The exposition ’20 YEARS OF PHOTOGRAPHY has come to an end. For all who visited, worked on it and the press, thank you for making it a big succes! For those who could not come, here a text from Liesbeth Decan and lot’s of expo pictures by Cedric Etienne:

From 9 December 2016 until 20 January 2017, Frieke Janssens celebrated “20 Years of Photography” at the Ingrid Deuss Gallery. One wall with an impressive cloud of small images presents an overview of her work since she graduated as a photographer. The exhibition also includes a number of prints from the period in which she studied photography, first at evening classes in Bruges, then at the Sint-Lukas School of Arts in Brussels.

Remarkably, these early works already reveal some of the basic elements, which Frieke Janssens will later develop in the course of her professional career. Take, for example, the image showing a multiple exposure of a dancer, reminiscent of the early “motion pictures” of Etienne-Jules Marey or Eadweard Muybridge. It is a study of the movements of a human body — a theme which Janssens will also engage with in her later work with a particularly a sharp eye. In her work, figures are carefully cast and directed, and every one of their gestures is meticulously precise.

The staging of people in a certain setting is an aspect of her work that originated during her study period at Sint-Lukas. Her final project consisted of four different images, each of them depicting a different group of people, defined by a distinct style of clothing, posing in a matching décor. One of them is exhibited at the Ingrid Deuss Gallery and shows three young people and a dog, seated in typical Art Deco chairs in the Brussels jazz bar Archiduc. Their poise and gaze at the camera reveal their self-confidence, which probably arises in part from the confirmation they give each other through their similar appearances. Their poise and gaze also tell us that we, the viewers, do not belong in their universe.

Janssens refers to August Sander as a source of inspiration for this work. The well-defined pose of the figures and their direct gazing into the lens are indeed reminiscent of Sander’s famous People of the Twentieth Century. In addition, Janssens’ categorization of people by means of their lifestyle and looks recalls the way Sander labeled and grouped his figures by profession or social status. Here, Frieke Janssens seems to suggest that, even in times in which classifying people is generally considered “incorrect”, we still tend to pigeon-hole people. As in much of her later work, her beautifully stylized images will often embody a deeper reflection on certain aspects of our society.

The precise staging as well as the use of color that appears in the graduation photos led Janssens’ work into the realm of the photographic tableau — a photographic style that became popular in the 1980s, characterized by typically pictorial elements. Her first assignment — a campaign for the Flemish classical radio station Klara — includes a static portrait of a woman (we recognize her from the Archiduc group portrait), holding a parrot against a wallpapered background. As is often the case in Janssens’ photography, the potential sense of stiffness is broken by a funny twist, which also subtly subverts the painterly tradition the picture refers to. In the photo, the parrot’s beak is tied with a rope to keep the animal quiet while its owner is listening to music.

The lady with the parrot embodies the origin of Frieke Janssens’ emblematic imagery, which is characterized by an accurate staging of people and/or animals, in a rather sober, attractive setting, with often humoristic, sometimes surreal undertones. The humoristic, or at least surprising, effect is often generated by combining two elements that normally do not belong together. The image presented in Smoking Kids, for example, is shocking (and shockingly amusing) because it connects the idea of the innocent child with a harmful adult habit such as cigarette smoking. The same goes for Animalcoholics, an impressive panoramic tableau depicting the interior of a bar, replete with a lavatory filled with animals posing in a drunken state. Again, her particular humoristic approach makes us think about social issues, such as smoking and alcohol abuse.

In other works, the combination of two incongruous elements adds a surrealist layer to the pictures. Take, for example, the man engaging in a friendly hug with a tiger; the girl with tears in rainbow colors; the woman in hunting outfit proudly posing with her prey, a naked man; or, the series of bust sculptures that represent living individuals instead of marble figures. Humans take the place of animals, and vice versa; lifeless things become animated. Unexpected elements like these undermine the proper reading of the image, and give them an eerie effect. If at first we are attracted by the beauty of the image, the iconographic twist creates a certain sense of unease. What makes Frieke Jannsens’ images interesting is that they manage to simultaneously seduce and frighten. They play with the duality of the dream state, in which reality and fiction intermingle.

On the occasion of “20 Years of Photography” Frieke Janssens conducted a few interviews with photographers she feels an affinity with, such as Karel Fonteyne, Julia Fullerton-Batten, Athos Burez, Rankin and Bjorn Tagemose. Just like Janssens, they combine a commercial practice with artistic work. Out of curiosity for the way in which these photographers deal with this division in their work, the interviews mainly focused on this theme. However, for the visitor of the Ingrid Deuss Gallery, who will be confronted with no less than 161 pictures on one of the walls of the gallery — neatly finished miniature versions of photographs Jannsens created in the course of her career — the dichotomy between autonomous or commissioned work is less important. For if there is one thing that the wall reveals, then it is the fact that Janssens’ commissioned work differs neither in style nor in approach from her autonomous work. In every picture, we recognize her signature, which is characterized by technical perfection, pictorial references, and a playful duality between reality and fiction.

Liesbeth Decan
January 2017



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