Does beauty empower or enslave women? Art exhibit reflects on vanity

Artist Frances Goodman chats to Andrea Nagel about her latest exhibition, 'offstage', which explores the illusions that women feel they need to maintain

02 September 2018 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel

Frances Goodman exudes calm. When I rush to meet her for our breakfast interview, a few minutes late, she's glancing at her phone, her lush black hair done in a Bettie Page cut to frame her alabaster face, while a slash of bright red lipstick defines it. But that is where the Bettie Page comparison ends.
Where the American pin-up famously wore scanty leopard-print lingerie and posed, legs akimbo, on Polynesian beaches, Goodman is dressed in a button-up shirt and tailored jacket with subtle white piping, her legs neatly crossed, feet perched on classy heels. Her accent is rather proper - she pronounces "her" to rhyme with "air" - and I don't think I've ever heard her raise her voice in all the time I've known her.
In some senses Goodman reminds me of a Southern belle - like she just stepped out of Gone With the Wind, saying, "Oh, fiddle-dee-dee. Don't you men ever think about anything important?"
Which is not to say that she's not given to excitement, especially when she talks about her art. Then her eyes sparkle, like the rhinestones she painstakingly glued to her subjects' vaginas for her Vajazzling series.
And she boxes, three times a week. I'm told she throws a helluva punch.
Some in the art world would say that she throws a metaphorical one too. Her oeuvre has included a series of car bonnets with slogans like "Hope the Pussy Was Worth It" and "Ego Check" with an arrow pointing to a tiny penis scratched into the car enamel - key a car, that obvious symbol of a female wronged.
This collection she called the Revenge series - playing with the stereotype of the emotional, unpredictable, irrational and impulsive woman, while reducing men to the cliché of "you are what you drive".
And clichés and stereotypes continue to hold a fascination for her.
"I'm interested in the idea of what a woman is supposed to be and what she really is," says Goodman, suggesting that the media, fashion, the beauty industry, social media and even the history of art have assigned certain ideals to women's appearances at particular moments in time.
This is and has always been a performed feminine that requires a certain amount of pain, hard work, time, expense and constant maintenance, not to mention vigilance to keep the illusion going. Goodman suggests this causes anxiety, obsession and ultimately pathologies.
Goodman admits that she's not immune to these concerns herself. "You will have the greatest impact if you work from what you know," she says. "When you start your analysis from the things that you can relate to - the challenges that we face daily as women."
And there can hardly be a woman who, if she's honest, is not in some way affected by concerns about how she looks, especially these days with the bar for perfection forever rising. The way we look, rightly or wrongly, not only has an enormous influence on how we feel about ourselves, but also reflects the amount of control we have over our lives.
Her upcoming solo exhibition, offstage, she says, "interrogates the portrayal of women's bodies, drawing attention to popular culture definitions that narrow the possibilities of female identity to extremes of consumption, obsession, desire, and anxiety".
But while reflecting a society in which these images and objects define and burden women, she adds, the contradiction is that the work also celebrates the use of the materials of the beauty industry for their power to embrace the female body as a tool of empowerment.
Women are willing slaves and victims of their own insecurities, Goodman suggests, but we are also, more than ever, in control of how we look.
"What is obsession and what is liberation?" she asks. "Is embracing your sexuality, emphasising it, enhancing it, staking your claim over and celebrating your body (as many do on sites like Instagram) anti-feminist? Is it objectifying yourself, or is it owning your own image? Should women exercise their power to create their own (improved) versions of themselves? And where do you draw the line - slap on some lipstick or reconstruct your entire face and body? How far do you go to look like an ideal version of what you really are?"
We are all traumatised to varying degrees about our appearance. Facial discrimination is even more overt than racial discrimination and age is peddled as a disease that requires immediate and extreme cosmetic attention. The beauty industry exploits this. It thrives, as an article in the Telegraph put it, on the genetic tyranny of the beautiful over the ugly.
In some of the pieces in this exhibition, Goodman challenges these ideas. She uses embroidery to create a series of disembodied eyes, embellished in brightly coloured makeup.
"A lot of rhetoric focuses on the idea that women are pressured into wearing makeup," she says. "That there's a higher bar of physical attractiveness expected of us; but, as the overabundance of makeup vloggers on YouTube will attest, makeup's primary contribution is its ability to alter perception
"It gives the wearer the power of choice over how they wish to present themselves, the power to embrace the expressive nature and self-care qualities of makeup on their own terms."
But because the embellishment of our images as women is so intensely performed in the public eye, the distinction between public and private becomes even sharper. The title of the exhibition, offstage, references this idea. "It's the part of the stage not visible to the audience, but also refers to one's private life," she says.
"We think of actors waiting in the wings, but we can also imagine what happens behind closed doors, hidden from the public eye, when our guard is down and illusion is temporarily dropped." It becomes a duality of experience, a double life.
"And I've been wondering whether dancing, dressing up, and performing can be a liberating act - when it's something women do for themselves, in an anonymous space, rather than for an audience."
Her series of embroidered vignettes in which women dance in front of the mirror, in their underwear - temporarily free of the ever present, perpetually invited eye of the voyeur - explores this idea.
Again, the idea of the construction of image is explored in Goodman's sequined art works. "Sequins," she says, "are the trappings of women. They create a beautiful, sparkling version of ourselves, but they're also like a mirage. From one angle they create something and, when you circle around, the image collapses and becomes a mirrored surface, then the portrait also becomes something else - how women struggle to hang on to a sense of who they are."
A performer of her own image, Goodman's new work ultimately explores the "construction of identity in a world where we can't escape critique - either from others or ourselves."
To some extent she considers the tyranny of beauty, but also suggests that we can control and define our own image, and that this can be empowering. So beauty is expressed in the private space, in moments that are not performed - like sitting on the toilet - and it's expressed in performative spaces, which are both private (the mirror) or public (social media).
But what about the radical anxieties that Goodman considers in relation to the pressure to be beautiful - ones with which we're morbidly fascinated when we watch the constantly mutating images of celebrities like the Kardashians? The tyranny under which they suffer isn't the pressure of unobtainable standards of beauty they, ironically set themselves. It's the tyranny of vanity, which is the ugliest trait of all.
• Goodman's solo exhibition, 'offstage', opens at SMAC Gallery in Joburg on September 8 and runs until October 13. Goodman will also be exhibiting as part of SMAC Gallery's stable of artists at the FNB Joburg Art Fair from September 7-9 at the Sandton Convention Centre.

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