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Privacy Please! A.I.R. Gallery (Photo: Jeanette May)

Privacy Please! A.I.R. Gallery (Photo: Jeanette May)

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 - "Bulldog" Molded plywood, fabric, foam, tooled leather, ribbon 2009

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 - "Untitled" (Natural Grooming Series) Gouache and Ink on Paper 2009

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.

Jessica Lagunas "Para Acariciarte Mejor" (The Better To Caress You With) Photo: Roni Mocán

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.

Rosemary Meza-Desplas, "Personages" Hand Sewn Human Hair on Canvas 2011

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 - "Bare" (Am I Beautiful Yet Series) Digital C-Print 2011

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 - "Erasing" Single Channel Video 2011

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.

Privacy Please!
November 2–November 26, 2011
A.I.R. Gallery, 111 Front Street, #228 Brooklyn, NY

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Erin Riley-Lopez

After five and a half years at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (BxMA), Erin Riley-Lopez left in December to become a freelance independent curator. The part-time Jersey City resident is as capable organizing a large-scale exhibition as she is writing about artists for Art:21, riding a mechanical bull on the Lower East Side, or cutting up the dance floor in the Bronx. We recently caught up with Riley-Lopez as she made some final preparations for a new exhibition she’s curated at the Center for Worker Education, which is part of the City College of New York. The show, called Untitled, features the work of photographers Jimmy Fountain and Catherine Kunkemueller; it opens this Thursday in Lower Manhattan.

“Their photographs are formal shots of interiors and exteriors,” Riley-Lopez says of the show. “Both photographers capture these seemingly banal spaces — offices, kitchens, storefronts, hotel rooms, etc. — but they do it with this amazing sense of silence and contemplation and I loved the idea of juxtaposing their work with the busy hustle and bustle of a school.”

What is an art curator, what role does she play in a museum or gallery, and what are the day-to-day responsibilities?

Well the definition of an art curator varies depending on the position and/or institution one works for. At museums, curators organize exhibitions and if there is a permanent collection they might be responsible for its care as well as acquisitions. They might also be responsible for programming, residency programs, etc. I can give you a better idea of what I specifically did on a day-to-day basis, which might not necessarily reflect what all curators do.

At BxMA I oversaw the Artist in the Marketplace (AIM) program, which meant working with 36 new artists every year including curating the annual exhibition and writing the catalogue essay. I worked with the permanent collection, along with the registrar, which meant making sure that temperature/humidity control in Fine Art Storage was stable; I also worked with the Acquisitions committee to organize their meetings; kept up with the paperwork for acquisitions and the electronic database, etc. I assisted with coordinating the traveling and guest curated exhibitions. And, I dealt with a lot of the administration of the curatorial office; answering research questions about the museum’s exhibition history, the permanent collection, etc.; answering emails, phone calls, questions, etc; making sure things were properly filed, documented, etc. Those were my responsibilities in a nutshell.

Installation image of Here and Elsewhere, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, April 1 to August 19, 2007. Photo: Bill Orcutt

Where do you find artists that you work with — referrals, happenstance, websites, online registries, studio visits?

I find artists that I work with in a myriad of different ways. The AIM program introduced me to a lot of artists each year, many of whom I still keep in touch with and work with today. I often meet artists at openings, parties, and events because someone introduces them to me. I meet artists through other colleagues either by introduction or recommendation. I also look a lot! I regularly attend open studios/exhibitions for residency programs like Smack Mellon, Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to name a few. And I am constantly attending openings or going to see shows while they are up, which is also a good way to find artists I might not have been familiar with before. I did find an artist once through a registry. And, I do many studio visits.

Blanka Amezkua, Chitra Ganesh, and Anne Timmons were three of the artists you featured in your exhibition There Goes My Hero at Center for Book Arts. How do you choose an artist to work with, and what are you looking for in them and their work?

I don’t know that I am always looking for the exact same thing in an artist each time I curate an exhibition. Obviously, first and foremost their work has to fit the concept of the exhibition and has to be resolved.

Here and Elsewhere

Installation image of Here and Elsewhere, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, April 1 to August 19, 2007. Photo: Bill Orcutt

You have curated numerous exhibitions — How Soon Is Now?; Here and Elsewhere; When Living Was Labor. What does it take to get an exhibition off the ground, from conception to development to execution?

Well, it takes time, patience, multi-tasking, and organization! For example, right now, I am working on four shows and juggling all of them as they are in different stages of development. I am finalizing and installing one show in a few weeks. I am also currently in the research and writing phase for two others. And, about to do studio visits for the fourth one. When I worked at BxMA we would create production timelines for the shows. We would work backwards from the date the show opened and put in deadlines for each separate thing that needed to happen to get the exhibition installed including print, writing, and checklist deadlines as well as installation and preview dates. As an independent curator now it helps for me to keep a timeline and set deadlines for myself to keep on track. You have to be flexible though because there can be minor roadblocks along the way.

