Edward Ysais – Untitled (2013)
I’ve had this image saved as a draft for almost a year. There’s no arguing that it’s chiaroscuro is executed with skillful aplomb. It’s memorable, quality work and I like it… but I’m conflicted about it.
At first, I thought that the both women were the same person. That’s largely because I am absolutely awful when it comes to facial recognition. For example: If I’m meeting someone I don’t know all that well, when I scan a crowd I’m noting things like height, hair color, build and body language.
I don’t think these are the same women (it’s not entirely clear but the woman entwined with the man appears to have longer hair than the one in the mirror). So my initial impression of this as a critique of the male gaze–wherein the male surrenders to sexual bliss while the woman is condemned to a duality of experience wherein she not only experiences sensation but also stands detached monitoring and critiquing her the relationship between her experience and the male consumption of her experience.
Without that anchor, I’m not really sure what to make of the image. Is this a threesome? There’s a sheen on the woman in the mirror’s skin that could be suggestive of such a scenario. But it fears more like a nightmare–a woman dreaming about her lover cheating on her.
And that’s kind of where things start to unravel for me. In my experience as a dreamer, mirrors straight up DO NOT work like they are represented here. In other words, my experience is that the mirror only reflects a part of me–i.e. my head or I don’t have a reflection.
This dissonance opens a door to some critical considerations about the work. Yes, it’s pretty. Yes, the lighting is sumptuous. Yes, it’s almost certainly riffing on Velázquez‘s Las Meninas.
However, note the way Velázquez uses available light as the primary motivation for his composition. In other words, the perspective the viewer is presented is one which given the light renders a composition built around a masterful understanding of space–especially distance and depth.
Ysais’ image is alarmingly flat. The light functions to render the scene legible and in no way informs the composition. And once you follow that rabbit trail, you realize that due to the slight down tilt of the camera–presumably to compliment the mirror–the vertical slat of the partition at the extreme left of the frame is put askew. Further, the horizontal and vertical slats, transitioning to the bas relief to the damask pattern to the drape and the echoing drape in the reflection–the artifice of the frame becomes hard to suspend in favor of disbelief.
It’s something I’m discovering in my own work of late: the distance between a bad image and a good one is exponentially less than what separates good from great.