“Well, that’s your interpretation,” responded artist and photographer Alexis Dahan to almost all my questions pertaining to the photographic prints that comprise his first solo show, The Lover’s Body Parts are Separated. “Which is great!” he always followed, encouragingly.
Abstract art is experientially crucial, but it is damn near paradoxical in an interview. Everyone sees something different; everyone sees what they want to see. This is especially the case with Dahan’s prints, which, on a spectrum between Frank Stella and a Rorschach test, lie somewhere in the middle. The prints are of his lover where her body parts touch—flesh meets flesh, curve meets curve—but frame and contrast render the form, well, abstract. The spaces between the limbs become lines and shapes, delicate but full of significance. (Brings new understanding to ‘finding meaning between a woman’s thighs, ahem). The lines are obviously organic; they can only have been captured, not created.
Dahan defines himself as an abstract artist who takes ‘commissions’ from fashion magazines and clients in order to earn a living, but I think he sells the value of his commissioned photos short. When he’s not working on his personal art, he shoots portraits, travel, and fashion stories for major magazines, like Elle Italia, Purple, and W (indeed, W sponsored his gallery show).
The works in The Lovers Body Parts are Separated are seductive, and not just in the obvious way. The title might lend an overarching narrative, but, as with most abstract art, the more you look, the more you see.
Here’s what I see. Here’s what he sees. Oh, we also talk about the influence of Fontana’s canvas slits, and guess what, it has nothing to do with spatial theory.
How do you see the relationship between a subject and its negative space, and how does it fit into your work?
I did not make this work with the thought of using negative space. It’s very interesting to talk about negative space for the person who is looking at [the series] and appropriating it. There is a reflection of anything they want, and that’s very good, But in [the process, it] was not an established intention. My goal is not just to play with form, like I was an abstract expressionist or a geometrical abstract painter. My intention is to use photography to capture something from reality and make it become abstract on the page.
Do you think that photography is the best form for that because every frame is necessarily an abstraction?
The medium of photography has a characteristic that I needed for this project, because it records what’s there. It records what’s part of nature, what’s part of the world, it records the visual, what we already see.
But, the photos are heavily altered. You are choosing to abstract reality.
Yeah, I’m trying to photograph something that you don’t see, which is completely paradoxical. You’re supposed to only be able to photograph what you can see. What you don’t see is pure form. The pure form that I found is the line that is created when two parts of the body press against each other. I find it when I look up on the street and take a photo of just the sky shaped by the buildings [a past series]. What interests me is this presence of pure form in nature, as opposed to what [Kazimir] Malevich is saying in his Suprematist Manifesto, that the only way to create pure form is to not reproduce nature.
Do you feel like this work is probably the most pure or minimalist series you’ve done to date? The aesthetic seems softer than your other abstract works. Do you feel like you had to do that to make them more approachable?
I think that’s also your own interpretation as a viewer and that’s great. I don’t feel that they are more minimal than before. It’s really the same process, it’s the intention to capture the essence of something. I mean, it becomes more pure because you see less texture on the print. There are differences, however, from the other works. It is more organic. The lines of the body are more organic than the buildings, which are more geometric.
Do you really see your lover as a series of abstract forms? How can you do that without the lens of the camera?
That’s just the thing that [Gillian Sagansky, the subject of the photos and the woman who wrote the press release] wrote and the whole interpretation that she did is good. There is only so much you can do, and then people make of it what they want. My original intention with this series is really linked to the form and the experience of the visual lines. The narration of where it comes from is not as poetic as she wrote. Who is in the photograph doesn’t really matter. In some ways, the medium is secondary and the subject is secondary as well.
How are the medium and subject secondary when you need both in order to see the forms that the eye can’t otherwise see?
[The subject] could be a man; it could be a drawing; it could be invented. When I go into a gallery [as a viewer], the result, the final product, the object that is left after the artistic process, is really what I want to experience. Like, everything that lead Rothko to make his installations, I’m not interested about. The process of making photos — although people are interested, maybe because it involves a girl’s body — I’m not sure it’s very important.
