Thursday, December 8, 2011

6 Artists Exploring Female Beauty

One of the unexpected upsides of the bind of the beauty myth is that it's spurred plenty of good art. I'm just about the most bourgeois art fan there is ("I like it!" is my special gallery catchphrase) but that doesn't stop me from recognizing the ways in which these photographers, illustrators, and conceptual and performance artists are attempting to wrangle our notions of appearance, both tweaking and clarifying how we view beauty. This is hardly an exhaustive list of artists who play with these ideas, just the ones who have repeatedly come to my attention over time. Enjoy!

Wall of Confidence, Texas Beauty Queen Cream detail, mixed media, Rachel Lee Novnanian

Rachel Lee Novnanian: In “Baby’s Nursery Wallpaper,” a porcelain-white pram is parked in front of a stark wall “papered” with beauty pageant tropics. Another wall, dubbed “Wall of Confidence,” shows row after row of the fictitious Texas Beauty Queen Cream, each tub carrying a message taken from actual advertising slogans. Her installation work provokes viewers, with “Fun House Dressing Room” giving us a deliberately distorted body image alongside prerecorded self-doubting admonishments too many of us know far too well (“You shouldn’t have eaten those Cheetos”). There’s both sadness and anger here, reflecting the artist’s background of having grown up in a family that insisted looks didn’t matter, while the contrary seemed all too true to her as a teen.

Eyelash Extensions, Zed Nelson

Zed Nelson: The Ugandan-British photographer began to notice during his globetrotting that people all across the world were beginning to look suspiciously alike, thanks to the global beauty industry and cross-exportation of appearance standards. “Love Me,” his 2010 exhibition on the pursuit of beauty, took a dual approach: Juxtaposing images of people undergoing various forms of appearance alteration (a 13-year-old in heavy makeup and Playboy bunny ears, a 46-year-old man marked up for a chin lift) with the physical tools of change (rows of breast implants, hair extensions), we see how alienated we’ve become from our own ideas of what beauty might be.

Poses, 2011, Yolanda Dominguez

Yolanda Dominguez: Using “real women” (you know, as opposed to fake ones) to re-create situations and stylings found in high-end fashion magazines, Dominguez reveals the divided between the fantasy of fashion and the realities of how women actually move through the world. A woman stands posed in front of a building as passersby steal furtive glances; a woman in flip-flops lies down next to what seems to be a municipal garden as a sanitation worker approaches her, presumably concerned for her safety. In other performance art events, which she calls “livings,” a well-dressed young woman holds up a cardboard sign begging for Chanel goods, and a bevy of fairy-tale “princesses” sell off their princess accoutrements--mirrors, glass slippers, frogs--to raise funds for a new life. 

Lady Problems, mechanical pencil on vellum, Alexandra Dal

Alexandra Dal: Emerging comic artist Alexandra Dal got more than she bargained for when her illustration of the makeup riddle went viral. “I just wanted to make a silly, observational comic that would make some women say, ‘Yup, I’ve experienced this,’” she writes on her Tumblr. “It sparked a slew of commentary about whether or not women 'should' wear makeup.... I’m totally baffled by the hate mail and negative comments I received accusing me of being misogynistic and sending the message that women aren’t beautiful without makeup. (Seriously, did they actually read it?)” Her other work includes a dead-on comic of Black Women In Advertising (There Can Only Be One)--and I’m eagerly waiting for more!

Recovery, Esther Sabetpour

Esther Sabetpour: The British photographer had always explored notions of identity through self-portraiture, so when she had an accident that required large skin grafts, marking much of her body with scars, she just continued as she had been. We’re used to seeing the bodies of attractive young women presented as blank slates upon which we project our cultural idea of, well, attractive young women’s bodies; with the scar tissue mottling much of her flesh, the portrait of Sabetpour reclined on her bed goes beyond sensual into startling, without feeling exploitative.

 Nobantu Mabusela, 76, Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town

Sarah Hughes: Playing with personae by purposefully shifting her public identity and capturing that of others, Hughes takes a hard look at the meaning behind sartorial choices women make. In portrait series “Safe & Sexy,” she documents women across the world wearing an outfit they’ve selected as “safe,” and one they’ve deemed “sexy,” highlighting both the range of what any individual might consider alluring and the ways in which women mentally divide the two groups. The project stemmed from performance art piece “Do You Have the Time?” in which Hughes dressed up as various “types” of women (businesswoman, slut, jogger) and asked strangers for the time, noting the difference in reactions to the very same person asking the very same question.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing all of these. The only one I was familiar with was Zed Nelson, whose work I find riveting. I'm going to go and get myself all familiared-up with these other artists, too.

  2. Fabulous! Can't wait to explore these artists more.

  3. I've just spent an hour looking through Sarah Hughes' "Safe & Sexy" series and it's left me feeling deeply melancholy. It's also made me more aware of my privilege as a white woman born into the middle of the middle class. (The two are probably closely linked.)

    I know the world is an unsafe place. I also know it is unequally unsafe. Were it unsafe in a more uniform and homogeneous way, I wonder if we'd finally decide to invest in changing things.

    As it is, I fear that those women who are most in danger are at best invisible in broader society and at worst deemed expendable by broader society. I'm ashamed of that, ashamed that I live among a people who live this way.

    I've got a lot of processing to do, I think. Thank you for introducing me to Sarah's work.

  4. Caitlin and Courtney, glad to share!

    DeeDee, Sarah's work is immersive indeed. And yes--our ideas of what's safe and what's sexy are so anchored into our notions of normality that I don't know if it's possible to extricate the two. I spent a week a couple of summers ago at Wildwood on the Jersey Shore, known as a working-class enclave, and while I was there I picked up a tube top and wore it on the boardwalk. It was a hoot and I had fun, but eventually it hit me that I was wearing something "slutty" ironically--I thought it was trashy, and when I realized I was making fun of a class of people who actually do think tube tops are sexy, I felt ashamed, like I was lampooning working-class people with my fancy media jobs and cultural privilege, even though of course I was only doing so privately. That's different than what I think you were saying, but related. In any case, glad to point you to Sarah's work--not at all surprised that it got your wheels turning.

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