Valérie Belin is one of France’s most recognized and successful turn-of-the-century photographers, having developed and refined a distinctive style—both in form and content—that engages with major issues of our time, most notably the seductive gloss of surface appearances which are potent in so many facets of our culture. Skin Deep may be read literally, referencing the many alluring portraits in the exhibition, which touch upon issues of race, age, sexuality, gender, beauty and identity; or read figuratively, referring to the shallowness of our increasingly globalized and culturally homogenized world. A further reading even suggests a critique of photography itself: can this flat, two-dimensional medium, truly skin-deep, do justice to the complex world of three, or even four dimensions? Belin’s work answers this question in the affirmative.
This exhibition provides a wide-ranging look—and the most comprehensive yet—of the 40-plus projects the artist has undertaken since the mid-1990’s, with a special focus on those of the last decade. Her last retrospective, co-produced by museums in France, Switzerland and Holland, was held in 2007; since then, she has completed another 16 projects. Skin Deep selects work from all of these, while featuring key imagery from the earlier period.
Belin’s projects are always concise, and always conceived in series, varying from a minimal two works up to a maximum of sixteen (the norm being seven or eight). The precise number of works in each series is determined by her determination to explore the subject thoroughly; Belin terminates each series at the point she feels she has exhausted its potential.
Just where Belin’s ‘next’ project will go is always anyone’s guess. Over the years we have seen projects inspired by the movie industry, snack food, comic books, fashion models and mannequins (sometimes indistinguishable from each other), still-life painting, pin-ups, Parisian music halls, rare, vintage automobiles (and the wrecks of mass-produced cars), beauty pageants, Michael Jackson look-a-likes, obsessive collectors, body-building, ballroom dancers, the language of flowers, fake antiques, plastic refuse and diverse items of a throwaway culture—seemingly ‘worthless’ objects that through Belin’s eyes help to illuminate the dazzling complexity of our media-saturated lives.
Belin’s projects are distinct and varied, and each is usually exhibited in its entirety soon after its production. Our retrospective exhibition selects from the full range. Moreover, Skin Deep has the strength of juxtaposing images from one series with images from another, suggesting striking correspondences and illuminating the coherence of her oeuvre. As a whole, the exhibition provides a unique and trenchant critique of modern life.