I agree with you. I don’t think it is either, but I do think you chose to give the series a narrative structure via its title.
I agree. The title functions as pure description. It happens to be my lover’s body at the time. That’s why it’s called that, because I wanted to get the pure description with no emotional content. Just: This is That. The sky shapes [series is] called Sky Shaped by the City’s Building.
But, they’re more than that, more than just body parts, because you’re making it more than just what it is.
When the works are next to each other they have a resonance. They also have the power of words, which will sound different for each person. It isn’t my responsibility anymore.
I know: you keep telling me that all my questions are based on my own interpretations.
Well, it’s great!
Are any of the photos of the same body part or are they all different?
They’re all different. I even don’t remember which part each is.
What of Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale was most influential?
I’ve always been obsessed by the Concetto Spaziale. I saw one of his paintings when I was thirteen, or maybe even eleven years old, and for me it always evoked something – that was not his intention, by the way, his concepts are extremely advanced, spatial theories about how you go beyond the painting and beyond the space of the canvas – but what I took was a fantasy of a woman’s… the slit was not just about the space of the canvas.
And that’s what obsessed me. And then I thought okay, well, let’s try to reproduce it with photography and lure this into the world of a woman. So, I tried different things and ended up with [this series].
How was it to display this kind of art for your first show?
It was a beautiful experience. I’ve waited for all this time, for the last eight years, working on my personal work and at the same time doing commissions for other industries in order to make a living. At the same time, it’s only the beginning, because I’m a young artist and it’s my first show and I need to do more. It only outlined the amount of work that lies ahead.
What draws you to abstract art, and what don’t you like about it?
I believe abstraction is a natural evolution of art. Abstraction has an influence on your sensitivity; it speaks to your senses. I also really like the more advanced abstractions, like conceptual abstraction, which really address your brain, instead of trying to please your senses with something you’ve already seen before. [Philosopher Alexandre] Kojeve wrote a letter to Kandinsky basically explaining that abstract art is actually not abstract because the form that you invent, that exists on the canvas or print or in the work, that are not referencing nature – their only existence is in the work; they are only referencing themselves. They exist there. That’s why the drawing of a tree is kind of abstract because that tree in the drawing doesn’t exist; the experience of the tree and what a tree is is impossible to represent. So, abstract art is creating form that only exists 100% in the work. And I think that’s really fascinating and has actually the power to transform sensibilities and make yourself that’s one of the reasons I’m sensitive to it.
I’m also sensitive to conceptual art, because I draw my inspiration not from nature but from libraries. I was a literature and philosophy student for four years. I studied again in New York for two more years. I’m with the way concepts interact with each other, that’s really where my inspiration comes from. So I’m trying to create an art that looks abstract but also has ideas.
As a viewer experiencing the work as if I have not done it, I see two spaces separated by a line. The difference, the essential difference between two people is a line you can’t really cross. There is always a line between two people. There is a whole philosophy of the other that’s echoed in the work. That’s more hidden.
Do you think it’s possible to bring theory into your commissions?
I’d love to try.
I feel like I’ve noticed that you have tried a bit by abstracting the body through fashion.
The problem is that when you do a commission, you are hired as a skill man to carry out someone else’s vision. And when I’m doing my artwork. I’m commissioning myself to do something. The commissioned work is never going to be as much a work of art as what an artist will try to do something because he’s obsessed by it.
So now that you’ve fulfilled this collection based on this obsession you’ve had for so long, are you going to continue in the same theme or are you going to try something completely different?
Now, I’m painting. I’m trying to represent systems of ideas with painting. Like taking a photograph inside my head.
With no eye at all, I guess.
Imagine a system of ideas, completely arbitrary. Let’s say adolescence is divided into a few different ideas – rebellion, purity, education – so you put all these ideas together, and the way they relate to each other, you draw a line between each one and you create that system. I paint the thought and the lines without the words.
The Lovers Body Parts are Separated is on at the Half Gallery, 208 Forsyth, until the end of the month.