“Vanity” (online exhibition)

Sebastiao Salgado (Brazilian, b. 1944), Women of the Zo’é village of Towari Ypy, Brazil (2009). black and white photograph.

Sebastiao Salgado (Brazilian, b. 1944), Women of the Zo’é village of Towari Ypy, Brazil (2009). black and white photograph.

This exhibition is inspired by Sebastiao Salgado’s black and white photograph of nude women of the Zo’é village of Towari Ypy, Brazil (2009). The focus is on the seven women on the left who are engaged in body painting using urucum—seeds from a Bixa orellana tree—in a sheltered hut made of tree leaves. Applying urucum seeds to the body repels insects and protects the body from the harmful effects of the sun. The seeds may also serve as a beauty potion as women in Salgado’s photograph leisurely apply it to their bodies. The group of women, portrayed in different gestures, adds a rhythmic movement to the photograph. The left to right configuration creates a circular composition.

Self-indulgence of the body evokes vanity, which can be a natural inclination or socially developed rite. Whether it is to please oneself or others, vanity is a narcissistic ritual and a voyeuristic pleasure exists when exposing one’s body.

This exhibition examines the depiction of the female body and vanity over the last few centuries—both Eastern and Western—in an attempt to analyze how the female body and vanity are portrayed in different times and places. It is to question how a woman sees herself, how a woman is seen, and what it means to be a woman. The exhibition showcases a wide variety of mediums, including paintings, photographs, woodblock print, video, and performance art. Half of the selection comes from the 17th century to the end of the 19th century and the other half comes from the 20th century and 21st century. The last image is my own interpretation of the theme.

Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669), The Toilet of Bathsheba (1643). Oil on wood, 22 1/2 x 30 inch (57.2 x 76.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

1. Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669), The Toilet of Bathsheba (1643). Oil on wood, 22 1/2 x 30 inch (57.2 x 76.2 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

After seeing her bathing, King David longed for Bathsheba who was married to Uriah. To take Bathsheba as a wife, King David sent Uriah to the frontline of a battlefield to get killed. In the painting, Bathsheba sits in the center surrounded by luxurious jewelries and fabrics while getting nourished by two people. Rembrandt’s use of light highlights Bathsheba’s flesh as if she is on the center stage of a theater. Her eyes slant towards the painter, her translucent cloth covering genitals, her left hand covering of right breast with a gentle touch, the scene provokes sensuality. Bathsheba sits passively as she is being prepared for King David. She is vulnerable to the male gaze and the temptation of a woman’s body and ensuing lust.

Yoonbok Shin (Korean, 1758-?), Dan-o-poong-jung (late 18th century). Color on paper, 28.2 x 35.6 cm. Kansong Museum, Seoul, South Korea.

2. Yoonbok Shin (Korean, 1758-?), Dan-o-poong-jung (late 18th century). Color on paper, 28.2 x 35.6 cm. Kansong Museum, Seoul, South Korea.

Yoonbok Shin’s painting depicts women’s typical activities on Dan-o Day—May 5th by the lunar calendar (about one month later than the Western calendar). After seed planting is done, on Dan-o Day, Koreans engage in ceremonies to pay respect to ancestors, offering well prepared foods. In return, they ask for a good harvest. There are activities throughout the day, such as swinging and wrestling. Other important activities include women washing their hair with boiled iris leaves and men carrying iris root in their clothes to get rid of bad spirits. Most of this tradition has been lost since the industrialization of the country.

Shin’s painting has a triangular composition. There is a diagonal line for the slope that divides the painting in half. Circular placement of women in the painting is similar to Salgado’s grouping of women in his photograph. On the right, there are eight women engaging in various activities and on the left, there are two young monks hiding behind rocks and watching them. On the bottom left are four women half naked. Three are washing their body and hair in a crouching position while one is standing up, holding her skirt. Perhaps she is looking at the approaching woman carrying a bag of merchandises on top of her head, wondering if there is anything good to buy. The monk on the right is looking at her revealing body.

At the middle of the hill is a woman who is about to swing. She wears the most colorful clothes in the painting and is watched by the monk on the left. The artist captures her in mid-motion and creates a sense of momentum within the painting. Behind her there is a woman with extremely long hair. The gentle brush strokes of streams and short grass on the hill together with a crowned hole in the curved tree symbolize vagina and connote sexuality. Women’s private moment of nourishing their bodies is interrupted by male gaze expressed by the two monks. The painting captures the male audience’s fantasies to watch women’s bathing.

Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820), Two Women Looking in Mirrors (19th century). Part of an album of woodblock prints (surimono);  ink and color on paper, 8 1/8 x 6 5/8 in. (20.6 x 16.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

3. Kubo Shunman (Japanese, 1757–1820), Two Women Looking in Mirrors (19th century). Part of an album of woodblock prints (surimono);
ink and color on paper, 8 1/8 x 6 5/8 in. (20.6 x 16.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The mirror and vanity are inseparable. In this painting, there are two Japanese women with three mirrors. The shape of the mirror mimics their faces. A diagonal separation is created by the mirror in the middle that is between the woman that is seated and the woman that is standing. While woman who is standing is checking both the front and back side of herself, the sitting woman is looking up to see either her reflection on the back of the mirror or the reflection of the other woman. The ambiguous use of mirror makes this painting more interesting. These two women probably spent some time grooming themselves and they are in the final stage of checking on their appearance.

The poem written in the painting is translated as; “If you use a mirror which reflects ancient time, that will bring you the flawless virtue of the present emperor.” (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of the Art website) Here the mirror is used as a metaphor for time.

Francis William Edmonds (American, 1806–1863), The New Bonnet (1858). Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 1/8 in. (63.5 x 76.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

4. Francis William Edmonds (American, 1806–1863), The New Bonnet (1858). Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 1/8 in. (63.5 x 76.5 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In this painting, a young woman is holding a newly purchased bonnet. She admires it by holding it high, while her parents make distasteful facial expressions from looking at a receipt. The little girl behind her is holding a bonnet case. Everyone is wearing plain clothes except the young woman who is wearing more refined and fashionable clothes. The small room with plain furniture and vegetables on the floor give hint that this is a modest income household. The young woman’s excessive desire for a commodity adds irony to the scene.

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906), Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (ca. 1894-1905). Oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm. The National Gallery, London.

5. Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 – 1906), Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (ca. 1894-1905). Oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Cézanne painted bathers from the1870s until his death in 1906. Although a long tradition of painting bathers pre-existed Cézanne’s works, his paintings of bathers strongly influenced Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a breaking point for Picasso’s delving into cubism. Among many of Cézanne’s works on bathers, I chose this painting for the exhibition. Here, women are grouped into a circular shape and the lines connecting them create a visual rhythm. The bodies are submerged into the landscape of trees and sky, similar to Salgado’s women submerged into the background of tree leaves. Here, female bodies and sexuality are less attenuated and instead, the harmony of women’s bodies in nature is accentuated. The body becomes a formal element of the painting, rather than an object desired by men.

Hillary G. Bailey (American, 1894 - 1988), Vanity (c. 1932). Gelatin silver print, 13 x 10 1/16 in. (33.02 x 25.56 cm) (image)20 3/16 x 16 3/16 in. (51.28 x 41.12 cm) (mount). The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

6. Hillary G. Bailey (American, 1894 – 1988), Vanity (c. 1932). Gelatin silver print, 13 x 10 1/16 in. (33.02 x 25.56 cm) (image)20 3/16 x 16 3/16 in. (51.28 x 41.12 cm) (mount). The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

In this dreamy photograph, a young woman with a long necklace joyfully gazes at her own image in the water, which serves as a mirror. Still developing the body of a woman, she is pleased with what she sees in herself. In Staging this moment of self-love, the photographer took an inspiration from Greek mythology’s Narcissus, who drowned himself, enamored with the beauty of his own reflection.

Richard Avedon (American, 1923-2004), Dorian Leigh, mode. Hat by Paulette. Paris, August, 1949.

7. Richard Avedon (American, 1923-2004), Dorian Leigh, mode. Hat by Paulette. Paris, August, 1949. Image source: Richard Avedon Foundation.

Richard Avedon had the ability to transcend fashion photographs, turning them into personal portraits. In this picture, model Dorian Leigh is applying eyeliner as she sticks her tongue out to the same side of where she is putting her eyeliner, a natural body reflex when concentrating on an activity. The shape of her tongue mimics the hat that looks like rabbit ears. Dressed and accessorized with jewelries, Leigh is putting final touch to her face.

Putting makeup to beautify oneself has been a long tradition for women across different cultures. Some women never go out without applying it. Applying makeup is an act of vanity and way to control one’s self-image to the public. With this close up image of a woman putting on makeup, Avedon succeeded in portraying a woman’s most private of moments with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness. He was very close to the model but the presence of photographer is not felt as seen in Salgado’s photograph.

