Vision To Visuals: A Moveable Feast

"I was hooked like a magpie to shiny things," says Nicole Etienne, the dynamic young painter known for her "luscious" paintings, of her first encounter with print materials at Duggal. Etienne had lived close to the Duggal headquarters in the Flatiron District for almost a decade before she moved to London. Remembering her walks past our frequently changing window displays, Etienne approached us to help her with an enigmatic experiment. Painters not being among our most frequent clients, Etienne’s excitement about the print possibilities at Duggal got our creative team eager to assist her in producing A Moveable Feast, Etienne’s first solo exhibition in New York, which would feature her mixed-media works combining photography and paintings.

Mesmerizing, whimsical, exotic, transcendent, magnificent are adjectives that are commonly associated with Etienne’s work. In A Moveable Feast, Etienne introduces photography in her compositions to re-create visual narratives that invite viewers to take a deep dive through myth and imagination. Described as an artist who presents "objects as how she sees them, not how perspective tells us they should," the unique interplay between reality and illusion in Etienne’s new series celebrates photorealism and abstract painting in a powerful way.

The exhibit features 13 canvases that Duggal printed on silver metallic canvas to complement the magical tone of her compositions. Each digitally printed canvas serves as the photographic base for Etienne’s spectacular settings and mysterious pasts that she painstakingly creates with her brushes and paints. In "Lift," one of her pieces in the exhibit, Etienne paints a woman floating midair above her bed, which has been photographed. Evocative of Botticelli and Sam Taylor-Wood at the same time, the subjects of her compositions seem literally to fly out of the canvas. In another one, a photograph of what appears to be a corridor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Etienne paints fowl and wildlife, creating a surreal interior that’s oddly familiar and enchanting.

Says Etienne of this new series, "In his memoir, Ernest Hemingway considers A Moveable Feast to be the memory of a splendid place, one that lives on with the traveler, long after the experience is over and for the rest of his or her life. In these mixed-media works on canvas, I conjure memories, re-creating the experience of A Moveable Feast decades, even centuries, later. The process begins with photographing magnificent antique rooms and historic museums, delicious settings that are ripe with his-tory and alive with splendor. I strive to connect with the essence and importance of what once transpired there and then manipulate the images to support the mystery and mood of these perceived experiences. Finally, I layer on my various impressions, incorporating living organisms and fetishized objects, rendered with traditional techniques in oil and varnish, until each reconstruction is complete. Through this process I resurrect the dreams, emotions and ghosts of past happenings by sharing their stories with those who were unable to experience them firsthand."

Nicole Etienne employed photography in the creative process. The final paintings show the whimsy and transcendence for which she is famous.

The application of photography in painting has been well documented—artists from Vermeer to Picasso have chosen to flatten the three-dimensional world into photography’s two dimensions to paint photorealistic moments. However, mixing painting and photography so they become part of the same substrate is a new phenomenon made possible only by the advancement of digital printing techniques that allow painters to work on preprinted canvas and fabric, materials to which they’re most accustomed. Painters have had to contend with occasional criticism for choosing photography for their works and the stigma of merely "copying" or enhancing what already has been "captured." Etienne’s Cubist style challenges our normal expectations of perspective and renders photography in the painting invisible, resulting in dreamy artworks that blur the line between photorealism and the abstract.

Karen Irvine, a curator with the Museum of Contemporary Photog-raphy in Chicago, says, "The moment of recognition that there is something else going on—that both attention and inattention are required to fully experience a piece—is often what gives artwork its impact…. Painting, typically best suited for still scenes, and photography, typically better at freezing movement, temporarily occupy each other’s domain. The presence of both mediums, in fact, forbids either from being transparent—having to shift between the two codes, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the process of looking, of the reconciliation required between sensory and cognitive understanding. Painting and photography accomplish this union in different ways."

With brilliant application of photography and painting to express her imagination, Etienne is very simply a genre-agnostic storyteller for whom photography becomes "the first step of the story, a hazy memory or space for an event to occur."

The silver metallic canvas on which each of Nicole Etienne’s photographs is printed magnifies the dreamy illusionary quality of her paintings. We printed her photographs on our six-color printer with special UV inks that make a molecular bond with the canvas material, leaving no traces of pigment or emulsion that would interrupt a painter’s work. Etienne worked with the Duggal team while based in her studio in London, trusting us with the saturation, tone and color quality of the final outcome. She then painted over these "photo canvases" and stretched them onto traditional wooden frames at a size of 36×60 inches.

I’ve been in the visual graphics industry long enough to have seen artists push the boundaries of photography beyond realism into the illusionary—from manual airbrushing to Photoshop, artists have found inventive ways of expanding imagery beyond the mechanical reproductions of photography. It’s exciting to work with painters like Etienne who are now turning to photography to invent new genres of mixed-media art—a move that I hope will put to rest the age-old debate between photography and painting.

As Rod Slemmons of the Museum of Contemporary Photography says, "What these artists (who combine photography with painting) also accomplish is to cause us to become self-conscious when looking at both photographs and paintings, and to understand that what we see in both is a flat field of elaborately but narrowly represented information that combined may lead us to truths not present in either individually."

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