What About '(FEM)ME?'

Danielle Voirin presents self-portrait series at Iris BookCafe


hotography shows in cafes can be chancy as to quality and depth. Those at Iris BookCafe and Gallery, curated by William Messer, regularly break this rule. Messer, in exhibitions presented quarterly at Iris since fall 2008, is himself an experienced curator with an international background and a photographer in his own right. In fact, a show of Messer’s own work opens at PAC gallery in East Walnut Hills later this month. 

At Iris he has most often shown “seasoned artists with plenty of commercial gallery and museum exhibitions to their credit,” he recently said by email. However, the engaging exhibition now in place,


ME: Self-portraits by Danielle Voirin, presents a young photographer whose work has appeared in group shows in Europe but not previously as a solo exhibition. (Two other solo exhibitions, both in Europe, will follow the show here.) Chicago-born Voirin has lived and worked as a commercial photographer in Paris since 2003.


ME is an interesting look at the explorations of a young talent, rightly confident in her skills but still determining just how to use them. 

The exhibition is presented in three sections and takes its title from a play on French/English words, so that the French word for woman, with its first three letters struck out, becomes the English “me” and appropriately descriptive for three series of self-portraits. In the first set, “des Collages,” Voirin’s playful depictions of herself have a nervous edge. They are vertical, usually with a black background, and incorporate mannequin parts so that she appears with a third arm or as the only living element lying in a clutter of figures on the floor. The title of the group is a complicated play on both French and English words and refers, the artist writes, “to the collage-like assemblage” of images and to the French word “décollage,” familiar as the take off of an airplane leaving the runway.” 

The “Curiosity” series sheds the black background for gray in 13 horizontal images from a sequence of 200 recording the artist shaving her head. The gesture puts down society’s view of accepted female appearance, a move Voirin made with some anguish as expressions of her pretty, regular features attest, and raises questions of identity. 

“Waking,” the third group and the most ambitious, requires the most from the viewer. This long-term project catches the moment Voirin’s alarm wakens her, so we see her in “the temporal space between sleep and waking,” in her apartment, her statement says. In dispensing with the plain backgrounds of the other two series she takes on composition elements not always satisfactorily solved, but her difficulty in making the transition from sleep to consciousness communicates itself to the viewer. In a departure for Iris gallery, where black and white has been the norm, this series is in muted color. As always for Iris shows, the final bit is in the restroom; here, it’s the triumphant conclusion of “Curiosity.” 

The emphasis on black and white reflects interests of Iris’s Julie Fay, who told Messer when she was establishing the cafe in 2008 that she would like Iris to be a cafe-cum-photogallery. Messer agreed to curate. Fay and Messer had a shared photography background through a now defunct gallery, where Messer had curated exhibitions and Fay edited the quarterly publication. As the cafe took shape, open wall space was incorporated between bookcases — the other indispensable element of a BookCafe — and track lights installed to produce an effect closer to galleries or museums than most cafes can summon. 

“Curating keeps a nice chunk of my brain alive and firing,” Messer says. “It’s something like speaking another language, never quite sure you’ve mastered it, hoping that some of the people hearing/reading it understand it. But even if not, hopefully they’ll respond to the sound or look of it, the rhythm and cadence, make something out of those words they know. … You have to try to make the exhibitions work on several levels, if possible, not unlike the books in the bookcases.”

Messer enjoys the intimacy of the cafe setting, while incorporating gallery/museum standards. “I love creating dialogues between neighboring images and linear sequential evolutions and interactions across the space. … I plan the exhibition in my head almost at the same time I am selecting work, having the entire space fixed in my mind after nearly four years.” Viewer challenge: Why is the “Curiosity” series hung back-to-front as one enters the cafe? (There’s a link with a “des Collages” print, and it also fits better with “Waking” when approaching from that angle, Messer says.)

Messer’s teaching experience is put to use in Second Sunday Crits at Iris — the most recent was April 8 — usually held once during each show. “It’s an open group crit so people can just come in with their work. The idea is that not only I address each person’s work but everyone else can give input. Hopefully, a lot of learning goes on,” Messer said.

Another regular feature of Iris shows is a talk by the artist; Voirin’s is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22. These events are informal, befitting the cafe atmosphere, and usually elicit multiple questions from the audience. All this has been known to go on for a long time, as cafe patrons come and go, and makes photography a very living art with strong opinions and intense responses par for the course. It’s good to have a space like this operating in the city.


FEM ME continues

through July 20 at Iris BookCafe (1331 Main St., Over-the-Rhine).

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