In the Long Run, We Are All Artifacts
Deborah Willis Kills Traditional Beauty Not-So-Softly
Out [o] Fashion Photography: Embracing Beauty is scathing and difficult and important. It combines art and artifact: a mix of ethnographic portraits, journalistic images, street photography, commercial photography, and the kind of contemporary conceptual projects that most easily qualify as "art." There are a few videos and a display case, too.
Everything in the show is from either the Henry's own archive or the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections. Within the limitations of the collections, curator Deborah Willis has orchestrated a surprise bulldozing of the distinctions between high and low, ideal beauty and medical health, sex and sales. It is all framed. It ain't pretty, but it all counts as beauty, and Willis wants us to think about why.
She starts by visually proposing that the history of photography is rooted in two traditions: One is the search for identity and the other is the pursuit of perfection. In the small exhibition room to the left, before you enter the main hall, Carrie Mae Weems re-presents a (historical image of a) slave woman in black and blue. It is hard to stand in front of her, whose shirt has been pulled down to reveal bare, depleted breasts. What the hell kind of person demands this pose of another person? She is wondering, too. There are also Native Americans labeled like specimens: Two Moons-Cheyenne and Nayenezgani-Navajo.
In the other small exhibition room across the hall, an agonizing video of a young woman failing to form words runs in a loop.
Ouch. The Henry's decision to use Robert Lyons's photograph of a Sudanese boxer in many of the press materials for this show finally makes sense. The blows just keep coming.
The entry to the main exhibition hall is marked by a very serious-looking archway that bears the following inscription: "THE PERFECTION OF ART IS TO CONCEAL ARTISTRY." The idea is from the good old days of art as mimesis, and it is engraved in stone and all caps to emphasize its verity.
At the moment, though, the inscribed archway reads more like a parody of itself. It's framing Cindy Sherman's Untitled #228, a sort of drag mash-up of the biblical "woman with severed man head" story—Judith and Holofernes in the Old Testament or Salome and John the Baptist in the New Testament—that inspired many celebrated men, from Caravaggio to Donatello. Sherman's version is obviously modeled on theirs, but hers is conspicuously staged. The back wall of her studio set is visible on the left side of the picture, she's wearing awkwardly large prosthetic feet, and the head she holds looks like a cheap Halloween mask. In this show, art means drawing attention to the imperfect process of making. It also looks like stomachs with scars and naked blondes with black pubic hair and the shadow of the photographer on the back of his subject.
It looks like lots of different types of breasts, too, which is why there are breasts and more breasts just inside the main hall. The most prominent are heart-shaped, belonging to someone named Joey and, unlike the ones in Weems's picture, they are not black or blue and have not nursed many (if any) babies. Objects by Tamar Stone with titles like Dress Versus Woman (Plain Words for Plain People) and Vol I: Ornamental Young Ladies and Vol II: Discipline and Duty sit in a Plexiglas case and outline how women can adjust the curvature of their spines with corsets to finally become beautiful.
In the next room, Graciela Iturbide's Rosa, Juchitán mirrors Benjamin J. Falk's Portrait of Miss Rush, the Actress. Miss Rush wears a bow tie to sell cigars in the United States in the 1890s; Miss Rosa wears nothing to sell herself in Mexico, about a hundred years later. The pitches and poses are strikingly similar.
There is also George Dureau's portrait of Glen Thompson. It is a great butt, but if it's just about beauty, why aren't there more black men who are famous for photographing naked white men? Garry Winogrand's Women Are Beautiful series, which seems at first to be an innocent record of women he finds attractive, raises a related set of questions. Next to photographs of women in New York laughing at nothing and walking small dogs, his Beverly Hilton frames an emaciated upside-down bikini-wearer. What is the beautiful thread that ties these together? The frailty? The pointlessness?
Beverly Hilton was produced and bought and sold; very recently, it had currency as a genuinely beautiful thing. But it's hideous. The bikini-wearer is a reminder that the most dangerous images are the ones that look the most benign and familiar—the ones that pass for fashionable—because those are the ones still actively, successfully fashioning ideas about what is beautiful and what is not.