Body Images

I should have been working this morning, but instead I followed an impulse to Google “Louise Nevelson eyeliner.” Maybe it was because I had spent the morning making art, and then had to steel myself for the outside world. In preparation for out “there,” I drew tiny triangles of cobalt blue liner on the outer edges of my lashline and filled them in. The act made me think about Nevelson. There’s a black-and-white photograph of the artist at the height of her power, staring majestically into the distance, her eyes opaquely kohl-ed. Nevelson was renowned in her later years for her fashion, a form of expression she was unofficially trained for from an early age. A quote on the artist’s Wikipedia page from an article (behind a paywall, of course) features Nevelson describing her mother “dressing up” as “art, her pride, and her job.” It was the closest I could come to an origin story for the artist’s dramatic look. Was this how she saw self-presentation, as a daily chance to embody art? An artist (or a non-artist for that matter) can present a stylized version of themselves or they can opt out, but even an anti-aesthetic is a choice. As Ru Paul so adequately put it, “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” But when the muscles of aesthetic judgement and taste are as acutely refined as they are in an artist, how much further down the road of intent do we get? What happens when beauty is but one tool in an entire arsenal of investigation?

Louise Nevelson portrait by Lynn Gilbert, 1976, as commissioned by the Pace Gallery, New York.

The image of one’s own face is a common medium on which artists project questions of identity and gender. Cindy Sherman famously transformed herself into a sort of everywoman in her Untitled Film Stills series roughly forty years ago to lay bare the machinations of the male gaze. More recently, the photographer has turned to investigations of a different sort of “drag”– the self-presentation of class and wealth. In the YouTube era, a whole cottage industry of amateur makeup artists cultivate millions of followers by demonstrating techniques from “no-makeup makeup” to the furthest extremes of optical illusion painting on the human face. Gender and identity in this arena are as fluid as a bottle of FENTY liquid diamond bomb highlighter, and the “gaze” that is cultivated is a potentially unlimited anonymous crowd. What YouTube has shown us, through the popularity of these tutorials as well as a multitude of unrelated but equally niche subjects (millions of views for opening colorful Easter eggs with cheap plastic toys in them?!) is that when the gaze is anonymized, the only way to make oneself irrelevant is to not participate. 

Frida Kahlo used self-portraits as a way to claim or eschew culture and gender, and today a new generation of artists of color are utilizing self-portraiture and self-presentation as a mode of investigating everything from personal identity to history. Photographer Genevieve Gaignard references Sherman’s early work with a blend of admiration and critique. As a mixed-race artist embodying stereotypes about black and white women in her nationally-traveled work for In Passing, Gaignard artfully picks apart the stereotypes themselves and Sherman’s earlier assumption that she, a white-lady, could represent an “everywoman.” The results are by turns funny, poignant, and scathing. Another artist who leans into this ambivalence is the San Antonio-based Jennifer Ling Datchuk, another artist of mixed heritage who responds to the jarring but familiar question, “What are you?” with images of her own body. Working in ceramics, mixed media and video, Ling Datchuk compares the porcelain she molds with the body she presents to the world. “I find myself in a position of comfortable vulnerability of being half, mixed, and other,” a statement on her website reads. Grabbing handfuls of aesthetic from both Chinese and American cultures and tossing in a healthy mix of skepticism about what any single visual marker can explain about either, Ling Datchuk’s self-portraiture captures the unmoored feeling that many mixed-race people can identify with.

Jennifer Ling Datchuk, One Tough Bitch, 2019. photograph of slipcast porcelain shards, china paints, gold leaf. Courtesy of the artist.

The self-described visual activist Zanele Muholi takes this concept a step further with Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), a photographic exhibition currently traveling around the globe. Operating under a stated desire to “undo racism in the media,” Muholi photographed themself daily for a year, mining their own image to uncover issues of skin color, gender, and sexual orientation in their native South Africa. This long-term project is so powerful because it hews so closely to the artist’s specific identity-black, queer, and South African–and yet it beautifully approximates what it feels like to live behind any human face: sometimes confident and confrontational, and other times fragile as glass.  

This is the same duality which prompted writer R.O. Kwon to adopt a thick, under eye strip of black as part of her daily look, a choice she described in a recent article for The Cut. All self-presentation is fundamentally communicative, and occasionally that message is: step back. Kwon took on this look as a way to both mirror her inner mood and to signal “you might not want to fuck with me” at first glance. In her article the writer describes it as a helpful counter-narrative to the stereotypes that are placed upon her as a petite, Asian woman. It’s a way of reclaiming or subverting the preconceived notions of others. It’s something many of us do in reverse all the time, although we may not register it fully. The messaging of groomed eyebrows and smooth complexions is “I have the time, money and know-how to achieve this level of polish. I am nice. I am clean. I am safe.”

By Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24391171

Niceness and safety were never goals for the French artist ORLAN, who authored perhaps the most extreme example of self-presentation as art. In the 90’s the artist altered her appearance via nine cosmetic procedures, attempting to “disrupt the standards of beauty.” One surgery added bumpy protuberances to the sides of her face, another was meant to mimic the Mona Lisa’s prominent forehead. In the intervening years, plastic surgery itself has become ever more normalized, so ORLAN’s methods do not appear as strange as they once did (we are living in the era of peak-Kardashian influence after all.) But ORLAN’s vision of herself as preternaturally human still operates on the fringe, as what she seeks is not beauty by a traditional standard. In 2016, the French artist sued Lady Gaga’s creative team for the video Born This Way, in which the singer appears with ORLAN-esque horn-like prosthetics. In this instance, self-presentation and art are both inseparable and proprietary. 

These artists (along with many more) are defining the conversation around self-presentation. Signature looks can often work like armor, cladding against the perceived vulnerability of aesthetic indecision or age or entropy. Nevelson’s eyeliner had a similar effect as the black paint on her iconic sculptures, flattening and highlighting texture and surface to the point that her face was as indomitable as her art. As social media creates a world in which everyone’s face has economic potential, how will artists resist or react?

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