January 10, 2019
Julie Crenn

Henni Alftan, published by Galerie Claire Gastaud, Clermont-Ferrand, 2019.

Henni Alftan is available here.

Over the past few years, Henni Alftan has developed between France and Finland a painting practice in which perception is put to the test, structuring an imagination guided by fragmentation—of image, bodies, objects, and narrative.

‘I paint pictures.’

In her paintings, she examines details closely, in order to draw as far away as possible from the idea of telling a story. We are not privy to their narrative and temporal dimension. Nothing is ever given to us in its totality. Idle chatter is forbidden. To this end, Henni Alftan invents framing structures from her daily observations. In her notebooks, she draws the details, the outlines of scenes and situations that she decides to hold fixed in time. From a specific scene she preserves a look, a hand, an object, a silhouette, a shadow, the detail of an article of clothing, a gesture, a pattern, a colour.

By her insistence on reproducing, through painting, the almost imperceptible elements of the everyday, the ordinary, Henni Alftan invites us to reflect on what we see, on the visible world and its modes of representation. In this way, her works lead us to think of the image through the painting as object: its history, its present, its legitimacy, its materiality, and its conceptual dimension.

On photography

Henni Alftan explores the problematics inherent in two juxtaposed histories, that of painting and that of photography. Her works on canvas place themselves within a traditional pictorial practice involving surface, depth, field, colour, object, gaze, line, composition, subject, framing, narrative (or rather the refusal thereof), image within image, mirror, and montage. But although her painting is figurative, its aim is in no way the flawless imitation of reality. Henni Alftan eschews the technical facility that engenders illusion. On the contrary, in the spirit of synthesis, she goes to the essence of form, material, line, and colour. And yet photography, its history and its present, plays an important role in the construction of Henni Alftan’s works and her way of envisaging reality. It is particularly present in her framing choices, often contrary to those habitually used in painting. She explains, ‘I would like to see the moment when the painting begins to refer, to resemble something other than itself. That is why I seek to give only the necessary minimum of elements, of indications. What you think you see is often hidden from view.’ Indeed, the notion of the gaze unites the problematics of painting and photography. Almost systematically, the artist avoids direct visual contact in her works between the subject and the viewer.

Head-on perspective is avoided in favour of strangely poetic positioning. A woman at a mirror inserts a contact lens, another looks at her reflection in a knife blade, a man’s eyes are obstructed by black shadows, a sleeping couple lies in the grass in the shade of a tree, a swimmer turns her back on us. The gaze is absent, blocked, redirected, recurrently self-framed, or duplicated. Thus, subjectivity, interpretation, and projection are deliberately minimised to focus the viewer’s attention on the details, clues, and snares of a narrative made impossible.

Mirror play

Henni Alftan is currently working
on a new series, entitled ‘Déjà-vu’, consisting of diptych paintings.
The originally paired paintings are to be placed in two separate spaces when they are exhibited; however, they interact by means of their treatment, their subject, and their enigmatic resemblance. They are conceived as reflections in a distorting mirror: the same scene is envisaged from two different points of view. One painting shows a man in profile, the other represents him head-on.

On a brick wall we see a word spray- painted in blue: run; on the other painting we read: now. Against another brick wall, the artist paints the head of a black dog, seen in profile. The first painting shows it with mouth closed, the second with open jaws. A crowd of people is seen from the back, then from the front. The artist establishes a play of sight and memory. As Gilles Deleuze affirms, ‘Art does not imitate, above all because it repeats; it repeats all the repetitions, by virtue of an internal power (an imitation is a copy, but art is simulation; it reserves copies into simulacra). Even the most mechanical, the most banal, the most habitual and the most stereotypical repetition finds a place in works of art, it is always displaced in relation to other repetitions, and it is subject to the condition that a difference may be extracted from it for these other repetitions.’1 Resemblance generates a disquiet, a desire for movement, an oscillation between the paintings. Through a subtle play of reproduction, the artist cracks open a space where narrative becomes possible. The displacement of an image engenders a new perspective. The visual, physical, and mnemonic effort demonstrates a variance between these images, which are linked both by resemblance and by a slight shift, a Duchampian inframince. ‘Variance is a dialectical operation: it is producing a likeness, but producing it as an operative negativity, a way of producing unlikeness to itself.’2 Within the difference between the two images, the artist opens a path to the projection of a certain narrative.

Disturbing strangeness

Henni Alftan’s paintings all participate in a reflection on the representation of reality, the subject, and the viewer. Her works are filled with a troubling silence, a muted violence, constructing, with the lightest of touches, an atmosphere of disturbing strangeness. Henni Alftan paints narrative elements that engender uneasiness: the gloved hand of a surgeon extracting an organ during an operation; a bare, bruised arm; a man wearing glasses with shattered lenses; flames emerging from a window; a body sunk (drowned?) in a bathtub; a long scar around an ear.

To this may be added the recurrence of knives, masks, shadows, absent faces, and duplicate bodies. The artist also places filters on, in, or through the represented scenes. They act as screens or veils of repeated patterns, inundating the foreground or background. A pouring rain, the leaves of a tree, flowers, a wallpaper pattern, a leopard-skin coat, a lace T-shirt, high grass, a fence, shadows, a bead curtain. Henni Alftan manipulates and disrupts the meaning of the images she shows us. Simply and effectively, she questions our relationship to the construction of the image by blurring registers, references, indications of space and time.