Sophie-Yen Bretez is on brand for Sophie-Yen Bretez. Now, this may seem obvious–or even redundant–but what we’re really trying to say is that Bretez’s work is very much a vivid and evocative extension of herself. When you consume one of her pieces, you are absorbing something that is autobiographical and, thus, very personal. You are engaging with a part of the artist that has been shaped and molded by their trial, tribulations and general life experiences. Bretez unravels her mortal coil with a stylized intensity and unhinged sincerity that compels us to become invested in her and in the work.
“This setting on the canvas is my subconscious, my intimacy in the deepest sense of the term that I offer to the viewer. If I were to paint the inside of my brain, it would be identical to the canvases: something about control, lines and color, always with the ocean in the background… All this contributes to a sensual and cold atmosphere at the same time, despite the warm colors.
I like this ambivalence.”– Sophie-Yen Bretez
Originally starting out in the business forum, Bretez ultimately came to the decision that she was in the wrong field. Although this is an oft encountered epiphany that is not specific only to her, Bretez did what many fail to do and eventually took on the daunting task of changing her life direction and focus.
Beginning a new journey that just so happened to point inwards more so than any other direction, the French painter is making a vivid effort to master both her craft and her sense of self. That being considered, her audience is witnessing her growth in more ways than one.
Veiled in a chaotic nonchalance that is as genuine as its subject matter, the work in its totality is best described as cathartic, introspective and true to itself. The composition and symbolism is executed with purpose. The objects, the placement of those objects, the pallette, the patterns–all of it is rooted in the utmost intent. It is nothing new to encounter an artist who bleeds themselves into their work but when it is done at this caliber, it is necessary to take notice.
Bretez deserves her spot on the list of artists to watch. There is a degree of vulnerability and introspection that plants her firmly amongst her contemporaries; also elevating her work to an extent that allows her to even stand out amongst those very same contemporaries. Bretez’s work not only lets you in, it keeps you there, and it is the sentiment of her pieces that is the source of her magnetism.
We caught up with Bretez a couple of months just before her well received solo exhibition at JD Malat Gallery. Due to a heavy production schedule on both parties’ ends, this article took a little time and effort to hit the digital press. However, we included a special before and after update regarding a significant career milestone–particularly her recent solo, Powerful, despite it all.
Akeem K. Duncan: Your works are extremely distinctive. Memorable. Can you describe your aesthetic in your own words? What world does your work live in?
Sophie-Yen Bretez: “It’s an aesthetic of color first. For each painting, I take care to associate the colors for a harmonious, beautiful and obviously significant rendering in relation to the story of the canvas. This chromatic composition comes quite naturally to me: when I feel a particular emotion or think back to a memory, I have precise colors associated with it.
Then, there is an aesthetic of form through lines, geometry that is expressed by the decor, the checkerboards and the horizon.
And finally, there is an aesthetic of the symbol I would say. In the center of this decor, we find the bodies of naked women with silky skin, and various elements of everyday life that have a strong symbolic charge. Nothing is there at random: colors, women, objects.
This setting on the canvas is my subconscious, my intimacy in the deepest sense of the term that I offer to the viewer. If I were to paint the inside of my brain, it would be identical to the canvases: something about control, lines and color, always with the ocean in the background. Moreover, the horizons on the ocean symbolize “the possible and the elsewhere”, a salutary beyond when the “here and now” is too difficult to overcome. The horizon plays a key role in my work as much as women.
All this contributes to a sensual and cold atmosphere at the same time, despite the warm colors. I like this ambivalence.”
AKD: Can you tell us about the existential element that runs through most of your pieces?
SYB: “Precisely, I want to depict the ambivalence of life and what is more tragic and poetic in it. Without any filter except the one of the colors. I want to paint my experience in the world, the vital force in me in spite of all the pain, the sadness, the past that are also part of my identity.
I resolve this ambivalence by bringing substance and form into dialogue/confrontation in my work. The form is the aesthetic that is vibrating, colorful, bold, sensual. It is the celebration of life. And the substance is the narrative of each painting that recounts more tragic autobiographical elements of my past. The narrative is explained by the titles of each painting in the form of poems that I write. They guide the viewer in understanding each artwork. I often invite the viewer to first look at the painting, then read the poem and then look at the painting again with fresh eyes. This brings an additional level of dialogue between my work, the viewer and myself.”
