Jean-Luc Mylayne: Mutual Regard Art Institute of Chicago
It would be easy to dismiss the images of French artist Jean-Luc Mylayne as just pictures of birds, but it would be a mistake to so quickly deny such conceptually deliberate and technically balanced photographs. There is depth and complexity here, ripe with philosophical investigations of aesthetics, society, and dependence. Perhaps its that he’s been doing this painstaking work for more than forty years that lends itself to be worthy of acute study, or that he spends months planning and waiting for a single, perfect image. Perhaps it's the heady, saturation of colors or the elaborate and grand dimensions of his final works. Regardless of all the effective visual elements and technical savvy Mylayne displays, the works reflect an artist obsessed with regard, patience, and tolerance; and that obsession is quite fascinating.
It all begins with the selection of a precise place in a chosen season and a subject (or “actor” as he refers to them) to reveal itself: a common species of bird with a particular dispensation or coloring. For months on end he will live in solitude with his constant companion and work partner Mylène Mylayne observing an ordinary bird within the landscape and planning the perfect composition. He then installs heavy camera equipment, including magnificently expensive lenses that stack together to create partial and fascinating optical distortions, and executing daily rehearsals – waiting for all the parts to align for a singularly perfect shot with a flawless sky, a particular position of the sun, the direction of the gaze, the unique posture. At last he is rewarded when one of the individual birds he has previously identified—and who often seem to recognize him in turn—come to occupy the position he had imagined in his picture and he releases the shutter.
No. 520, evokes feelings of isolation when looking at the skinny, knotted branches and small bird against the expansive blue sky; a successful response to Mylayne’s intention of conveying “an implicitly negative commentary on the dwindling measure of tolerance and sympathy for others that governs human activity on the planet.” The stark and blurry sky heightens my focus on the crisp grey and orange bird in the foreground, whom I can’t help but feel sympathy for as it hides ever so coyly behind the thin, white branch. The birds direct and forceful gaze raises a number of questions: is he a renegade, a loner, a refugee, or a creature that has been exiled? Is he begging for my attention or daring me to disappear? Either way, his defiance feels tragic and I am compelled by a wanting to remain in his presence.
Further illustrating Mylayne’s keen ability to depict the delicate relationship, of mutual regard that he establishes with each of his subjects into his images, No. 524 (pictured at top) suggests an equality and balance between not only the photographer and bird, but of much larger life forces. Mylayne symbolizes equality and reciprocation in the geometric shapes both in focus and out, the highlighted yet subtle focus on his subject against an intentionally softened landscape, and the sheer proximity to the bird allowed only through familiarity and implicit trust. Most interesting, the opening of the bird’s mouth mimics the opening of the branches – each demanding and commanding attention (one visually and one orally) to the implied larger audience (society) not in the camera’s view but understood to exist.
No. 560, is the real stand-out for me, the one that most encapsulates Mylayne’s intentions in the most beautiful photograph of the exhibition. The stark tree branch (of a tree that is both appearing and disappearing) slices the visual plane, becoming a line (or divider) rather than an object – decisively and abruptly interrupting the dialogue among the overwhelming, naked tree in the background, the crisp blue, cloudless sky and the seemingly dead, grey, harsh landscape of sand and rock. The birds are captured in flight, one aggressively taking off while another becomes nothing more than a white blur in the center of the image (a subtle nod to the idea that life is life, whether avian or human). It is a multi-dimensional statement about place, stability, and our existence. Mylayne has caught me completely by surprise.
Matt Witkovsky, the Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator of the Department of Photography at The Art Institute of Chicago, poetically sums up my experience with Mylayne’s work: “These hushed scenes are tableaux in the most familiar sense: elaborate, expansive, “a moment of eternity” (to quote Baudelaire). Nothing could be more old-fashioned in our day, and nothing more enduringly modern.” He is unequivocally correct.
Further connecting the twin exhibitions is a wonderful public work in Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden featuring a 30-foot-long photographic fresco covering its entire ceiling, titled The Millennium Park Chapel. Calm and hushed, it is a windowless chapel that offers the miraculous image of a solitary sparrow, apparently perched just above our heads, at the exact corner of a square roof under a brilliant, cloudless sky. The bird is doing something nearly inconceivable: allowing a potential predator to approach from underneath. And visitors have the chance to do something rare enough in our times: transcend our self-imposed barriers to join freely with an Other. For more, visit: www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/jeanluc.html