Elizabeth Yoo’s debut series Eros and After transforms the sadomasochistic films of French filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet into still images that are both ethereal and ferociously erotic. Yoo pairs sharp, defined black lines with her signature splattered ink technique to create paintings that take on new life beyond Robbe-Grillet’s seminal work.
Yoo sat down with Art Report during her candlelit solo show at Holyrand Studio on October 3rd to talk pain, pleasure, splatter paint, and what inspired her to pick up a brush after nearly a decade hiatus.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you started creating these stills after a decade long break from painting. Where did your appreciation for Robbe-Grillet start? What was it about his work that compelled you so strongly to paint it?
A: My fascination with the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet started when I watched his film Trans-Europ-Express last year. I knew him as a writer […] So when I discovered he had directed all these terrific films, I was overjoyed.
In Trans-Europ-Express […] we see Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character have daytime trysts involving sadomasochistic play, with a prostitute played by Marie-France Pisier. The bedroom scenes in particular really stirred something in me. The way the characters look directly into the camera (and at us), making us aware of our voyeurism, I found startling.
A year later, I sketched a scene from the film in pencil— when Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character ties Marie-France Pisier’s character to the bed with rope—just before he strangles her to death for betraying him. After that, I took out my painting materials and started painting other scenes from his films—with no intention of making a whole series.
Q: Your pieces pay homage to Robbe-Grillet but they are also a departure, as you interpret his work through the lens of your own unique style (I’m referring specifically to your method of splattering with ink). How did you decide on what media to use and how has it evolved?
A: In my Eros And After series, with the exception of a few paintings, I mostly used black acrylic paint and ink. When you remove color, I feel that the essence of something comes out, something you wouldn’t have noticed in color. I favor suggestion and simplicity, I think, over something definitive and hyperrealistic. I don’t care about capturing reality.
The first painting I did in my Eros And After series, “Kiss,” which depicts a scene from Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film The Man Who Lies, was made in under twenty minutes. It was made using only a few brush strokes. The speckles you see on the painting happened by accident. I thought the “mistake” suited my subject matter so well that I became bolder with the splattering of ink in my next paintings—that technique is just an explosion of energy.
If you look at the very last painting I did in the series, “Eva Looks At Elias,” the ink splatter became much more extreme. The backgrounds became much more textured and layered. That painting took at least three hours.
Q: Does your use of traditional calligraphy nibs and ink play any significance in your work?
A: I always feel like I’m being a voyeur to something very private and personal when I see a hand-written letter from someone. Now with the internet and smart phones, it’s hard to communicate with that kind of intimacy. To use a calligraphy nib, especially to make an erotic image, is a highly seductive experience. It’s hard for me to describe.
Q: Could you talk more about your process and technique? How do you know when a work is completed?
A: There are two parts of my process: I start by painting the face and body, which is a very controlled, serious process. The second part is the ink splattering which is when I have fun. I love the idea of chance and imperfection, […] of just letting the subconscious take over and improvising. You feel the aggression in every brush stroke or splatter of ink and I think it reveals something about my personality.
My paintings are a success, in my eyes, when I have no plan and just paint. I let my instinct take over. Sometimes I look at paintings and wonder how I did a certain brush stroke. That’s why I love abstract art so much, like action painting. Abstraction is energy and emotion to me, and although I appreciate it, hyperrealism almost deadens its subject matter and lacks life, strangely enough. A painting I create doesn’t look finished to me until I mess it all up and drip ink all over it.
Q: Your work often returns to the theme of disembodied hands, and how they can express either the tenderness of an embrace or the violence of a chokehold. In Robbe-Grillet’s films this distinction is made apparent through the context of the scene. How did you go about conveying this subtlety in still images?
A: Sex is inherently violent and power constantly shifts from one person to the other. A hand grasping a neck can look both affectionate and fatal. Ambiguity, ambivalence, and mystery appeals to me.
Life and death are not opposites for me—and neither are pleasure and pain, nor submission and dominance. One is needed for the other to exist.
Q: On your site you reference the below Robbe-Grillet quote. Did this philosophy influence your work?
“Pornography is direct and eroticism is indirect. In eroticism, there is a critical distance and a judgement on sexual impulses, while pornography is the absence of judgment. When the crudity of the sexual act goes through the imagination it becomes eroticism, and when it doesn’t, it is pornography.”– Robbe-Grillet
A: There’s something really haunting about the way each shot in his films is framed. He prefers close-ups of hands and faces rather than other body parts. The reaction in the face, especially in the eyes and mouth, is more erotic to me than a scene depicting penetration. A hand is like a face as well – You can tell if someone is in agony or in ecstasy just by looking at how tense or relaxed their fingers are.
In general, I prefer suggestion. My imagination can fill in the rest. Although I enjoy more explicit scenes as well, I don’t know that I would paint them. Maybe this will all change in the future—but for now, I like to give people a taste of something—and their mind can do the rest.
Q: So what’s next?
A: My next show will be in December at the Home Art Gallery in Port Jefferson, Long Island. The audience for that show, I think, will be very different from the audience who came to my Eros And After exhibit at Holyrad Studio in Brooklyn. I see a lot of little kids with their families in that area, but I also see a lot of bikers, which is a strange contrast, at least for me.
I would love to do a series on bikers and their motorcycles – It’s fascinating to see these very masculine men and the amount of care they put into maintaining and decorating their motorcycles. The fringe, studs, and accessories all over their saddlebags is incredible, like a self-portrait of them. When it’s parked, it’s meant to be gazed at and admired as if it’s a beautiful object, which it absolutely is.
I may work on a much larger scale this time and perhaps a different medium. While I loved painting with ink and acrylic paint on watercolor paper, that was 10 inches by 15 inches. It’s time for something different.
Select pieces will remain on view until the end of the month. If you would like to purchase a piece, please contact Holyrad Studio. You can also keep up with Yoo’s work on social media: Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.