What are the advantages of being a curator?

The advantage of being a curator is that I get to contribute to the cultural landscape of New York and work with artists and colleagues in the industry whom I admire and learn from.

What are the disadvantages?

There aren’t any disadvantages. I love my job.

Installation image of How Soon Is Now?, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, June 1 to August 18, 2008. Photo: Bill Orcutt

What artists do you find particularly fascinating today, and why?

Well, strangely enough, Alexander Calder fascinates me at the moment. I have always loved his work, particularly his mobiles. I was a dancer when I was younger, and I’ve always been very interested in movement, which is why I love his mobiles. But, to be honest, I do not know that much about his biography or the rest of his oeuvre. So, I think I’ll be researching it for a while.

Where do you look at art?

I look at art everywhere, museums, galleries, the street, studios, books, magazines, websites.

Installation image of How Soon Is Now?, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, June 1 to August 18, 2008. Photo: Bill Orcutt

Let’s discuss looking at art in a museum. You walk into an art museum, what is the first thing you do, and why? Do you look for the wall text adjacent to the work? Do you use the audio support? Do you participate in a guided tour of the exhibition? Do you just look at the work, with your own eyes, and ruminate — or not? Is there a right way or wrong way to experience art?

This is a good question because everyone looks at art differently.

Generally, the first thing I do when walking into any museum show is to sort of survey the entire thing (if I can). I do this to kind of take in the whole picture. Once I’ve done that I tend to focus on the details, for example — and I think this is because I’ve worked in a Museum — I look at what kind of wall labels the institution is using and how they are applied; whether the walls have been freshly painted or if there are nicks, scratches, and dirt on them; I look at pedestals, vitrines, hanging devices, and equipment to see how other institutions install these materials; I also notice the guards to see if they’re watching the people in the space or not; and I also look at other people to see how they are looking.

I usually scan the wall text just to get an idea of the scope of the show, but I rarely stand there and read the whole thing. I do read wall labels occasionally if I want to know more about a particular artist or piece of work. I’ve never taken an audio tour, but perhaps I should sometime. I’ve only participated in guided tours when I went to see an exhibition in grad school or someone else organized one.

There is no right or wrong way to view art. It is a completely personal and subjective experience. I often go see shows with my sister and she tends to spend a very long time with each work, whereas I don’t. Sometimes I get frustrated that it takes her so long when I am ready to move on, but I respect her time.

That is such a specific example, but no, I have never fondled or touched an artwork in a museum other than artwork at BxMA that I was handling with white cotton gloves while installing. Touching artwork is something I am very opinionated about. I’ve even had nightmares about it! Mostly because the idea of ruining artwork is horrible, and we all know that the oils from our hands can alter a work. I have never been removed from a museum by force. However, I was once told to back away from a Gordon Matta-Clark sculpture at the Whitney because my foot had accidentally stepped over (by a toe!) the strip of tape on the floor meant to keep people from being too close to the work. I, of course, complied, but also thought it was funny.

Installation image of Acting Out, The Bronx River Art Center, December 3, 2010 to January 14, 2011. Photo: Chad Stayrook

You have one foot in Jersey City and the other in Brooklyn. Where is your head?

Ha! Everywhere! I am usually in about two to three boroughs of the city on a given day. I’m kind of nomadic that way. I’m constantly on the move. I’m a Sagittarius. We like to travel.

You lived in France, and I’ve seen it on TV. What is the best place to get a café and croissant in Jersey City?

There are two places in JC that I love to frequent for their French flair and fare, Madame Claude and Marco & Pepe, but don’t know that I’ve had a croissant at either.

Live performance by Shana Moulton. Installation image of Acting Out, The Bronx River Art Center, December 3, 2010 to January 14, 2011. Photo: Chad Stayrook

What are you working on next?

In late June I’ll be curating the artist-in-residence exhibition of Artists Alliance at CUCHIFRITOS Art Gallery/Project Space. At the end of March 2011 I will be guest curating an exhibition AIR Gallery. An AIR fellow invited me to guest curate an exhibition called Privacy Please! about private grooming and beauty rituals in art. It will be an open call so the work and artists have not been chosen for the show yet. And lastly, I am working on an exhibition at the Bronx River Art Center for 2011. It’s going to be a show whose concept I have been working on for nearly 5 years now about feminist video and performance, particularly artists who embody characters to discuss personal and collective histories.

Original post may be found here.