This post is part of a series on the current 2015 MFA Thesis Exhibition. Each post is authored by a graduate of Washington University’s Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.
As I scan magazine images, I’m easily seduced – and it’s fun. The slippery glossy sheets gliding between my fingers help move the smell of perfume and cologne samples fragrantly through ads and fashion spreads. Tempting visual fragments stimulate my mood – I feel happy, carefree, young, indulgent. My fleeting attention is captured by bright colors, fabric folds, transparent sheen, lace, leather – new looks, new textures. I want to feel it all: nail polish droplets and shine; lipstick chunks and wet gloss of red, deep red, orange red and electric pink shot on white studio backgrounds and plump moist lips; piles of glittery, powdery eyeshadow and streaked eyeliner like cat eyes and brush strokes; ultra thick lashes and excessive layers of the blackest black mascara, fanning and framing; curly, straight and wavy hair styles, sun soaked and effortless, cascading down the curves of backs, wisping over eyes, all of them bed-hair, sex-hair, redhead, jet-black or platinum blonde.
Skimming pages in magazines and imagining these colors, materials, textures and smells on your own body is exciting. Simply put, styling oneself makes people feel happy and boosts confidence, even in times when a lull in self-esteem isn’t rooted in appearance. Reinventing and keeping up our outer self results in attention from others, and usually that makes people feel more accepted, admired and noticed. Wearing a new hairstyle, outfit, shoes and jewelry, and then being acknowledged for it can feel like therapy – a moment of positively recognized self-indulgence, a temporary escape from life’s stresses.
No matter how often and to what level we craft or imagine a new appearance, bodily realities can creep in to mock our efforts. Our bodies remind us of life’s one inescapable flaw: death. We ache, age, develop diseases, break and deteriorate – we’re imperfect by design. So, why would we want to dwell on this shortcoming? Why wouldn’t we want our youth and vitality to last a while longer? Images from fashion and lifestyle magazines, celebrity social media accounts, beauty and style blogs subtly reinforce the idea that continual bodily transformation, with the goal of suspending our youth, is possible. If we remodel our outer self, we can trick our minds momentarily that our bodies have outsmarted time – we can feel resurged. These visual applications are like scaffolding to our bodies, aiding in the repair and hiding the crumble.
As an American woman just over 30, living with my cultured perspective of beauty, youth and fashion images as well as a diseased body (an arthritic-like condition usually seen in people double my age), I often think about the perceived value of our “image” and the reality of imperfect bodies. Deconstructing mass media images reveals false and fabricated bodies, desires and ideals. Although performing and experimenting with one’s image can be healthy behavior, my work asks viewers to contemplate our temporal bodies existing within a constructed space of beauty images.
My methods include cut paper collage, the collaged sculptural object and photomontage. Through my practice, I disrupt the traditional portrait by creating a new form of unresolved, imperfect bodies (or sometimes no body at all) that are created from fabricated beauty ideals. They appear as shells of our perfected outer self, hovering in space like identity daydreams or pieces of memory. The images become their own beings, detached from time, yet troubled with mortality.
The space in which my photographs present themselves is part of a set, but it’s also real space. It’s a place belonging to these objects, but also an imagined tableau. It’s an open stage ready for the fiction and transformation of these objects to play out. It creates, in the art object, a mirror-like surface that inserts viewers’ bodies into the body-less portrait. The exaggerated lighting forges seductive surface and drama. I see the same strategies used in current mass media and fashion imagery, in cinema and in horror. These are ingredients that sell ideals and myths through enhanced, staged drama.
Mass-circulated images of beauty and fashion use garments to simultaneously hide and accentuate our form. This triggers feelings of both anxiety and confidence. I’m interested in making works that use both apprehension and seduction resulting in a sense of unease and inquiry.
By Andrea M. Coates (Washington University MFA student, Class of 2015)