Cécile Lempert, untitled, 2023
Cécile Lempert: so fragile a thing
Sep 14 – Oct 28, 2023
Efremidis
Seoul, South Korea

Cécile Lempert’s paintings evoke a cinematic world of ambiguities, shifting between the tender and loving to the violent and eerie. Lempert’s first solo presentation with Efremidis oscillates between images of tactile proximity and emotional distance. Selecting imagery from a personal archive of film stills, family snapshots and borrowed details of European masters, she depicts moments of intimate or invasive touch, while looming close-ups capture the murmuring of a mind behind the closed door of a face.

The exhibition’s title references a musical composition by Cassandra Miller, which is in turn taken from a letter from philosopher Simone Weil to her friend Gustave Thibon, where Weil laments the extraordinary vulnerability of human life: “Human existence is so fragile a thing and exposed to such dangers that I cannot love without trembling”. In Lempert’s paintings, this trembling fragility is expressed throughout the paintings’ subjects, as well as through her application of the medium. Translucent washes are applied in layers, revealing the process of their construction, so that there is a sense of seeing through to something within and behind the image. For Lempert, this building of translucent layers is akin to dismantling the image and putting it back together again – a way of seeking intimacy and understanding.

A distinctive feature of Lempert’s paintings is her incorporation of a split-screen format. Two almost identical images are painted side by side with a subtle shift between them, like adjacent frames cut from a strip of analogue film. With this split, Lempert depicts a temporal ‘gap’: a fragile yet decisive border where one state transitions to another. The doubling encourages the gaze to flick back and forth in search of disparities and narrative clues, introducing an uneasy fracture to the veracity of the image.

The split-screen format is a refrain throughout Lempert’s practice. Lempert’s paintings are full of stops, pauses and uneasy stillness. From contemplative gazes to physical intrusions, repeatedly she presents us with images of bodies stalled or jarred. One such ‘stop’ is a cropped and doubled detail from Rembrandt’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, in which Abraham’s hand is clamped tightly over Isaac’s face, obscuring his expression and pushing back his head to expose a pale, naked throat. While the focal point of Rembrandt’s original is arguably the glittering stillness of a knife suspended mid-air – knocked from Abraham’s hand by an angel at the crucial moment – Lempert’s crop instead selects a moment of profound physical contact between two bodies. Simone Weil’s trembling anticipation again comes to mind: what Lempert is showing us here is a profound moment of presence, paused on the cusp of loss.

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