No matter what medium she is working in, artist and filmmaker Agnès Varda’s gift has always been for bringing to light the story that exists in the margins, previously unseen. Considered one of the foundational directors of French New Wave, she began her career in the early 1950s as a photographer before moving on to make such iconic films as Chloe from 5 to 7 and The Gleaners and I. For the past fifteen years or so, she has focused her interest on art.
While it is too small to properly be considered a retrospective, Varda’s first New York exhibition at Blum & Poe spans all the decades of her career. It begins with 18 vintage black-and-white photographs from her personal archives, which she first showed in the courtyard of her house in Paris (where she still lives) in 1954. These stylized images demonstrate that from the beginning Varda possessed an acute eye towards framing, placing her firmly within the pantheon of 20th-century photography. One can see the influences of earlier photographers like Edward Weston, Josef Sudek, and Henri Cartier-Bresson just as clearly as one can see those whom she, in turn, has influenced. Mardi gras (1953), for instance, depicting three children wearing unnerving facemasks, seems to foretell the career of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
This insight into Varda’s earliest work sets the tone for the remainder of the show. Each image tells a visual short story, or perhaps more to the point, each one gives just enough information that individual viewers can’t help but imagine a story for what they see before them. The impulse towards narrative throbs.
Such allowances for viewer interpretation are arguably most evident in her interactive work, Le Triptyque de Nourmoutier (2004-2005). A three-channel video tableau, inspired by Baroque Flemish painting, unfolds on hinged wall panels. An old woman, a younger woman, and a middle-aged man sit in silence around a country kitchen table. Each is absorbed in an activity: the old woman untangles a ball of twine; the younger works her way through a heap of potatoes, meticulously peeling and chopping; and all the while the man steadily downs a glass of beer. On the left-hand panel, a sea licks the sandy shore as two children emerge and disappear from the frame, playing and digging on the beach. On the right-hand panel, a well-stocked dishware cupboard, seemingly in an anteroom to the central kitchen, sits in wait. The methodical undertakings in the kitchen are interrupted by various comings-and-goings of the three adults (who as a result sometimes enter into the tableaux of the side panels), but never by their voices. Though they are silent their actions unveil singular personalities. But lest the viewer become too complacent with these characterizations, Varda has incorporated another component on the work. The audience is welcomed to close one or both of the hinged side panels at will, which necessarily redirects the onscreen action, changing the perceived story and shifting its tensions at whim. The work plays with that most human of binaries: the need to know a story and the need to interject oneself as a participant.
Shrewd as it may be for Varda to point this binary out to her audience, she is equally willing to turn the notion upon her own imagination. In Les gens de la terrasse (2012) she attempts to recreate her 1956 photograph, La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille, using a set designed to look like le Corbusier’s terrace and actors portraying the unknown figures of the original image. Acknowledging that she always wondered about the back story of the people she captured in the older photo, Varda stages on film a mini-play (with sound, which gallery visitors can listen to through headsets) imagining a family setting up for a photograph of new parents and their baby in this picturesque spot. Alongside the video short hangs a copy of the original black-and-white image.
Which of these renders as more accurate, one might wonder? But this question begs another: can any experience ever be distilled to a baseline truth once it has been filtered through human perception? A rejoinder to both queries comes implicitly in the form of three self-portraits dating from different points in her life—at 20, 40, and 80—that preside over the entire show. Each is radically different, so much so one could be forgiven for thinking the photographs were of three distinct artists, except that each one is also incontrovertibly Agnès Varda. Truths are always subjective, Varda seems to imply, the “truth” being a constant evolution even within our own selves.
From the artcritical online posting by Jessica Holmes (Class of 2013) on April 11, 2017.