Michael Jackson impersonators, showgirls, bodybuilders, and lapdogs. Here she photographs mannequins that look almost human, a human who looks almost like a mannequin (she’s a cabaret performer who’s identically posed in three shots, each time wearing a different costume), gargantuan still lifes, and a pair of chip bags.
These are items whose artifice we tend to ignore. Belin uses scale to reorient them. Her pictures raise questions about our idea of beauty (those chip bags are surprisingly attractive). They also confront the nature of portraiture. Is it meant to present or reveal? Well, both, of course, but by emphasizing presentation at the expense of revelation she makes us see the portrait afresh.
The effect of Belin's work is a bit creepy - which is both intentional and not. The creepiness is a function of novelty and the unnervingness that can come with it. (Though there's novelty, and then there's novelty: The Surrealists were using dolls to question the representation of reality 80 years ago.) But there's also the creepiness of such relentless control. Even the most exacting photographer can't help but leave some room for chance in his or her work. The great thing about a mannequin, from Belin's point of view, is that it takes the life out of lifelike. It doesn't matter to her that any good portrait can't help but be a collaboration between photographer and sitter.
Valerie Belin: Made Up
The Peabody Essex Museum
East India Square, Salem
Through Feb. 7
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