AD: Is there significance in the nudity of your subjects?
SYB: “The nudity expresses this symbolic baring of my artistic approach, presenting my intimacy, my personal history. My subjects always look straight at the viewer in a dynamic of reversed voyeurism, which also brings an additional level of dialogue with the viewer. It is my subjects who are watching the viewer watching them.
Through this, I want to question the way we look at naked women’s bodies and their sexualization. If the viewer sexualizes my naked bodies, there is a problem somewhere, and it comes neither from what is painted nor from my intention but from the sexualizing look of the person towards the women’s body.
This direct gaze is also there to distance the viewers from my naked subjects and from the intimacy that is offered to them. I paint naked women who stand up to both the viewer and metaphorically to the events that women experience in their lives: without looking away.”
AKD: What other messages are embedded in your work?
SYB: “Precisely, I want to testify to the intimate and the universal through the narrative whether painted or written through my poems: how the story of personal memories & feelings can lead to a broader reflection on political, societal, philosophical, existential issues (rape, mental health, female pleasure, adoption, death, violence against women…)? All these issues will be highlighted in my next Solo Show next June.
The poems / titles of the works are written in the first person – beyond the fact that I am the character of my works – so that the spectator can identify and reinterpret my story through the prism of his own experience.”
AKD: What is your intention as an artist?
SYB: “To convey emotions and to invite to reflect on political, existential and philosophical issues through narrative. And this, always in the search of the beautiful and the harmonious even if the substance might often be painful, dark, sad. I want to reconcile the ambivalence and the richness of life in my paintings.”
AKD: 2023 brings news of a fresh solo exhibition with JD Malat Gallery. How are you feeling about this upcoming opportunity? Got any spoilers?
SYB: “I am both excited and nervous to unveil it to the public. This solo show, I brought it out of my guts. I have been working on it for 7 months, it is a strong emotional creative process as I am the narrator, the author and the character but I am eager to share it. I see this solo show as my official presentation to the art world: this is my story, this is my definition of feminity and these are the themes I’m going to explore in my work in the future.
JD Malat is the gallery that now represents me on the UK market. I’m very happy to collaborate with them.
Other things will happen in 2023 but I can’t say anything yet!”
AKD: Update! Your solo exhibition, recently wrapped! How did everything go?
SYB: “The week of the opening was very intense, with meetings with collectors, the press and the general public. The show was very well received and the public understood my artistic approach of talking about the feminine intimate with all the political dimension that it includes. People told me that they felt the power emanating from all the canvases when they stood in the middle of the gallery.
There was a talk organised that week by JD Malat Gallery, and there was a very nice exchange with the audience, including a moment when several women and I talked about the female condition and our life experiences, and many of them found themselves in my paintings. I couldn’t have been happier and I was glad to share with people my vision and definition of womanhood : « Powerful, despite it all », nothing less, nothing more.”
AKD: A self taught artist, what is your advice to other autodidacts who want to take that leap and give themselves up to their craft?
“1. Know what you want to express. Even if sometimes we only understand afterwards the complexity of what we really wanted to say, there is still an overall message / subject that we must be able to identify and wish to transmit to others.
2. Feed your curiosity. Raise your head and look around you, get inspired.
3. Work hard, with rigor and discipline. It is also by doing a lot that you learn.
4. Trust yourself.
5. Life is too short not to throw yourself into your art when you feel that’s what you want deep down. So make sure you make the right compromises to have all your brain available for your art.
Once you have all these ingredients, create without stopping. But taking breaks from creating is very important! Clearing your mind is also an important breeding ground for creation so take the time to settle down, go out, sleep, love, just live.”
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Akeem is our founder. A writer, poet, curator and profuse sweater, he is responsible for the curatorial direction and overall voice of Quiet Lunch. The Bronx native has read at venues such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, KGB Bar, Lovecraft and SHAG–with works published in Palabra Luminosas and LiVE MAG13. He has also curated solo and group exhibitions at numerous galleries in Chelsea, Harlem, Bushwick and Lower Manhattan.