For French artist Sophie Varin, her first foray into painting came later than most. After studying at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, then at Hunter College in New York, and then finally at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam – all of which mostly revolved around sculpture – she stumbled upon this untapped medium. She can’t recall exactly how, but after writing a “detective story that dealt with fiction, plot and suspense” for her thesis, she felt the impulse to pick up a paintbrush.
The novel not only provided possible inspiration for her journey into painting, but the subject matter of her detective story evidently carried over into the work itself. Last year, in a show curated by Feeelings at the now permanently closed gallery Cunst-Link in Brussels, Sophie exhibited a collection of miniature oil paintings, alongside two sculptures and large painted fabrics. The oil paintings appear almost as visual manifestations of the story’s themes – intrigue and suspense fill the scenes depicted on the tiny canvases. Otherworldly settings are inhabited by unusual characters engaged in a mix of mundane and mysterious activities, from organising tables to bathing in pools to gathering around an unidentified source of light. Occasionally, they can be seen engaging with one another as well – talking, fighting, or simply staring – while elsewhere they sit in apparent solitude and we feel as though we are intruding on a private moment.
In some of the paintings, our birdseye view of the scenes unfolding within them gives us as the viewer a sense of omniscience, as though we could control the situation should we want to, yet the opaque nature of what exactly is happening leaves us feeling equally uncertain. In The Best Intentions, “all [of] the characters have uncertain activities, laying tables, arguing, sleeping, getting drunk. They are looking at each other, or at you, as you peek into their own moment, seeing what they might have wanted to hide,” explains Sophie. In Parade, a seated character, half-hidden behind a bouquet of flowers, emanates the kind of contradictory emotions that seem to permeate the entire series. She displays what Sophie refers to as a mixture of needing to “appear and disappear at the same time.” We sense that she is at once curious and hesitant.
Each painting offers many ways of perceiving its contents, and yet Sophie is keen to assert that understanding the finer details of the mystifying scenes is not necessary: “It is better not to try to solve a specific storyline, but rather surrender to an underlying suspense,” she says. “For me they are all combined, they come together in intrigue rather than narration.” As a whole, we feel we are offered a glimpse into a world that is both familiar and strange. The characters’ actions are often unsettling, however there is an undeniable tranquility about the spaces they occupy. Lush greenery, gentle pools of water, and an abundance of flowers give the impression of peace and serenity (despite the occasional scuffle taking place nearby).
The title of Sophie’s exhibition of this work, The Mumble The Attractor, offers an insight into her thinking with this series. As with the ambivalence present in the paintings, the title itself is a reference to conflicting thoughts and actions. “I see a mumble as a kind of lure. It triggers curiosity without fully taking the responsibility of doing so. It is often an oral accident coming from embarrassment but if you use it purposefully it can also become quite perverse in a sense,” she explains. “[While] an attractor is a name given to a type of fly-fishing lure that is usually very bright and shiny, though some look more like dust balls and are particularly efficient because they [are subtle] and behave in a different way... Even though it could sound like a form of instinctive pre-language, I like how the mumble can actually be secondary to language in the same way the trout-fishing fly is secondary to the real fly. They’re both mimicking something pre-existing. Or fail to.”
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.