In a new show that opens Saturday at Scott Edwards Gallery, she documents the practices of a dark krewe that never existed. Or did it?
My way into Sean Yseult’s art is Famous Monsters of Filmland, the Forrest J. Ackerman-edited magazine that celebrated classic horror movies. Those films were, like so many horror movies, scary in their day, but unless the filmmakers were prepared to go to Herschel Gordon Lewis’ gory extremes, the movies were often archly theatrical—"theatrical" standing in for scary. Vincent Price’s ornate diction and Christopher Lee’s studied sternness were sufficiently alien in the 1960s and ‘70s that they were at least disconcerting if not creepy, so much so that a little additional movie magic could make viewers think they saw something more disturbing than they did. Famous Monsters celebrated the movies’ stars and monsters, but that process took them out of film and made them counterculture fetish items.
The magazine as much as the movies gave White Zombie a visual vocabulary and framework—one that was more in keeping with the first generation of CBGB’s punk bands than their contemporaries, and one that initially drew attention to the kind of improvisation low budgets make necessary, whether on screen or vinyl. The theatricality of those movies has been a through-line through Yseult’s visual art, and it is certainly the story behind the story for “Soirée D’Evolution: Tableaux Vivants et Nature Mortes,” her new show which opens Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Scott Edwards Gallery. A series of oversized photos present images from a noir krewe gala, complete with forbidden rituals and dark secrets.
The images are literally theatrical as Yseult dressed and posed actors on sets she created to capture the photos, and they share a betwixt/between feel with a good B-horror movie. You know they’re not real, and if you know where to look, you can see little flinches that confirm your suspicions, but if you want to play along, there’s a lot of effective touches to convey a credible uncanniness. The figures in the photos hearken back to the early days of photography when the subjects’ relationship to the camera is unclear as they don’t seem to know what’s happening. They seem awkward, stern and slightly distracted, and in photos meant to simulate artifacts from the 1870s, those characteristics are charming.
As is so often the case in photography, there’s more craft in Yseult’s shots than is obvious. The intricate sets and scenarios draw your attention, but oversized prints can be punishing in the way they reveal every flaw in focus. Yseult’s images are crisp with rich colors, particularly deep, unnatural blacks that help create and reveal the illusions since blacks that dense don’t exist in nature.
The photos demonstrate a love of detail, and Yseult has worked out the shots so clearly in her mind that she knows the stories they tell so well that she could write down them in a limited edition, handmade book that will be available at the show. Yseult shows a similar love of detail in the language of the stories, playing with secret society language and cult and occult names with obvious, tongue-in-cheek joy.
As crucial as a playful theatricality is to Yseult’s work, there’s also a larger story of friendship in her work. Her figures in her photographs have always been performed by friends and bandmates, some of whom she plays with still, and some she doesn’t. Individual shows had their own self-contained narratives, but collected, they document her personal life. Yseult's photos don’t tell you a lot more than that, but for someone whose musical and artistic life is framed by concepts that obscure her personal place in the work, that recognition adds a layer to her show.
Full disclosure: My wife worked with Yseult on the handmade books that will be on sale at the gallery.