Elizabeth Yoo x Alain Robbe-Grillet
What do you get when you cross one masterful filmmaker with another masterful artist? You get more art, of course! I recently chatted to the talented creative, Elizabeth Yoo, about her recent work that uses the erotic cinema of Alain Robbe-Grillet as muse. Yoo’s expressive artwork is a treat on its own but, incase you are yet to meet, let me introduce you to Robbe-Grillet in the clip below. Yoo’s interview and artwork follows.
Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about your series of paintings based on the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet. I’ve actually never seen his films, as embarrassing as it is to say, but I’ll definitely be checking them out soon.
It was the first series I’d ever done and it was also the first time I’d picked up a paintbrush in several years. But I guess I needed that long hiatus from making art in order for me to expand my frame of reference, collect my inspirations, see what my true interests really were. This series was kind of a rebirth for me. Through painting my interpretations of these scenes from the first four films Robbe-Grillet directed (L’Immortelle, Trans-Europ-Express, The Man Who Lies, Eden and After), I was coming into my own. I felt like I was finally freed from inhibitions. These paintings are not just scenes from films—I also see them as self-portraits. They communicate my own desires. Although more widely known as a writer, pioneer of the nouveau roman (“new novel”), and a screenwriter, his films deserve to have a wider audience. I’m drawn to the ambiguity of his films– the line between reality and fantasy is indistinguishable. And of course, I’m drawn to the sadomasochistic eroticism and this desire mixed with fear present in most of his films.
What about sexuality in art do you find appealing? Who are artists that you feel perfect the art of eroticism? I’ve always loved Egon Schiele and you can find newcomer Kaethe Butcher on most erotic art sites, she’s taking the world by storm.
Egon Schiele is definitely one of my favourite artists. His aggressive, expressionistic style heightens the eroticism of his paintings. The angular bodies, the bones jutting out, pale skin marked by bright spots of red or blue that look like smears, eyes looking directly at the viewer, intertwined lovers: you really feel the energy. Another favorite painter of mine is Balthus, whose style is kind of the opposite of Schiele—there’s a calmness and a stillness to the figures in his paintings. There are defined, domestic backgrounds unlike Schiele’s work which has all this negative space. Kaethe Butcher is fantastic. Her style is incredibly provocative and I love the way she incorporates text into her drawings.
You use a limited colour palate in your work, does this act as a vehicle to explore darker undertones in your subjects? Or is it purely an aesthetic/style preference?
I think I express myself better in black and white than in colour. Black is the colour of nighttime and sensuality—perfect for my subject matter. I don’t have to think as much when using only black paint and ink—I can transmit all my raw emotions onto the paper without hesitation or forethought; spontaneity is key in my work. When I use colour, I’m usually drawn to bright, primary colours– but I worry if the colours will work together. Sometimes the cheerful colours contrast with my dark themes— I like that disparity.
Eros And After: Pleasure & Pain in the Films of Alain Robbe-Grillet was your first solo exhibition. How did you find the process? Was selecting the final work for display difficult or are you a total planner? How did outcomes meet expectations?
Originally, I was going to paint scenes from several more of his films. But due to lack of time, I ended up only doing his first four films—and I like that limited focus. I’m happy with how I ended up with twenty paintings. The perfect symmetry: we hung ten paintings from the ceiling on one side and ten on the other. I tend to over-plan and since it was my first show, a lot of stress was definitely involved! But I was very happy to see that people who came to my exhibit understood the work and saw how powerful and in control of their sexuality the women in the paintings are.
Your second exhibition is underway as I write this. How does this compare with your first exhibition?
The audience is very different and the way in which my paintings were exhibited is also very different. The walls of the gallery at my second exhibition are coloured (blue, orange, and magenta) so I feel like that becomes part of the artworks and changes how they look, which is interesting. At my first exhibit at Holyrad Studio in Brooklyn, we showed one of Robbe-Grillet’s films during the reception—so the audience (mostly twenty-something year olds) got a really full experience. At my second exhibit at Home Art Gallery in Long Island– it’s a suburban area and it’s an area with people of all ages, so the reaction was a bit different. Most of the Robbe-Grillet paintings were shown, as well as other artworks of mine with thematic and stylistic similarities. Most of the people at both exhibits had never seen a Robbe-Grillet film—so it was a pleasure for me to introduce them! I was able to meet Robbe-Grillet’s widow (and a very famous dominatrix in France) Catherine Robbe-Grillet twice shortly after my show and she told me I was “converting” people into “Alain fans”—so my work was done!
How important do you think exhibiting work is as an artist, especially given the plethora of online spaces art can be showcased these days?
I think it’s extremely important because you don’t get a real sense of the size, texture, and detail in a work of art unless you see it in person. I like to stand for a long time in front of an artwork when I’m at a gallery because I try to see the artist’s process: the brushstrokes they made, how many layers of paint they used, etc. It’s a totally different experience, too, seeing an entire series or a body of work in a gallery—you’re totally in that artist’s world and there’s almost a private communion between you and the artworks. Online,you may get a more scattered, incomplete experience.
You obviously love film. Can you recommend five films and/or directors to us?
Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (which I screened at my first show) is very playful and sexy—about a film-within-a-film. A director (played by Alain Robbe-Grillet himself), a script supervisor (played by his wife Catherine), and a producer, riding the Trans-Europ-Express from Paris to Antwerp, discuss ideas for a crime movie about a man who will travel on the same train they are on. This character, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, smuggles cocaine into Antwerp and becomes involved with a prostitute played by Marie-France Pisier. The two have daytime trysts involving sadomasochisticplay that eventually become fatal.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Melville is my absolute favourite director—a Frenchman who loved American gangster films and film noir, like me—this film stars my favourite actor Alain Delon playing a quiet hit man who follows the code of a samurai.
Roger Vadim’s Barbarella: Jane Fonda in some of the sexiest costumes ever. I adore her combination of innocence and total lack of shame about her sexuality. Campy fun. Shirley Clarke’s The Connection. I worked with director Immy Humes on an upcoming documentary about Shirley, who was an independent filmmaking rebel. My favourite film of Clarke’s is about a group of jazz musicians jamming in this Greenwich Village apartment as they wait for their drug dealer to come. A documentary film crew shoots them and it raises all sorts of questions about “realism.”
Agnès Varda’s Le Bonheur—absolutely beautiful, colourful film about a happily married couple, which takes a devastating turn after the man cheats on his wife. I really love the disparity between the colours and this dark undercurrent.
From your website I can see you are a total all-rounder when it comes to creativity! I love this. I also dabble in many art/creation forms. I’ve often felt the pressure to pick one art-form to focus on and excel in. Can you relate to similar concepts? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by having such an active mind?
I often do feel very overwhelmed! I have terrible insomnia due to my overactive mind. I often do most of my work into the night because I have no sense of time passing. My other passion besides painting is writing. I write very dark, twisted noir stories, psychological thrillers—a bit like Patricia Highsmith—and stories that fuse eroticism with horror. Once I am completely happy with my stories (I’m too much of a perfectionist which is why it takes me so long to complete a story!) I will eventually post them on my website with an illustration to accompany each story. My goal is to find a way to link my love of visual art with my writing.
See more of Elizabeth’s work on her website.