Fragile Heroes: A Conversation with Sandra Chevrier [Q&A]
“The aesthetic is important to capture the eye of the viewer, but without a message it would be empty.” – Sandra Chevrier
I don’t remember where I first saw the work of painter Sandra Chevrier, but do remember very clearly that I was struck by it straight away. It was a painting from her series “Les Cages” – a beautiful woman’s face, which had been partially obscured by thick multicolored dollops of paint. The idea of obscuring features is core to Chevrier’s work, both in “Les Cages,” and in her more recent series “Super Hero Canvas,” where features are masked both literally and metaphorically by collaged comic book panels.
Her work is both striking and alluring, combining masculine and feminine forms and energies and only gets more interesting the more you look at it. Her work invites the viewer in – I found myself wanting to learn about her process and the narratives behind the work.
I reached out to Sandra to ask if she would be willing to answer some of my questions, such as how she began, how the work has evolved and, most of all, what it means to her. I am thrilled that she agreed. Her answers made me appreciate the work even more.
F&B: How would you describe the evolution of your work from 2010 to now, both in subject matter and technique? Also, what inspired the transition from the all-paint work in Les Cages to the comic collage work in Super Hero Canvas?
SC: If I could use one word to describe the evolution of my work since 2010, it would be “simplification.” Both in subject matter and technique, I feel I have broken down my vision to its bare bones, resulting in a much more stark and capturing end. As for the transition from heavy textured paint to comic book collage in the series “Les Cages,” it happened quite by accident. “Les Cages” started when I was doing crafts with my (then) 2 year-old son, I found an old sketch of a woman’s portrait and passed over it with heavy textures of dollar store tole paints. I found the result very striking and thus the very humble beginning to a lengthy series. The transition to comic book collage happened upon embarking on a DIY home project. I had an old, small and cheap IKEA dresser that I had planned to cover in comic book collage. Not long after planning this small home project, the dresser broke so I was left with a broken piece of furniture and dozens of copies of comic books that I had picked up at a nearby flea market. So I put them to use, and thus the comic book cage series.
At what point do you know which direction you want to go with a particular piece and how much do you plan up front versus letting the style of the piece emerge during your creative process?
It’s a bit of both, calculation and intuition. I choose my models selectively. I predetermine my collage images and I determine beforehand whether a piece is just a face, a full body, etc. The rest just happens as it happens. I suppose you could say the work itself tells me in which direction it should move.
Is there a relationship between the narrative in the comic panels and the subjects in the portraits (for example, masculine vs. feminine), or are the pieces more of an exploration of traditional media meets pop culture?
I always try to choose the more powerful images from the comic books – often the representation of the fragile heroes. The little sentence I add on the bottom of the pieces represents the idea, or the story behind it.
The comic book collages, at once anesthetizing and alluring, echo rather entertaining pop-art references that eventually belie the bitter irony that these females have been silenced, smothered, and even blinded by the very mechanisms that seduced us into their existence.
The collage technique, which frequently highlights epic battle scenes ripped from the pages of actual comic books, is applied rather haphazardly; yet it’s precisely this incongruous style of application (whereby fictional characters reach almost theatrical heights) that enhances the message of unrealistic pressures placed upon women in today’s world, and perfectly satirizes the farce of celebrity and the vacuous nature of unattainable expectation and dream.
Do you see your process as additive or destructive? Your portraits themselves are so beautiful, how do you feel about what you do to them?
It depends on how you look at the pieces. It can be, for certain people, mostly women, the symbolization of the liberation of women. But on a different view – and the perspective on how I see it – it is more about the pressure society and our own selves put on our shoulders – the need to be perfect on everything that we do, the high expectations like a prison, a cage, a mask we wear everyday. The aesthetic is important to capture the eye of the viewer, but without a message it would be empty.
Why did you decide to obscure certain facial features and how do you choose what to obscure?
Sometimes I obscure different features of the same model that I use multiple times (i.e. the same model who once had their mouth obscured could later be used in a different piece and have only the eyes obscured). I suppose it depends on my mood or my own energy. One thing for certain is that people tend to care more about something when they know it has been obscured.
By what (or whom) are your subjects “caged”?
Preconceptions of what ought and ought not be, how one ought and ought not act, think or believe. False notions of perfection and beauty. Unrealistic expectations, demanding women of society to become ‘superheroes’ as if it were their supposed position. One’s own false sense of identity and the societal pressures to remain therein.
I’d like to thank Sandra for taking the time to discuss her work. All images © Sandra Chevrier and used with permission.
You can also see a short film about her process on Vimeo.