The figures that populate Louise Bonnet’s paintings and works on paper walk a line between beauty and ugliness, between absurdist, knockabout comedy and extreme psychological and physiological tension. Inhabiting sparse, eerie landscapes and boxed in by the edges of the canvas or the page, they act out dramas of profound discomfort that plumb the depths of the artist’s subconscious. Drawing on a range of sources, from Old Master painting to Surrealism and underground comix, Bonnet toys with signifiers—of gender and sexuality in particular—in a playfully confrontational style. Her subjects are at once monumental in scale and diminished in capacity, their limbs grotesquely bloated and their eyeless faces partially obscured by dense caps of hair.
Bonnet was born in Geneva, where she attended the Haute école d’art et de design. In 1994 she moved to Los Angeles for “a year off” and never left. In 2008, having worked in illustration and graphic design, she launched her career as an artist with a solo exhibition at Subliminal Projects in Los Angeles, a gallery and project space founded by Shepard Fairey and Blaize Blouin. Five years later a move from acrylic paint into oils led Bonnet to new creative possibilities by allowing her to introduce a greater sense of light and volume to otherwise stark compositions. The change of medium also heralded a diversification and sharpening of themes and references; still focused on depicting the human body in extremis, she intensified her approach, combining the mordant wit of Philip Guston with the nuanced chiaroscuro of Caravaggio.
The representation of sex in Bonnet’s work is characterized by manic exaggeration and physical restraint. It also has a dreamlike quality that recalls such disturbing concoctions as René Magritte’s The Rape (Le viol) (1934), in which a nude female torso is recast as a face, and Hans Bellmer’s controversial sculptures of pubescent female dolls. Gender in Bonnet’s work is usually either overstated through cartoonlike inflation or left indeterminate, allowing the figures to function as universal stand-ins for unconscious drives and anxieties. In some images, this signature approach to the human figure is combined with an exploration of Christian imagery and its history in European painting.
Filmmaker and author Miranda July joined Louise Bonnet on a video call to discuss life during lockdown, the luminosity of oil paint, and Bonnet’s forthcoming exhibition of new work. Longtime friends—and newly neighbors—the two reflect on their shared history and shared interests in the unconscious, vagueness, and the mixture of humor and pain.
Five Films: Louise Bonnet
Los Angeles painter Louise Bonnet reminisces about the films that influenced her development as an artist.