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Behind the scenes: Valérie Belin

16 March, 2010

I just received the installation shots above for our current exhibition Valérie Belin: Made Up from our staff photographer, Walter Silver. Both the artist and I were delighted to see them — they perfectly capture the idea behind the show. The gallery we used is two stories, with the second floor open to below. Downstairs are selections from the American art collection, upstairs is Valérie’s exhibition. Because so much of the artist’s work is about categorization, it was important to create a relationship between the exhibition and neighboring works. In these shots you can see the weather vanes that push up into the plane of the second floor gallery from the American art installation, and the George Washington hotel sign hanging just in front of one of Valérie’s mannequin photographs. You also get a sense of the scale of the photographs, which are as tall as the doors. There were interesting parallels between the photo portraits upstairs and the 18th and 19th century American portrait paintings underneath them though it’s hard to see that here.

We used a few tricks to make the gallery seem bigger than it is (although it actually is pretty big). White walls helped make the room seem larger, and we also lit the corners more than usual, so there was less of a drop off visually. We also left the second floor gallery completely uncluttered so there are long sight lines, creating a feeling of distance. This gave the installation a clean, contemporary look. The fruit piece at the top of the stairs is just slightly off-center, making the exhibit feel less contained to people coming up the stairs. We hung the pictures a little lower than normal, and I think it helped. Even though the pictures are large and impressive, they still feel intimate.

Valérie is incredibly meticulous, and her photographs are expertly crafted. Unlike many artists she doesn’t feel confident sequencing and positioning her work so she was happy to let us take charge of the installation. I think it came out well (and the artist really liked it).

The show seems to have gotten under the skin of many of our visitors, and there are comments in the guest book from several people in who say they came repeatedly because it made them think and they wanted to see it again. It’s a great compliment to the artist, because one of the things she’s trying to do is pry apart questions of representation and display. What makes a photograph special? These are questions that invite contemplation.

It was a privilege to have Valérie as one of the first artists in our new photography program. Before showing with us, her last major exhibition was at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This exhibition reflects my hope that we will increasingly engage serious contemporary artists at the Peabody Essex Museum.

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