In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its council of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storm of the heavens and through those of life.’[1]

A feeling of terror surfaces in Julie Polidoro’s last series of paintings, a feeling all the more insidious as their chromatic refinement, the precious radiance of some of their hues attract the eye sensually, even delightfully (see for instance the floral pink of the sky in Mongolian Storm, the shades of blues of the ceiling of Parking-people, or the turquoise shirt of a sleeping worker in The Sleepers). If their themes differ – the ‘Invisibles’ on the one hand, people condemned to exile and penned up by the authorities of the countries in which they try to settle, and sandstorms on the other –, these two bodies of works are tragically intertwined. They are permeated by the same sense of urgency. Despite the ‘simplicity’ of the medium Polidoro uses (unstretched canvases hung on the wall), she manages to actualise ‘Disaster’. She avoids dramatisation though, when she evokes climate imbalance or forced migration, two symptoms of a global crisis that are inextricably linked. Her gesture is imbued with uncertainty because of the temporal gap induced by the images from which she starts, photographs gathered on the internet. We don’t know when and where the pictures were taken and we are faced with a fait accompli: we are forced to reconsider the agonising experience of waiting, that of migrants faced with an unpredictable fate or that of populations threatened by nature wreaking havoc.

Julie Polidoro’s work is not so much about depicting the catastrophe – she has nothing to do with 19th century romanticism and its penchant for horrific or sublime representations of storms, avalanches or shipwrecks made famous by Théodore Géricault, Joseph Vernet or William Turner – than spatialising it and analysing its expansion. As if she was resisting its immeasurable scale, she seeks to measure the space that is being occupied (the sky filled with dust) or denied to individuals deprived of a home(land).

is palpable in the frontality of her Dust Storms, in these heaps of indeterminate matter which look simultaneously like clouds, herds of animals and mountains and seem to be moving towards us, as as many blocks of violence on the verge of explosion. There is no threat in the endless rows of bodies populating the Invisibles but despair wells up in front of the anonymous men and women who regularly make the headlines of Eastern media, and yet remain total strangers. We know nothing about them except that they live on borrowed time, subjected to absolute precariousness.

In both series of works, the viewer’s eye is saturated with vibrant paint. Although reminiscences of the structure of a classical landscape composition are visible in the horizontal bands of her Dust Storms, the space Polidoro paints disappears, dissolved into sand clouds. Only fragile houses, a road, fields and what might be electric poles stand out. The landscape is wiped out, replaced by atmospheric disturbances with beautifully unnatural colours, almost horrifying in their flamboyant sophistication.

In Polidoro’s Invisibles, a patchwork of carpets, towels and sleeping bags turns places into grids. They delimit the few square meters allocated to each refugee (Sleepers) or expand infinitely to the point of fading into a myriad of abstract forms (Those who Wait). These criss-cross patterns are like the absurd maps of the non-existent lands of ‘second-class’ human beings. In these sideways or high-angle views without a horizon, makeshift mattresses or prefabricated cells seem to stretch beyond the frame, emphasising the severe overcrowding prevalent in migrant shelters. Julie Polidoro ‘surveys’ this type of lodging through her paintings, stressing the difficulty one encounters in individualising exiles who are restricted in their movements and lumped into one category, that of ‘unknown masses’.

she introduces the human figure – a rare occurrence in her work –, it is primarily to show the living conditions, without any privacy, of ‘bodies-archipelagos’ forced into basic activities, essentially sleeping, drinking, and eating. Didn’t Gaston Bachelard say that ‘the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace’[2]? A retreat which is denied to those painted by Julie Polidoro. Of their dreams or nightmares, we know nothing as they remain mute, devoid of nationality and flesh, and wrapped in the impersonality of the temporary accommodation to which they are reduced.

By displaying the spaces where they wait, Polidoro highlights the purely temporal texture of their everyday life and shows that a form of stasis, of unlimited immobilisation, is integral to their state. She makes time tangible by delving into the unrepresentable: the status of people in ‘transit’ who don’t inhabit a place but a world of endless wait. The materiality of the canvases she paints, emphasised by the act of folding-unfolding at the core of her practice, gives substance to the confinement, the lack of freedom which prevents one from switching from social activity to solitude and vice versa, from ‘having a time of one’s own’ would say Claire Marin[3].

The creases, the varying intensities of colours and their careful superimposition – typical marks of Polidoro’s creative process and of the time it requires – point to the time that is not available to migrants. A subtle reminder of the inequalities which split society in two, between those who belong and those who don’t, those who have the right to withdraw into their own private space and those who don’t. ‘Il propio lugo’. These are precisely the words that Polidoro chooses, among others (which resonate just as painfully: ‘uscire’, ‘cambiare posto’, ‘tempo intimo’, ‘altrove’ etc.), to write on the surface of Migrant Workers. The terms, sorts of inscriptions-incisions, scattered in the orange forest where two men are sleeping near their bicycles, cut into the painted scene. For Julie Polidoro never fails to underline the nature of the reality she deals with: she paints images of images. In her latest works, she probes the perpetual circulation and recirculation of images on the internet, a proliferation signalled by the phone held by a man lying in the foreground of The Invisibles. The presence of what is, along with computers, one of our main communication channels, is not a coincidence as Polidoro addresses the current overconsumption of representations of migrant misery. She investigates these images which have become stereotypes, including in the works of some artists. She analyses, as if filtering it through paint pigments, the mediatic substance out of which asylum seekers are ‘made’, overexposed and yet invisible.

In The Invisibles, she extracts from the mind-numbing and insipid stream of photographs and videos flooding our screens a reality that is forgotten as soon as it is posted on social networks, published in newspapers, or followed by another report on television. She wakes us up to our habit of scrolling through images, of deleting them with a simple ‘click’, whatever their nature – news photographs, clothes on shopping sites, selfies on dating apps or untimely ads. The latent violence of this erasure contaminates Polidoro’s painting itself as she lacerates the canvas of Parking-people. Damaging the fabric, she cuts her work open and exposes the obscene truth of its content while challenging the flatness of our technological devices and the reassuring distance their glass walls interpose between us and reality. She ‘pins’ our look by adding, in the corner or along the edges of the works, the icons that stand for actions needed to navigate through the internet or the data provided when one opens a file or a window. She makes images that disappear as soon as they are shared visible again and doing so, she undermines them. Laying them bare, she minimises the artificiality of their point of view based on monofocal perspective and the fragmentation of reality.

This dissection is part of the numerous visual operations through which Polidoro attempts to read the world differently. She never stops appropriating and distorting cartographic tools to disorientate the eye, draw poetic mapping of territories and disrupt the planisphere and its highly political delineations. This time she invites us to go to ‘disaster areas’ – the skies or facilities converted into emergency shelters – and reminds us that more and more of us will be living in storms.

¹Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de l’espace [1957], PUF, 1961, p.34-35.
² Ibid., p.34.
³ Claire Marin, Être à sa place. Habiter sa vie, habiter son corps, Éditions de l’Observatoire, 2022.


Alix Agret is an art historian and researcher. She currently works as an assistant curator at the Musée Matisse in Nice.