We are often unaware of the physiological events taking place in our own bodies. Disease and pain may come and go in our lifetimes; we each could have a brush with death and be completely unaware of it. CORPUS SECRETUM, (body secret) is collaborative solo show between the married artists Ghislaine and Lando Fremaux-Valdez (who will be referred to in this review by their first names for clarity). In their studio the artists work shoulder-to-shoulder to create pastel scenes exploring their intimate partnership and physical bodies as places of mystery. The larger-than-life scale of the portraits — some as massive as ten feet by seven feet — banish any notion of voyeurism with their soft and indirect gazes.
Intimacy is in every composition, but Clipping (2020) is the only explicit sex scene, and serves as a jumping-off point for the body of work by establishing the romantic connection between the two artists. The portrait, in cool blues and grays, shows Lando and Ghislaine nude and grasping at each other’s bodies, each with soft gazes of love. The eroticism is unmistakable as Lando reaches for his erection with Ghislaine’s body on top of his. The wedding ring is displayed prominently on his hand, a sign of his devotion. The bedroom scene becomes a central point of reference for how the two figures relate to each other as a couple.
It is from this cool-colored, crumpled bed scene that the artists cleverly build their symbolic library. This is the only composition that is purely sexual, with the figures healthy and intact. The artists move their work forward by bringing in taboo themes of surgical exploration, illness, and curiosity of one another’s wounds.
Fugitive Sheet (Opened) (2022) focuses solely on Lando. Phantom arms appear from behind him with gentle relaxed fingers that grasp at and remove strange objects from his surgically opened abdomen. He is conscious and holding himself still — nothing restrains him. He is allowing the procedure, but suffering through the experience. His head is pushed back hard, making his neck muscles tense, his brow furrowed and eyes shut in agony. Strangely, the muscles and skin are smooth and relaxed around his splayed abdomen. The pain is purely psychological; there is no blood or visceral gore, but it is a tidy job, making it much easier for the viewer to observe closely.
Across the gallery, mirroring Fugitive Sheet (Opened), is a portrait of Ghislaine in a bathtub, titled Troubled Gut (Lavage & Debridement) (2022). Her abdominal cavity is treated like a suitcase packed long ago and forgotten. Here, it becomes a site for unpacking and searching. Disembodied hands surround her torso, but appear to also be coming up from deep within her abdominal tissue. Ghislaine’s left hand, obscured by an overlapping phantom hand, makes the benediction sign. The narrow bathtub assumes the role of a fons vivus — she is lying in the baptismal fountain. Her ankles are crossed, and her body is submerged in bright blue water, the same chemical color of barbicide. She is being baptized, but the color choice of the bright blue alludes to a more modern, chemical sanitization. The water line surrounds her face, and her mouth and eyes open while her gaze drifts, both soft and alert. Her forehead appears broken and luminous, suggesting mystical wisdom or madness.
This portrait takes the surgical procedure, referencing old anatomy books and science classroom posters, and places it in the center of a religious cleansing. The artists are referencing autopsy and medical diagrams, and because there is no gore, the images are neat like those in a textbook. The reference is historical as well: autopsies were for centuries considered to be desecration of the body, and, therefore, an act of sin. Learning what is within the body by opening it and looking was forbidden, and done by grave robbers and criminals until medical science became considered more than a dark art.
Exoumbilical Ejection (2022) makes the leap of combining the sex and eroticism of Clipping with the ghostly surgical operations of Troubled Gut (Lavage & Debridement) and Fugitive Sheet (Opened). The composition is pastel on collaged paper cut into shapes and expertly overlapped to make layers of human torsos wind around each other. Ghislaine lies on her back, and her face is smothered by internal organs that are violently excreted from her navel. This is no surgical procedure, but instead a messy expulsion of organs. Lando’s duplicated torsos are turned toward Ghislaine while his back is to us, the viewers. His many hands appear ghostly; they search her, touching her thighs and reaching up to her face. The hands belong to each lover, and are no longer disembodied. Only the lovers exist in this portrait. There are no doctors or others searching their wounds.
