'C'est la vie' is one of those French phrases that has slipped into U.S. vernacular. The literal translation, “Such is life” or “That's life,” just sounds sexier in French. It sounds even richer when spoken by someone French.
“‘C'est la vie' is the title of my exhibition,” Michele Guieu explains in her beautiful accent. “You know, it's like when something bad happens, but you remain positive.”
It would be easy to say Guieu's art (see it at www.micheleguieu.blogspot.com) is inspired by such a sentiment on life, but it's also inspired in a very literal sense. Yes, she's a painter, but her works are based on imagery from her digital photography.
“I photograph everything,” Guieu says as she browses through digital files on her computer. She periodically pauses while images of a maple tree, a close-up of a cactus and the tentacled underside of an octopus make brief appearances on her screen. She collects these photographed patterns, biological samples found in nature, and uses them in her work. “With a mother who was a biologist, I was always drawn to look at the details of plants, animals and rocks—everywhere, all the time,” she says.
You may not recognize that the design on the canvas is taken from a cactus, but you're left with the feeling that her painted shapes are the trace of something living.
People are also frequently the subject of Guieu's work, but their faces or bodies seem to be synthesized down to their bare, quintessential features. It's as if someone has turned up the contrast dial on her subjects until only soft shapes remain, but the shapes seem to carry the most important, distinguishing marks of the subject. She studies her subject, then chooses the right colors, backgrounds, patterns and layout for each before she commits the work to canvas. Her handiwork is so precise and the detail so clean that the result can be mistaken for imagery that's digitally printed on canvas, but, in fact, she does this all by hand.
“Not much is left to accident,” Guieu says. “Some things are, but, yes, I think about my work very much before I create it.”
Text is another layer Guieu often adds to her work. Using ink and stamps, she imprints letters directly onto her canvases, and she uses text from such varied sources as well-known quotes, her own poetry, song lyrics and Wikipedia—to name just a few. In her painting “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Batman and Wonder Woman stand in the foreground. A large house is behind them, and around them is a curious circular pattern that once belonged to a sea creature from the Scripps aquarium. The text on the painting reads: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” It's a Henry David Thoreau quote from Walden. Thoreau's words are ironic when placed next to the costumed characters and a large fancy house. It seems like a timely commentary on living beyond ones financial means.
Nine years ago, Guieu was living in Paris and working as a freelance graphic designer while also balancing a blossoming career as a painter. But her two worlds and distinct ways of working—the professional graphic design and the more personal paintings—were separate. It wasn't until she moved to San Diego that the two began to overlap and she developed her signature style.
Today, her work is quickly gaining popularity around town, with recent shows at The Art of Framing Gallery, The California Center for the Arts in Escondido and at Noel-Baza Fine Art as part of the New Contemporaries II exhibition. She also has an upcoming show at Art Produce gallery, and she'll create work for next year's San Diego Visual Arts Network Movers and Shakers show.
For the C'est La Vie show, which opens June 4 at the San Diego Art Institute, she'll include a series of small, colorful paintings over the top of a large black and white scene painted directly on the gallery walls.
“This show,” she explains, “is created for the space. I like the ephemeral nature of painting this way. When the show is over, it will just disappear. ‘C'est la vie' is a poetic, bittersweet expression which I like very much, especially in the context of today, when it seems that there [are] not many reasons to celebrate—all the news is so dark. I see what's going on, and I have no illusion about the world, but I am more interested in being happy and conscious than angry.” Michele Guieu's art graces the cover of this issue.