Valérie Favre's first solo exhibition at Peter Kilchmann presented an opportunity to view the artist's recently completed "Selbstmord" (Suicide) series. Favre, born in 1959 near Biel, Switzerland, and now living in Berlin, has spent 10 years considering the subject of self-annihilation. In Zurich she selected 118 of the 128 small oils on canvas from the series, each 9½ by 7�?? inches, hung friezelike on a painted strip of midnight blue around all four walls of one large space. In addition to setting a consistent size for the works, Favre denied herself use of the color red, avoiding an immediately corporeal association without dulling the affective potential of her images. Individual captions handwritten on the wall beneath each work ranged from the general (Vergiftet [Poisoned], 2007) to the specific, as in Ian Curtis, erhängt (Ian Curtis, hanged, 2012), referring to the British rock musician who killed himself in 1980. Such identifiers were complemented by a more elaborate checklist of the subjects, which include fictitious and mythical as well as historical figures. Favre's signature painting style, with its loose brushstrokes, can describe details but is more often indistinct and allusive. The images range from close-ups (a screaming mouth), to impressions (a slack, indistinct suspended form), to compressed narratives (Hermann Göring in his jail cell in the lower part of one canvas, with a court scene above).
In Favre's hands, suicide is rendered ghoulish and comic by turn, and often heart-rending. A neglected and even taboo subject in most contemporary societies, it is a particularly sensitive issue in Switzerland, where its assisted version is, to a degree, legal. Exit, a Swiss organization that enables suicides, is named in a sign on one canvas, in a double entendre. Favre's images, however, are notably ambiguous about personal agency: though some figures are clearly pulling their own triggers or plunging daggers into themselves, a predominant palette of sallow yellows and greens, casting an oppressive mood, suggests the weight of unbearable circumstances. What is more, several paintings—notably Vom Wolkenkratzer gestürzt (Falling from a Skyscraper, 2007)—seem to suggest that it may be nobler to act before one is dragged down by life or events. In this work, the jumping figure, seen from below, stirs an instant recollection of the falling bodies of 9/11.
Three larger, unrelated canvases from 2012 dominated another gallery: Das Bukett (La fragilité des fleurs) Nr. 1-3 (The Bouquet [The Fragility of Flowers] No. 1-3). The French term for still life is "nature morte," or dead nature, and the evanescence of these flowers, poised between life and death, is plain to see, captured drooping messily, white blooms against dark backgrounds. Here there are touches of red, fuchsia, violet, moss green and cornflower blue, applied with moderation. Favre's flowers are not the garish, highly cultivated hothouse variety; they could be wild. If the suicide series is high drama, these flowers have a more subdued effect, conveying a sense of everyday tragedy.
Still, Favre's restraint is clear throughout. Appearing some time after 9/11 and the deaths of Curtis and Göring, Favre's suicide paintings are a measured consideration of the subject. Her medium admits more ambiguity and interpretation than a documentary photograph could, and with that a more profound engagement with suicide as a personal tragedy.
PHOTO: Valérie Favre: Hermann Göring, 2012, from the series “Suicide,” 2003-13, oil on canvas, 9½ by 7�?? inches; at Peter Kilchmann.