Combining performance art, sculpture, fashion and still life, Isabelle Wenzel's colourful photos satirise the way women are portrayed in pop culture
“I nominated Isabelle [for our January 2014 ‘Ones to Watch’ issue] because her work is intelligent, imaginative, original and very funny,” says Eugénie Shinkle, lecturer and author of Fashion as Photograph. “She has drawn together performance art, sculpture, fashion and still life, with some shrewd feminist commentary and a wonderful eye for colour thrown in for good measure. and it’s clear she’s not just riffing on these diverse influences – she really understands how to make them all make sense as a photograph.”
This ability to get to the misogynist heart of popular culture using razor-sharp wit and measured intelligence is what makes Wenzel’s work stand out. In Positions, we see Wenzel clad in various fabrics, posing as a table. In different positions her bottom, her back and her heels become the table. Wenzel’s face is hidden; wrapped in chessboard pattern leggings, she becomes a colourful domestic fixture, an Allen Jones table, but with the woman struggling to twist free from the confines of her contorted body.
“What attracts me to her work is the way it cuts straight to the heart of female stereotyping in photography by reducing it to its most basic elements – caricature and display – and confronting the viewer with these elements in a really humorous way,” says Shinkle.
The references that Wenzel makes are also humorous and broad-based, with colour playing a major role. Different decades are referenced through the hue of the images, so we get a feel of the 1950s through a Norman Rockwell palette, something echoed by the tea-serving Stepford Wife styling of some of the positions.
Self-contained performance is at the heart of Wenzel’s pieces, which are made using a self-timer and repeated mad dashes to the place of composition; there will be up to 50 takes before she is satisfied. But flick through her Positions and Figures series, and odd references come up. Is that a William Klein I see before me, or a Richard Avedon or an Irving Penn? What are Juergen Teller and Marc Jacobs doing in there? But these are not direct references, only little nudges and hints that point us in a certain direction.
The clever thing is these little nudges and hints, these disembodied body parts, are not so much depersonalised as part of a physically present persona (Wenzel trained as an acrobat) muscling up against her disembodied self. In Building Images, Wenzel shows this disembodied self in an office environment, where she strips herself down to basic body parts. Legs in secretarial nylons stick out of desks and filing cabinets in true Guy Bourdin style.
Yet for all the serious content, Wenzel still has a light touch. Shinkle says that in her work, “She presents the female body as a collection of fragmented erogenous zones – legs, hips, buttocks – that parodies fetishisation of these body parts in fashion and advertising imagery. Femininity is reduced to a cluster of highly conventional signifiers (skirt, tights, heels, undergarments) and stereotypical roles (housewife, secretary, pin–up). and she stages it all in a way that turns the look back on the viewer – presenting them with the mechanics of visual stereotyping, without being dour or didactic. It’s great.”
See more of Isabelle’s work here.
First published in the January 2014 issue. You can buy the issue here.