v1.15 / The Venus & Lindsey Beal

“Du mußt dein Leben ändern.” (You must change your life.) So ends Rilke’s famous poem about his encounter with a sculptured torso of Apollo. It’s a statement about art, of course, and the strange asymmetry we detect in ourselves when we walk away from a sculpture or poem or photograph feeling somehow more than who we were before.

Lindsey Beal’s alumitypes and ambrotypes have something to say as well. But the difference between the torso of Rilke’s poem and the torso of Beal’s Venus is that Venus resides within—somewhere deep within—the galleries of our own subconscious minds. These are not statues we approach. These are figures we dream toward.

For at least as long as we’ve defaced cave walls, the torso of Venus has been a human obsession, our subject of subjects: the Paleolithic Venus of Hohle Fels, for instance, carved from mammoth tusk some 35,000 years ago; or the Bronze Age idols of the Cyclades, those lean mystical geometries that seem to answer the unanswerable questions; or the draped caryatids of the Acropolis that bridge the earth and sky. Even the androgynous torso of Buddha seems to borrow its hourglass figure from that age-old archetype.

Beal’s Venuses are always somehow out of reach, unlike Apollo whose body presides like an anvil. Venus casts and recasts herself—never quite coming into her true form. For the sake of artists like Beal, let’s hope she never does.

Lindsey Beal

In the summer of 2010, I set out to learn wet plate collodion. I knew returning to graduate school I wanted to learn historical photographic processes but it took two years into the program to find someone to teach me. I didn’t start with the usual cyanotype or Van Dyke brown—instead, I dove straight into the complicated and finicky world of wet plate collodion. Working with Heather F. Wetzel, I learned to make the wet plate chemistry from scratch and to photograph various scenes and still lifes outside without a light meter. As the fall light became weaker and shorter, and the semester progressed, I struggled to figure out what to do with this new skill and how to make it my own.

Pour, tilt, pour, rock. Dip, wait, pull. Place, slide, place, slide. Expose.

Figure #17
Alumitype (wet plate collodion photogram on black aluminum); 4.5″ x 6.5″; 2010 © Lindsey Beal

Prior to learning wet plate, I was obsessively creating digitally designed wallpaper patterns. During this time of staring at the screen, repetitively clicking and dragging pixels into grids, I yearned for the tactile and physical creation lacking in a digital lab. I set out to learn papermaking, initially, wanting to make paper to photographically print upon. Instead, I used paper as a sculptural medium and started to sculpt figures out of handmade flax paper. The forms I created became my own versions of the iconic pre-historic Venus figurines. Hundreds of these pre-historic figures have been discovered and though their meaning remains a mystery, their enigmatic forms have intrigued many artists since their discovery in the nineteenth century. Each paper form I created had a different personality, stance, and pose. Creating these figures became a daily habit and I studied how the paper dried and different forms it could take. For nine months, I made two figures a day. I ran out of paper, then made more. It was as obsessive and soothing as the wallpaper patterning, yet gave me the tactility I missed. Soon I had boxes and boxes of these flax figures. Again, I ran out of paper. Stopping I realized I was surrounded by hundreds of these figures-what was I going to do with them? I tried lighting, installing, digitally photographing, and printing lithographs but nothing worked; they lacked the mystery and feeling I got from the original pre-historic Venuses.

Dip, pull, shake, wait. Place, remove, tilt, wait. Flip, press, lift, remove. Repeat.

Figure #31
Alumitype (wet plate collodion photogram on black aluminum); 4.5″ x 6.5″; 2010 © Lindsey Beal

It was when I learned wet-plate collodion that pairing the paper figures and photography together made sense. Seeing my paper Venus sculpture magically appear out of the black glass of my first ambrotype was an incredible punch in the gut—I finally recreated the mysterious feelings of the original Venuses. Wet-plate collodion was at its height when the Venuses were discovered and was one of the main photographic process in the Civil War. The repetitive actions that go into creating each plate is like that of pulling sheets of handmade paper. Repetition leads one through the process of creation. It is not mundane but as the artist Kiki Smith claims, is an almost spiritual act. It is both beautiful and soothing in action and to the eye. Since “The Venus Series”, I continue to use repetition through cataloguing items in my work: bacteria, antique vibrators, obstetric tools, or variations in the female form.

Slide, remove, slide, remove. Pour, tilt, pour, rock. Dip, wait, pull. Place, slide, wait, remove. Dry.

Figure #19
Alumitype (wet plate collodion photogram on black aluminum); 4.5″ x 6.5″; 2010 © Lindsey Beal

Looking back at this body of work now, I realize learning and combining new processes helped remove my artist’s block and when under the pressure to produce, the best way to get unstuck is just to make. The repetitive actions of both processes cleared my mind like mindful meditation, opening me up to ideas and creativity. The tactile nature of both papermaking and historical photographic processes moved me forward in my studio practice but also lead me to the foundations of photography. They forced me to slow down, feel self-sufficient and made me understand the history of my chosen mediums. This same philosophy connects throughout my work today—I continue to use repetition and must have my hand in some part of the process.

Pour, tilt, pour, rock. Dry.




Figure #26
Alumitype (wet plate collodion photogram on black aluminum); 4.5″ x 6.5″; 2010 © Lindsey Beal

See more Venuses, along with Beal’s other incredible photography projects, at www.lindseybeal.com. Or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

And if you’re in the neighborhood, check out two upcoming exhibitions in the New England area: New Light Through Old Windows, showing at the Newport Art Museum, January 21-April 16, and Singular Repetitions, showing at Umass Dartmouth’s University Art Gallery, February 6-March 16. 

Venus handmade by Lindsey Beal