In her disquieting canvases and drawings, Iris Levasseur embraces the human form as both medium and message. “What’s irresistible,” she confessed in a recent interview, “is giving birth to bodies, having at your disposal the bodies you dream of.” In “Tauromachy,” her recent exhibition of six large-format oils (2008 and ’09) and five graphite works on paper (all 2009), she took the bullfight, with its mix of spectacle and slaughter, as an allegory for human relations. Straddling the permeable divide between sexual pleasure and physical brutality, these dreamscapes might be mistaken for nightmares.
All the paintings in “Tauromachy” present highly charged but decidedly ambiguous interactions among individuals, suggesting scenes of violation. In Weeping Figures two young men and a woman tower over a well-dressed man lying with his eyes closed in a nearly fetal position. One of his shirt cuffs is stained blood red. Tauromachy, from which the exhibition takes its name, depicts a barefoot female outstretched on what appears to be a sidewalk with three menacing male youths standing around her. Night has fallen, and one of the teens stares coldly into her chalky corpselike face while adjusting his low-riding jeans. With their provocative titles, Deposition and Burnt offer similarly laden scenarios. Are the recurring recumbent figures sleeping, unconscious or dead? Are their erect counterparts merely witnesses to an accident, or perpetrators of a crime? In Levasseur’s oeuvre, questions only beget other questions.
With their indeterminate, shallow settings, stark lighting and deftly applied, acrid colors, these paintings pulsate with theatricality. Levasseur admits a penchant for the harsh, ruthless figuration of Max Beckmann and Otto Dix, but her sinister creations also bring to mind Francis Bacon.
Levasseur’s drawings are much more overt in their exploration of violence and carnal gratification. The series “Some Lives of the Tarantula,” which takes its title from Kathy Acker’s early novel about sexual exploitation and alienation, portrays figures in pairs and threesomes, sometimes noticeably mismatched in age or sporting ghoulish masks, huddled together in various states of undress. In one work, a youthful male with a devilish face covers his crotch with his right hand and pulls down his briefs with his left. A toothy female kneels next to him, eager to service. In another, a middle-aged man in underwear dons a woman’s wig and bends over a young female; she is down on all fours in heels and panties with her buttocks in the air. Levasseur’s mark-making is frenetic, heightening the erotic tension. Such risqué ruminations belong to the willfully perverse fetishistic worlds of Pierre Klossowski and Pierre Molinier.
The parable that Levasseur staged in “Tauromachy” is not one involving man and beast, as in the bullring, but is devoted, rather, to humans. While a rich theme in art history (think Goya, Manet and Picasso), the tauromachy for Levasseur is a metaphor for day-to-day struggles. On a personal level, it speaks to her physical confrontation with the canvas. More broadly, the bullfight evokes the hardships she witnesses in the rough Parisian neighborhoods where she lives and works.
Photo: Iris Levasseur: Weeping Figures, 2009, oil on canvas, 763⁄4 by 843⁄4 inches; at Odile Ouizeman.