In Townsend Center exhibit, architecture prof Jean-Paul Bourdier ‘explores the infinite potentials of photography’

For the past decade, French-born artist Jean-Paul Bourdier has photographed friends covered in paint against desert landscapes to illustrate the connection between the body and the earth. More recently, Bourdier has made “land art” in which he applies bright paint to the natural environment and then photographs the results.

“We are a part of something vaster,” says Bourdier, a professor of architecture at Berkeley since 1982, who loves “to play with the surreal quality of the body and its vulnerability.”

The architecture professor, who also teaches classes in drawing, design, and photography, observes that “all the arts are fairly linked.” The same principles that relate to mass, resonance, lines, correspondence, hierarchies, and proportion in painting, photography, or sculpture can be applied to structures, says Bourdier.

Twenty of his otherworldly, playful images, “Body of Light: Photographs of Jean-Paul Bourdier,” are on exhibit at the Townsend Center for the Humanities, 220 Stephens Hall, through Dec. 17.

Many of the photos in the Townsend exhibit have been published in Bodyscapes (Earth Aware Editions, 2007), which collects Bourdier’s stark, staged desert images. His paintings and photographs of ephemeral sculptures and land art have been widely exhibited, winning more than 15 national and international competitions.

Jean-Paul Bourdier

Jean-Paul Bourdier (Wendy Edelstein/UC Berkeley)

“It’s almost mad to think that we are different from the landscape,” Bourdier says. “Not just because we come out of it, but every grain of sand, every piece of wood, is so inter-related that to think of myself as being independent of the landscape is very foolish.”

Bourdier stages his photos in remote areas — primarily in Utah and California, as well as Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona. In some photographs, his human subjects nearly melt into the background, because the artist meticulously colors them to blend into the desert landscape. In other images, he takes the opposite tack, painting figures to contrast with the terrain around them.

Bourdier also aims to engage and surprise viewers by arranging his subjects so that only limbs or a torso are visible. Or he selects paint hues to make the human body resemble other materials — plastic, porcelain, or metal. He doesn’t alter any of his photos digitally.

In Photography as an Art Form, Bourdier teaches undergrads aesthetic appraisal while encouraging them to “explore the truly infinite potentials of photography.” He instructs his students to immerse themselves in the work of master photographers and approach their photographic assignments with the willingness to improvise, play, and incorporate humor.

His own work resides at the intersection of photography, painting, and sculpture and includes elements of performance, design, dance, acrobatics, and gymnastics. Theatrical design is also part of this mix, says Bourdier, who has been production designer on seven films directed by his wife, Trinh Minh-ha, a professor of rhetoric and of gender and women’s studies at Berkeley.

For Bourdier, his work is an expression of “the job of being alive and being thankful to whatever is around us.” He wants to communicate our “capacity to be heaven and take in heaven at the same time.” Then he adds, “When you write that down, it becomes hokey.”