The old saying “God is in the details,” connoting that paying attention to small things can have great rewards, resonates powerfully in Laetitia Soulier’s The Fractal Architectures, now on view at Claire Oliver Gallery. There’s a rare quality of genuine wonder in these photographs and set models. When I visited the gallery to talk to the artist about her work, I saw people animatedly gazing into her Matryoshka Doll sculpture, talking to each other, pointing out particular features: the spiraling wooden staircase that winds through the work’s core, the tiny vanity with its art nouveau curves, the anthropomorphic clock shaped like the doll figures on the cardinal-red wallpaper that lines the entire room. The work is earnestly charming, but this endearing feel is achieved because it’s persnickety in its material details, layered in its meanings, and visually bountiful. You need to spend half an hour looking at one photograph to gather all of what’s happening inside it.
The exhibition’s title references fractals, which, according to the Fractal Foundation, are “never-ending, infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales.” This comes into play with the mechanics of Soulier’s construction of the sets as documented in the large-scale color photographs that make up the larger part of the exhibition. It’s all repetition of objects and motifs — some beneath the threshold of easy notice.
In “The Square Roots 3” (2016), the green wallpaper is a pattern of alternating nested boxes. The central figure in the scene, a young boy, sits on a cross-sectioned staircase that is also essentially a series of boxes within which are further elaborations on this theme: small rooms that contain square cubbyholes for books, a partially laid floor foundation that reveals a lattice of rectangles beneath it, a drawer spilling out building blocks. Even the boy’s belt contains the wallpaper’s pattern in reversed colors. The work rewards your looking: upon closer inspection, the fractal trickery seems to play out almost infinitely, making delight verge on delirium.
Soulier achieves her effects by playing with scale. Most of the photos feature models that vary between a one-to-one scale and one-twelfth scale. Like the matryoshka dolls, chambers are nested within rooms nested within other rooms. It takes Soulier several months to build these sets — in one case (“The Square Roots 3”) it took an entire year. The god she serves requires the sacrifice of patience.
Often the works include a glimpse of a child, a being more open to the imaginative adventures that adults tend to refuse, one who is always on the threshold of becoming something new and different. The child’s physical presence within the image frame and his metaphorical status as a liminal being helps to illustrate the paradoxical nature of Soulier’s worlds. The artist told me that she studied logic and epistemology, gravitating toward Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because with his paradoxes, Carroll pushes rationality into a corner.
The fractal interplay in these pieces focuses the viewer’s gaze, but there are other ideas percolating. In “Fractal Architectures: Square Roots 1” (2014), Soulier has included a tree at the basement level growing up right through the floorboards. It’s as if she’s saying that the natural world models endlessly proliferating cycles of growth that, like a child, will always grow out of carefully constructed frames.
Soulier has created a unique set of visual enchantments that, as the poet Andrew Marvell wrote, “grow vaster than empires and more slow.”
Laetitia Soulier: The Fractal Architectures continues at Claire Oliver (513 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 9.