What can notions of beauty and grooming rituals tell us about women? To address this question, Erin Riley-Lopez and Annette Rusin, the curators of Privacy Please! at A.I.R. Gallery, have selected 14 artists who range in age and professional experience. The result is a small but smart show, with unexpected flourishes of whimsy.
At first, I did not think this show would interest me, and I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism. I don’t care how women make themselves pretty, as long as they’re pretty. If I want to see how women behave in the boudoir, I’ll look at Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of his beautiful but crazy wife. To keep abreast of the latest beauty tips, I scroll through the pages of Fleshbot or Egotastic. To see the latest fashion disaster, I don’t have to go far; I live in Queens.
The artists, according to the exhibition statement, “use a wide range of media to examine notions of beauty and grooming rituals, questioning ways that women see themselves today.” Privacy Please! is neither a protest nor a f*ck you aimed at the man. There are no Molotov cocktails flying in the air. Nothing is burning down.
Despite the small exhibition space, the show does not feel crowded. The installation gives all of the art room to breathe. Though the work on view ranges from video-based performances to works on paper to sculpture, the objects work well together. Many artists in the show turn a critical (or favorable) lens toward how current notions of beauty—often perpetrated by their cultural background—affect women today.
Betsy Odom’s sculpture, “Bulldog 30,” is an exquisitely crafted pair of handmade shoulder pads, which rest on a wooden display case. Her work is informed by her Southern upbringing, women’s athletics, and queer lifestyles. At first, the shoulder pads resemble the protective gear worn by NFL football players, save for their floral accoutrements, hand-tooled leather, and blue ribbons. On closer inspection, “Bulldog 30” has more in common with the decorative armor used by samurai clans in Tokugawa-era Japan than American football. Physical protection is not their purpose, but power and prestige is.
Firelei Baez’s drawing, “Untitled” (Natural Grooming Series), is as delightful as a daydream. The drawing is based on a snapshot of a woman she encountered online in black natural hair care forums. Here, women exchange beauty and grooming tips. In this work, a trio of colorful birds perch and preen on top of a woman’s head. With her eyes closed, lips slightly parted, and hand clasped behind her head, au naturel, she is the image of contentment. With a foot firmly planted in magical realism, Baez seamlessly interweaves the real and the fabulous.
Not all the artists look to the outward. Several artists use their own body as a site to explore grooming rituals and the female body. Jessica Lagunas’s video-based performance, “Para Acariciarte Mejor” (The Better To Caress You With), is part of a series of works where the artist investigates the pressures that woman fall prey to in contemporary society. The grooming ritual showcased in this video is of the artist applying fire-engine-red fingernail polish. This act goes on for approximately one hour and forty-nine minutes. (At this rate, she’s never getting out of the house.) This work, more than any other work in the show, captures the unbridled mania that propels certain women to meet our culture’s impossible beauty ideal.
Equally affecting is Rosemary Meza-Desplas’s embroidery “Personages.” In this work, a montage of nine women’s breasts has been hand-stitched onto white canvas. (The artist’s own hair serves as the thread.) At first glance, the hirsute forms resemble yams or swollen burlap sacks. On closer inspection, thin wisps of dark hair sprout from a pristine surface like wild strands of grass shooting between sidewalk cracks. These shaggy protuberances are as engaging as they are repellent. Like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, the work screams: “SUCK MY LEFT ONE!”
Anjali Bhargava’s digital self-portrait series “Am I Beautiful Yet?” mimics the before and after pictures often found in beauty makeover spreads. In the first photo, the artist is barefaced, with her hair pulled back. In the last, she is a stunning glamour girl. Between the two stages, she plucks and threads, conceals blemishes, and applies makeup and accessories. To complete the transformation, she digitally removes all her physical “imperfections.”
The one element missing in the show is social media. I wonder how social networking applications, such as Fashism and Fit or Fugly, increase or subvert traditional notions of beauty. With the click of the mouse or touch of the screen, Fashism provides instant fashion advice and beauty tips; Fit or Fugly tells you if you are a repulsive or not.
I approached Privacy Please! with my guard up. (As soon as I spied Odom’s shoulder pads, I was ready to don the protective gear myself.) I never thought I would be able to connect to the art on view in this exhibition. How wrong I was.
What sparked the change?
Ellen Wetmore’s performance-based video about body image was the first work I saw in the exhibition; it struck a nerve. In the video, the artist wrestles with her stubborn jelly belly. To appear thinner, she applies and reapplies opaque coats of black paint to the protean mass. By the ending, Wetmore resembles a skeletal anorexic or person on hunger strike.
Though the ending image of the artist is grotesque, I longed for a can of black paint to make my own spare tire disappear. Like Wetmore, I too am confounded by my own expanding waistline, which seems to increase day by day, if not hour by hour. I am three years shy of forty, and thirty pounds over my fighting weight; it makes me crazy.
Notions of beauty and grooming affect all of us, not just women, and not just me. Beauty Pays, a new book written by an economics professor at the University of Texas-Austin, argues that attractive men and women not only earn more money than their less attractive colleagues, but receive added perks too, such as party invites, business travel, and office perks.
Beauty is a fucker.
November 2–November 26, 2011
A.I.R. Gallery, 111 Front Street, #228 Brooklyn, NY