8. Carolee Schneeman (American, b. 1939), Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera (1963). Paint, glue, fur, feathers, garden snakes, glass, plastic with the studio installation “Big Boards”. Photographs by Icelandic artist Erró, on 35 mm black and white film.

In this performance piece, Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions, Carolee Schneeman transformed her loft and body into a medium for an expressive “happening”; her body became a canvas and/or a studio space. Schneeman materialized her body and let it become an artwork in and of itself. She covered her body with paint, chalk, grease, rope, and plastic and later let live snakes crawl on her body. Schneeman’s materialization of the female body is different from objectifying a female body, something she did one year later with Meat Joy (1964). The body functioning as a material or canvas for artwork is a protest against the notion of the female body as sumptuous flesh seen from the male gaze. Here we see a woman exercising her free will to dictate her body to make a bold statement.

(Note: Photos of Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions for Camera can be seen HERE. It is the third work from the top.)

Barbara Kruger (American, b. 1945), Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989). Poster for March on Washington. Image Source: Art History Archive, accessed November 27, 2014, http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/feminist/Barbara-Kruger.html (left). Image scanned from the book, Barbara Kruger (New York: Rizzoli, 2010) (right).

9. Barbara Kruger (American, b. 1945), Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (1989). Poster for March on Washington. Image Source: Art History Archive, accessed November 27, 2014, http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/feminist/Barbara-Kruger.html (left). Image scanned from the book, Barbara Kruger (New York: Rizzoli, 2010) (right).

Barbara Kruger’s Your Body is a Battleground converts the female body into a political debate; do women have rights to decide whether to carry pregnancy to a full term or not? Rather than showing the whole body, Kruger only shows part of the head, focusing on the cerebral side of decision-making. The conflict between the right to give birth and the right to have an abortion is portrayed in a half positive and a half negative image of a woman’s face, as if it is between good and evil. In the second poster, there is additional verbiage about a rally in Washington. It asks for support for “a woman’s right to choose.” The flip side of the coin is an unwilling pregnancy—in the case of rape. In such cases, the female body becomes a battlefield: women resisting unwanted sex and unwanted pregnancy. Ignorance of the issues or apathy towards the issues can no longer be tolerated, at least with an artist such as Barbara Kruger who believes in the power of speaking up rather than keeping silent. Kruger represents an artist as activist.

Joonsung Bae (South Korean, b. 1967), The Costume of Painter - W. House 060201 (2006). Oil on vinyl, vinyl on photograph (later made into lenticular). 243 x 154 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

10. Joonsung Bae (South Korean, b. 1967), The Costume of Painter – W. House 060201 (2006). Oil on vinyl, vinyl on photograph (later made into lenticular). 243 x 154 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Using photographs and paintings, Joonsung Bae plays with reality and imagination. In The Costume of Painter – W. House 060201, Bae combined three layers: a photograph of Sagrada Família in Barcelona as the background, a photograph of a nude woman sitting on a bench, and a painting on vinyl that is placed over the photograph. Using painting, Bae covered the nude woman with a shoulder bearing dress. Near by her, he painted a little girl holding a mirror, both sitting on the carpet and surrounded by flowers. Behind the woman are fully grown flowers and in front of the little girl is a single flower in a vase. Bae brought a domestic setting into an outdoor scene, evoking what was seen in the first painting by Rembrandt. The seated woman revealing part of her shoulder is seductively touching her hair while the young girl is smiling looking at her own reflection. Bae’s work depicts vanity in two stages: a mature woman’s self-confidence versus a little girl’s innocent interest in herself.

11. Minny Lee, Self-indulgence, 2014. Video, 1:10 min.

In thinking of vanity, I looked into self-indulging moment—applying oil to my body after taking a shower. It is a rare moment that I pay attention to myself, which makes me realize that indulging one’s body can nurture the soul as well.

The Essential Tool

So my essential tool is an essential internal force. I have had a lifelong propensity towards disorganization, overlooking details, and sloppiness due to haste. This has manifested itself in all parts of my life, from my chicken-scrawl handwriting and lost points on algebra tests to forgetting to check my aperture before shooting and misplacing papers I intended to read. It’s a fairly serious debilitation. 

My solution? An internal impulse. The voice of Gordon Ramsay.

Image

 

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Photographic addiction

By taking photos we produce desire. That was one of the things Victor Sira mentioned on our last book making class. I must say that it struck me, thinking about my photography practice. According to Barthes, photographs contains only the referents, the desired objets, but the physical framed picture is a object off desire by itself. By making pictures I’m contributing to the world of art trade, collectors and art desires. Do I really want this? And what is the language I’m using in my work? Does that language resonate in public? Is my desire, my earlier “change the world” attitude still important for me? Why do I take pictures?

