Karine Laval is, in a sense, haunted by water. The French-born, Brooklyn-based photographer swims, sails and surfs in it. But most important, she photographs it – pools in particular – in a breathless fine art way that conjures Hockney and Hollywood. Her new “Altered States” series, on view at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in Manhattan through May 24, flows from her earlier work in a new direction. (You can also see her photographs at everythingbutwater.com. See related story.)
She’s been busy with the “Altered States” show, so we’re happy she had time to ruminate about her magnificent obsession:
Karine, people – artists in particular – have always been fascinated by water and by pools. Why have you been so captivated by them?
“That’s true, it’s been a bit of an obsession. I’ve always been drawn to water and water’s edges. I learned to swim very young, grew up sailing with my family and regularly visiting my father in the Caribbean, where he lived when I was a teenager. And I surf. I find water to be appeasing, healing and liberating, and I see the element as a vehicle for transformation and self-reflection.
“But water is also a primordial element. We come from water, are made of water and couldn’t survive without it. I think this is one of the most important challenges we’re facing now – how to preserve and share this endangered natural resource. One of my new projects focused on the Los Angeles River and the paradox of a city lacking its own water supply.
“I am also very interested in the confrontation of man-made and natural environments, the notion of space and architecture – especially modernist architecture, which often integrates the natural elements and materials with simple, geometrical lines and shapes….
“I also find swimming pools interesting, because…there is also a theatrical aspect to them in the way that people’s activities and repetitive gestures are contained within a delineated space….”
You’ve described the pool as a place of both life and death. In what ways?
“I find pools to be ambiguous places and that’s probably why I’m so interested in the subject. On one hand, pools are a place of social and physical/sportive activities. In this sense, they evoke leisure and the pleasures associated with life when one plays or relaxes. Pools also have that strong connection to childhood as I mentioned before.
“But pools also have a nostalgic and even morbid connotation, which has often been explored in literature and movies. I particularly think of the short story ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ François Ozon’s movie ‘Swimming Pool,’ or the scene in ‘The Graduate’ when Dustin Hoffman’s character goes underwater and feels completely claustrophobic. A swimming pool can be the scene of mundane activities, but it can also be the scene of drama and a tragic end. The stillness of the water, as opposed to the openness and movement of the sea, reinforces that morbid aspect.”
You were born in France, a country that has a definite maritime history. How did your early life there and education shape your love of water?
“As I said before, there are a lot of public swimming pools in Europe and I believe that swimming used to be on the curriculum of every school when I grew up in France. We’re fortunate to be almost entirely surrounded by coastlines in France with the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic, the Manche (the English Channel) and the Northern Seas, so it’s very easy to go to the beach.”
Now you’re a Brooklyn girl, and Brooklyn is very hot right now around the world. But do you get much chance to swim in the city?
“Actually, I do. I live in Williamsburg, a few blocks from the infamous McCarren Pool which reopened last year after a few decades of abandon. I went to swim a few times last summer, but I also take some day trips to Fort Tilden Beach or Long Beach if I’m not out in Montauk or Fire Island.”
You’ve said you prefer the beach to a pool, at least by day. So when do you prefer the pool?
“I go to a pool when I can’t access the ocean.”
Your new show has just opened. Is the work in it a departure for you and what’s next in your career?
“My new show is titled “Altered States,” which references different states of transformation such as physical transformation and distortion, altered states of consciousness and perception, mythological metamorphosis, but it also evinces the transformative power of the camera. Although the work still has connections to water (the images were produced in a swimming pool), it is a real departure from my previous work in both tone and depth. The images veer towards abstraction and what remains of the human figure is almost an illusion or a trace. It is more about shape, color, texture and the depiction of a world at the edge of the real and surreal.
“Only time will tell what’s next in my career. I’m already working on several new projects combining different mediums and I’m always trying to explore and push the boundaries of my practice.”
OK, fantasy question: You’re at the pool, a day off. What are you reading? What are you sipping? What are you wearing? And who are you with?
“I’m always excited by the prospect of reading by the pool, but I often get distracted by the activities going on around or the heat and the blinding sun. However, I recently discovered an amazing e-book publisher called MAPP coming out of London. They do an incredible job at publishing and making available rare and out-of-print art books. I just finished downloading a series of six books titled “Conversaciones/Conversations.” One of them is about Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez. I’m very excited to dig into them this summer. A glass of chilled white wine with my cat will be a perfect way to end the day by the pool.”
For more, visit karinelaval.com.