Mixed Memories by Chantal Elisabeth Ariëns

The first image by Chantal Elisabeth Ariëns I ever saw was a photograph of clouds. The thing about a good cloud photograph is that it can’t just replicate the “airy nothing” over our heads. “The [photographer’s] eye, in fine frenzy rolling” must “glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven” and give “to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” The image must become a dwelling, as in a place in which one tarries or delays before moving on, a place in which one lingers over a thought, sustains a fleeting idea, remembers.

In Mixed Memories, designed by Roy Kahmann (Kahmann Gallery) and sold by Artibooks, Ariëns dwells on the subtle grandeur not only of clouds—those tranquil immensities—but of bodies in repose or in mid-movement, caught at angles both elegant and unassuming. 

Selections from all but one of Ariëns’ five series appear in the book: Where Are You, Monologue Intérieur, Paperwork, and Healing or Drowning. And all of them come across as loving tributes to the pictorialists of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Shadows have a density to them, like velvet drapery. And the visual vocabulary of (N)ature is mythic, pure, sparse, and absolute: SKY, SEA, LILY, STREAM. Even the reclining nudes of Monologue Intérieur and the Lady-of-Shalott motif in Healing or Drowning harken back to the dramatic sentiments of that era. 

But there’s enough of the haute couture in this work to balance sentiment with elegance and eccentricity. Occasionally, a photograph breaks the motif and does its own, wondrous thing. In one of my favorite images the light sculpts a shoulder, a neck muscle, a jaw line. The light’s not telling a story. It’s thinking about the body, on the body.

Mixed Memories—a thin distillation of Ariëns’ work, only fourteen plates total—leaves you wanting more. It’s part of Kahmann’s “The Real Photobooks” series, each installment numbered (200) and signed, an original photograph tipped in. That print is what you’re paying for, of course. Nazraeli Press (One Picture Book series) and Editions Bessard (BeSpoke Collection) have used this model, and even someone like myself, with no real skin in the publishing game, can see the perks for both publisher and collector alike—i.e., low overhead on the bookmaking side of things and an original work of art in the hands of the buyer. Not a bad arrangement. But I hope there’s a plan in place for a full-blown deluxe edition for Ariëns. Some ruby slippers for those flailing legs in the field.—CB