It’s been a long day for Sylvie Fleury. “I’m a little exhausted,” announces the Swiss artist on an overcast Monday evening in October. “Do you mind if I eat my dinner now? I still haven’t left my studio,” she says apologetically. In addition to the occasional clang of cutlery, her cat, Shaman, meows emphatically throughout our conversation. “He likes to join in,” she laughs.
Time is of the essence for Sylvie Fleury, who is preparing to show a brand-new body of work at Salon 94 Bowery in New York this November. The exhibition, “Eye Shadows”, is inspired by her enduring fascination with cosmetics, which itself is fuelled by three major themes in her oeuvre: superficiality, stereotypes and consumer culture. “Cosmetics are a tool to me,” she says. “I’ve always used female paraphernalia, but make-up immediately gives my work a touch of desire.”
In order to give the show a greater sense of context, she talks through some of her most memorable experimentations with make-up, which hark back to the early Nineties. For her first solo show at Art & Public, Geneva in 1993, Fleury drove an ostentatious 1967 Skylark across the gallery floor, crushing a plethora of expensive foundations, lipsticks and eyeshadows in order to leave a glossy trail of destruction. “Yes, I’ve done terrible things to make-up,” she laughs. “I love the way that the mirrors smash and all the colours blur.”
Her video “Drastic Makeup” (2007), produced by the Sculpture Centre in New York, was similar, using automotive hydraulics (a la Nineties Snoop Dogg) to obliterate delicate metallic compacts holding ice-blue eyeshadows and peach-coloured blush. On other occasions, she has customised large cars (“I would crush them and then spray-paint them with pearlescent pink nail varnish,” she says), thus subverting a stereotypical symbol of masculinity.
Fleury also reveals that at the beginning of her career she “felt more self-conscious,” and was often alarmed at how terrible the lighting was in contemporary galleries. “Sometimes I couldn’t look at myself,” she says. The feeling prompted her to create an installation that was inspired by a colour-correcting compact that Chanel launched in the early 1980s. “I made four mirrors with different lighting effects that could correct the colour of someone’s face,” she says, adding: “It could make you look amazing, I’m so surprised that the piece never sold.”
To Fleury, cosmetics are art. The readymade colours, with their hyper-fetishised names (from Nars’ famed “Orgasm” blush to Tom Ford’s “Devil Inside” lipstick) are employed in a similar manner to acrylic paint, creating textured markings on canvas, or short videos that confront cliches about female behaviour. She is using make-up, both conceptually and figuratively, to make us think. “I don’t want to sound pretentious or like some kind of Buddhist monk, but that’s the aim with all of my work,” she says. “To give little flashes of wisdom in a very superficial world.”
“Eye Shadows” comprises a series of large-scale figurative paintings of eyeshadow compacts. “I was browsing a make-up counter one day, and I realised that these compacts looked like abstract paintings in boxes,” she says. Fleury describes the works as “fairly simple, formalistically, but elaborate in their making.” Consisting of precisely-applied layers of acrylic paint, mixed with mother- of pearl-effect pigment and small metallic flakes, they posses a tactile, three-dimensional quality that makes them feel substantial, yet unexpectedly sensual. Most notably, none of the palette paintings contain a mirror, which she explains “was a purposeful choice, because in most cases, art already functions as a mirror.”
Fleury is renowned for taking readymade compositions, such as the aforementioned cars or make-up palettes, tampering with them and transforming them into artworks, allowing audiences to view these objects in an entirely different light. In doing so, she prompts questions about luxurious commodities, advertising and consumption – especially the desire to shop. Her very first artwork, “C’est La Vie!” (1990), in which she presented a group of branded shopping bags covered in fine fabric within the context of a gallery space, encapsulates this feeling. “Go Pout” (2000) portrayed a similar sentiment in the form of a life-sized gold shopping trolley positioned on a circular dome like an elevated porcelain figurine.
An artist’s place of work is often filled with various stimuli – rambling notes, photos, cuttings, sketches – but this isn’t the case with Fleury. “My studio has some weird stuff in it, but inspiration doesn’t come to me in that way,” she insists. “It stems from my mind, my thoughts.” Despite its high ceilings and skylight, her studio feels darker than it actually is, perhaps due to the glow of neon light that floods the space and gives it an eerie Argento-esque ambience. “I’ve been here for six years now – no, 10 years,” she says. “I like it, it’s quiet and just far enough away from the centre of Geneva.”
Fleury was born and raised in Geneva and enjoys being part of its small artistic community. “There’s no way you can compare it to a major city like London, but it allows me to work without distraction,” she says. Yet, she regards one of the most influential periods in her artistic career as the time she spent in New York during her late teens and early twenties. “It changed my world,” she says. “I studied photography and was exposed to all these different subcultures for the first time. I also hung out with people that were making films, and that had an effect on me.”
When she first moved back to Geneva in the late ’80s, Fleury began throwing elaborately-themed parties in a lofty apartment that looked “more like a gallery with black walls.” She would serve Japanese food (“unheard of in Geneva at that time,”) and do whatever it took to surprise her guests by putting on a performance. “It ’s hard to define exactly when I became an artist, but I believe it was probably at that moment,” she adds.
Today, her three decade-strong practice remains motivated by her own impulses and desires. “I am spontaneous and though I don’t change my mind often, I like to change my process in order to keep moving forwards,” she says. Right now, she is particularly curious about the way in which we create and exchange images on social media platforms such as Instagram. “I often wonder where we are going with it all,” she says. “People are so aware of having to create an image or selfie that stands out, that’s more cutting edge, so it makes an impact.”
She also discusses the fact that while actors, models, and musicians used to set make-up trends, today, with the advent of social media, virtually anyone can become a beauty influencer. “I feel fairly optimistic about that,” she says. “I suppose anything that exposes new subcultures and celebrates a unique point of view can be good. But I’m sure the cosmetics industry are already onto it.”
As the conversation draws to a close, Fleury pauses when asked if she’d like to add anything else. “Yes,” the artist announces. “That I am conscious of everything around me. I’m a big observer and I get a kick out of the things that I look at because they make me think.”