Isabelle Plat Reinvents the Portrait

Artist Profile

By Daisy Archer

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Installation shot

When she was eight years old, Isabelle Plat’s mother took her to the museum in Lyons, France, to see a show of works by the School of Paris. The young artist remembers being enchanted by the works of Matisse and Soutine and then and there decided she would be painter. Flash forward a decade and Plat was working toward her baccalaureate at the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, which offered a rigorous five-year program of academic training. Plat concentrated on sculpture, following the age-old practice of drawing and modeling from antique casts.

But by the time she was exhibiting her work, still in her early 20s, she had fallen under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, among others, and was working, as she puts it, “to understand space,” in particular the possibilities of a fourth dimension, a higher dimension of space of which our three-dimensional world is merely a section or shadow. Plat’s sculptures for a gallery in Lyons were made from mirrors and wire, casting shadows that were “like an object,” she says. The ambitious young artist was noticed by no less an art-world luminary than Larry Bell, one of the pioneers of the California Light and Space Movement. (A few years later, purely by chance, Plat met and married Bell’s brother, Robert Bell, an eminent economist who teaches at Brooklyn College.)

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Portrait of Nureyev

But Plat’s career did not really kick into high gear until 1999, when she was commissioned to do a sculpture for the outdoor smoking area at the university in Nancy, France. She describes the work as a “paradoxical piece.” In a report about “utilitarian art” for Artpress, the artist elaborates about the sculptures she made, which were shaped like human lungs. “The purpose was not to represent the human organ but to create a mediation between us and a particular reality. Pink and fully inflatable, they bring to mind clean air and breathing until we suddenly realize that these false lungs are really ashtrays.”

From that point, Plat began to play with notions of “usable art,” sculpture that offered more than a purely aesthetic experience, such as Donald Judd’s benches or Andrea Zittel’s functional objects and clothing. Many of her works can be used as stools or platforms on which to sit, or worn as admittedly rather stiff garments. Using clothing donated by friends, hair she collects from styling salons, and accessories like shoes and boots, she is creating a kind of portraiture that, like her earlier work, explores another dimension.

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Portrait of the Generous

In her current show at the Wright Contemporary in Taos, NM, Plat explains that she is reconfiguring some of her signature works to create a new kind of portraiture. “I associate the human body with the bubble that everyone creates for themselves in the real world,” the artist has written. “If Cubist painting subjectively deconstructed people and objects and showed us their hidden sides, my installations conjure with the internal life—materials that bear the traces of life: already-worn clothing, agglomerations of human hair, and other traces of the living subject.” These mini-installations within the larger show of the two galleries (it’s hard to describe the individual elements as “sculpture”) nonetheless are highly evocative of their original subjects, though this may not be immediately apparent to the viewer. The Portrait of the Curator, for example, conjures the substance and spirit of a close friend who happens to be curator of the Rodin Museum in Paris (those are her embroidered jeans; the branches in the ensemble refer to her interest in “getting at the roots of art,” says Plat). The drawing of an open mouth made from hair puns on the idea of an art opening. Mrs. Tarzan is another friend, who is fond of swinging from ropes in parks for gymnasts, as Tarzan did in the movies about the “ape man.” (If she had called her “Jane,” the name of Tarzan’s real mate, “no one would have known who she is,” says the artist.)

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Portrait of Mrs. Tarzan

Though their ultimate sources may be obscure. Plat’s portraiture—because it is ebullient, brilliantly hued, and often in-your-face—is a trip for the senses, a comedy of exquisitely human fancies and phantasms. Catch the show at The Wright Contemporary in Taos, NM, through July 23 (627 Paseo del Pueblo Sur; Wednesday-Sunday, 2 to 6 pm).

Isabelle Plat: “Portraits d’usage in Conversation” The Wright Contemporary Through July 23, 2023\ 627 Paseo del Pueblo Sur Taos, NM 87571

About the writer: Daisy Archer is a journalist covering contemporary art from northern New Mexico.

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