Louise Bonnet’s Fleshy Figures

PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 19
TEXT BY DARBY MILBRATH

There was a time during pre-pubescence when, in early mornings, in bed, a recurring hallucination would come over me. An attempt to make even the smallest movement would take an infinite amount of time, as if I was moving through a thickness I couldn’t explain. The sound of my body brushing against the sheets as I made each Lilliputian movement would be deafeningly loud. Sometimes these hallucinations would include distorted visual perceptions; I would feel my body enormously inflate, and wonder how the room had gotten so small. Other times I would feel disproportionately miniature and deflated. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but recently I discovered it’s actually a medical, neurological condition called Alice in Wonderland syndrome. In one document, a child who suffered from Alice in Wonderland syndrome who felt he had giant hands, was taught that it was a psychosomatic response to the shame of, or desire to, masturbate. It’s caused by an abnormal blood flow in the parts of the brain that process visual perception and texture. Blood flow, swellings, erections, blushing. I remember having so much embarrassment around my body at that time; the breasts starting to make little tents in the fronts of my school tees, the odour that would begin to waft from under the arms, the bulges in the shorts of the boys after playing horsey-licking games, and the concealment of my pimpled, reddening face with a lampshade of carefully coiffed hair.

Louise Bonnet’s characters remind me of this time. The uncontrollable, growing, fleshy body, puffing-up obscenely, yet innocently, accidentally, rousingly, embarrassingly. Bonnet’s bulbous, plumpy figures nearly outgrow the canvases, jammed into them, like Alice in the Rabbit’s house. These figures are on display for the viewer to peer at—unchallenged by any face or eyes peering back—like the Elephant woman with a hanky over her face at the circus sideshow. There’s a tightrope wobbly walk between limp and erect. A bloated Pinocchio nose sagging flabbily; a body athletically bulging like an erect penis with drooping breasts, politely containing them with flimsy fabric; a figure doubled over with vertigo, suspended by torpedo tits. R. Crumb, Picasso, and Philip Guston’s Nixon series come to mind here. The Swiss-born, LA-based painter doesn’t have an interest in the gender of her figures, which she says are both male and female; she is more intrigued by the way a nipple presses and pulls on the fabric than by the breast itself. The interest is in the tension between the inflation and deflation of these balloon-like figures, our attempts to control that which is uncontrollable, and the ways in which we feel when we look at it.