Exoumbilical Ejection has an urgency in the twisted motion of the bodies, which is juxtaposed with a triangular structure, referencing the Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819) by Theodore Gericault. The bedding is tossed like Gericault’s sea, and the bodies are piled in such a way that the composition is balanced, slowing the viewer’s eye. The trauma of the organ displacement and the smothering of Ghislaine’s face have the viewer wondering if she is alive. The blue-yellow skin on her extremities suggests she is expired.
Lando appears to be collapsing on top of her. There is only one place in the composition of winding torsos where someone might be breathing. A small triangular space between the limbs reveals Lando’s nose and mouth. However, the blue tones of his skin, again, suggest he is suffocating. The nudity and positioning of Ghislaine’s thighs, as they fall open across the pillows and sheets, suggests the couple’s intimacy in their investigation of each others’ wounds may have gone too far.
The artists’ depth of research and references to historical paintings is made obvious in their choices, like those in Washing Feet / Hair Bath (2023, their interpretation of the story of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet. Lando sits in the place of Jesus, wearing a long shirt, at the couple’s dining room table. The room appears to be lit from under the table, drawing attention to and backlighting the nude figure of Ghislaine as Mary Magdalene. She is sprawled across the floor, twisted uncomfortably on her hip and elbows while cupping Lando’s foot in her hands. Lando gazes down on her as she washes his feet with her tears and hair.
The artists’ choice to depict a loving gaze is sacrilegious — Lando’s love reveals the intimate relationship he has with the sinner at his feet. Traditionally, the gaze of Jesus is turned away, making the story of Mary Magdalene one of puritanical devotion in an effort to hide the forbidden affair between the prostitute and the Christ figure. Historically, the biblical renderings also place Jesus in a crowded, public venue, making the sinner’s sensual act with Jesus more proper in a chaperoned space. Ghislaine and Lando, decidedly, push the crowd out of their own story telling, making the devotional act of Ghislaine the central focus. The traditional, attending crowd is replaced with two expressionless mannequin heads set on the table, forcing viewers to witness their relationship with no distractions.
The push-pull turmoil of CORPUS SECRETUM, (body secret) reaches resolution with the joyful work The Ascendant Animal (Magdalene in Furs) (2023). The central figure is Ghislaine as Mary Magdalene kneeling, about to stand or leap from the ground. She is free from the bedroom, free from the sanitizing bathtub, free from searching hands and internal explorations. Here, the presence of a second pair of hands reaches through her torso, as if encouraging her to walk. Lando’s wedding ring is displayed prominently on the hands, a token of love, letting them go forth together as one figure. Ghislaine’s face turns up toward the blue sky; a swirling, gray-green matted fur twists around her, hugging and covering her. Cherubs (as small pet dogs) leap up at her with joy. The portrait exudes relief and release from the paranoia and darker themes of uncertainty hidden within the body. Her body is covered in hair, like some of the stories of Mary Magdalene, and Ghislaine’s portrait radiates the beauty of love from within. She is redeemed by her lover, Lando.
Sex and love, health and disease, separation of self and enmeshment are explored throughout the work. The darker side of devotion is brought to the surface along with the fear of mortality underlying traditional wedding vows: from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. The dark undertones and psychological tension explored in CORPUS SECRETUM, (body secret) overshadow the nudity and sexuality as the viewer continues to observe the portraits.
There is no way to misinterpret sex as salvation and bonding. CORPUS SECRETUM, (body secret) pushes the traditional realm of portraiture. The artists are doing more than capturing a person in a singular moment. Ghislaine and Lando Fremaux-Valdez reveal the evolution of their relationship through intertwining anatomy and the creation of narrative. This exhibition is the portrait of a relationship. The choice of Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ relationship and their forbidden love is a perfect foil for the Fremaux-Valdez relationship: Ghislaine and Lando are exposing their love and devotion to one another publicly, something Jesus and Mary Magdalene could not do. The taboo of publicly declaring love, of showing sex as restorative, and of fearing for a loved one’s mortality is central to the portrait of the Fremaux-Valdez relationship in CORPUS SECRETUM, (body secret).
CORPUS SECRETUM, (body secret) is on view at Arts Fort Worth through August 19, 2023.