Laetitia Soulier's richly detailed color photographs inaugurate the Dartmouth College Hood Museum of Art's new gallery space, the Hood Downtown, on Main Street in Hanover, N.H. The French artist's exhibition is the first of 10 that will be shown during the museum's three-year closure for expansion and renovation.
Soulier's photographs are full of intrigue and never what they seem to be. What they actually are and how they were made are for inquisitive viewers to discover. If "Laetitia Soulier: The Fractal Architectures" sounds like a riddle, it is. The photographs show a world that doesn't exist, although real people and real objects occupy it.
Born in 1978 in Bordeaux, France, Soulier earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in art, another degree in philosophy, and a second master's in photography and studio lighting. She currently lives in New York City and exhibits her work internationally.
Her Hood Downtown show includes seven large-scale photographs and scale models from two series, "The Matryoshka Dolls" and "The Square Roots." The former employs Russian nesting dolls as inspiration and source material. Soulier has created a pattern of matryoshka shapes of various sizes based on fractals, which repeat seemingly to infinity. That pattern even reappears in the form of wallpaper on the gallery walls; the repetition is both mesmerizing and disorienting.
For her photographs, Soulier first handcrafts models, which she uses as "sets." She then incorporates children into these small environments. Far too big for the sets, they appear to be young giants, or larger-than-life lords of the manor. Both children in these photos are 8 years old, the age when the imaginary begins to take a backseat to logic and reality. Soulier perhaps intends their presence as a metaphor for growing up and leaving childhood behind.
The results of this mind-bending manipulation are huge photographs — 40 by 80 inches each — unlike anything viewers have seen before. Granted, M.C. Escher's mathematically inspired woodcuts and lithographs may come to mind. So might the logical yet fantastical narratives of authors Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels).
With few exceptions, Soulier created all the pieces that compose her miniature sets. She uses traditional craft techniques, such as steam-bending wood to create curved wooden chair backs and a circular stairway. Once she has photographed her tableaux, she dismantles the sets. Soulier often reuses pieces such as a spinning wheel or a wall clock, but each photograph requires the construction of an entirely new set — a tiny environment with its own narrative. In conversation at the gallery, Hood curator and director John Stomberg described the artist's method as "telling stories with some of the same objects, but rearranging them."
Soulier's work is so well executed that she makes it look easy. In reality, her process is exceedingly labor intensive. "There is nothing harder to do than make something look accidental," Stomberg commented. "She considers herself a photographer, and the making of all the pieces that go into it is just a means to an end."
The set pieces that Soulier does not construct include small trees, vines and other leafy plants. A full-scale dresser in "Self Portrait" is another exception. This photograph is an anomaly — not part of the matryoshka series, but about it. Soulier appears on a set with red-and-white matryoshka wallpaper. That wallpaper is pulled back to reveal another reality — a scene filled with scaffolds, pipes, tripods and a camera. Like the Wizard of Oz, she has come from behind the scenes to stand before the audience. She is both the photographer and the subject.
Soulier challenges our eyes, our brains and even our sense of what is real. The persistence of that questioning — what is true, what is false? — grips us long after we exit through the gallery's glass doors and back into the real world.