First of all, taking pictures is like a drug addiction for me. When I’m shooting and I feel that I’m on the verge of something important, I’m euphoric. However there are times I find myself getting deeply frustrated and depressed just by the fact of not taking pictures.

It is hard to overcome the bombardment of information and images, and to realize that almost every idea has already been explored. Without experimenting, though, it’s almost impossible to find a new way, a new idea, a new language and a new viewpoint.
I think, I can speak the language of photography, but as in every other language, silence is more valuable than thousands of worth-less words. So, while I still want to change the world, I have to admit that the it is far more complicated than I thought some 14 years ago. Therefor I’m happy to be able to address and work in my own environment, with my friends and my family to depict the absurdity of everyday life. And if I have something to say, I’m more than happy to do so, but it is always a struggle between the overwhelming world of information and finding the right words for the right situation.

So much, and a little more

Two inclinations compete on a regular basis in my mind.  One is to stop the information flow, stop the inundation of images and thoughts and sounds and words.  The other is to make images, a compulsion to add my two cents to the pile.

My aunt’s house burned down a few months ago in the mountains near Boulder, CO.  At the time I thought, what a simple way to purge.  How much can we retain, collect, accumulate?  And to what end?  At Crozier, thousands upon thousands of precious works of art are stored in temperature-controlled rooms.  On my bookshelf there are more books I haven’t read than books I have read.  At times this overwhelming quantity of information and objects feels physically heavy, a pressure on my chest.

And yet, I am still compelled to create my own images.  It is a means through which I process all the information I receive, and more particularly, my experiences.  I make images to catalogue.  I am the indexer of my life, and I index through images.  In this sense, making pictures can be a highly private endeavor for me.  At the same time, I also make images to communicate, as a way to enter existing dialogues or start my own.  I’ve never been a particularly strong writer, though I love to read, and so I see images as a viable means of expressing myself.  For me, this form of communicating through images is vastly more interesting than anything I could compose using words.

In a way, I am in conversation with anyone who sees my work.  I am saying this and that, through my images, and they are responding that and this.  Yet, I do not need my dialogue partner (the viewer) to necessarily be talking about exactly the same thing that I am.  Meaning that I hope that my work can touch upon identifiable ideas, but also that it can function more as a catalyst for further conversation than as an endpoint.  I make work to process my thoughts and, at the same time, ideally to create diving boards, places from which one can leap into different conversations and make new connections.  Openings.

The New and the Known

I once told  a friend that I wished I could draw.  She replied that I need only to give myself permission.  The images below are here because of such permissions (thanks Seminar).  An assignment was given to us over our winter recess to confront our lists of things we never do in our work; we were to pick 5 from 50 and do them.  Loosening a bit, that very night I bought a Lumix point and shoot and left the cumbersome routine of my 4×5 camera, tripod and film bag behind.  In the early days of January, I made a trip to Washington D.C..  I planned on making images, but I had no specific direction.  For past work, my travels were precluded by months of research leading me to specific sites that were both out-of-the-way and unwelcoming to photographers.  D.C. was different.  I was a tourist; for the first time my camera was smaller than all the others.  My appetite for images, however, was insatiable.  I made close to 3 thousand in a week.  I was traveling alone (another never), and as the days progressed so did my engagement with my surroundings.  I was taking tours of the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, visiting museums and seeing monuments.  Such places exist in large part to be seen and photographed; taken as a whole they point to an uncompromising sense of unity and resolve.  The days I spent walking and photographing undid this all-encompassing symbolism and in its place emerged  details, deviant perspectives, color and a different way of working.

7 cell phone images and 7 images not taken

Curtis has asked that I take one and only one image a day with my cell phone “as though each day you only have one frame remaining on a roll of film”.  Many days I felt that I was trying to shoot off that one last frame so that I could get a roll developed only to be followed later by seeing a wealth of images that I wished had taken instead.

1/26/2010               I found myself walking to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, during the break of East Asian photography and video.  I kept looking up at the moon that evening, as it seemed to play with the buildings surrounding me.  Over the past few years, I have grown weary of taking pictures of buildings in my personal practice, as that was what I was doing at work.  I just felt like there was something special about the moon and its light that night.  I kept seeing the moon peeking out here or hiding itself there.  The images I wanted to take were similar to the image that I had taken earlier in the day for this project except that the night sky had grown black and the buildings were glimmering with light.

1/27/2010               I found myself in Chelsea that afternoon and kept finding images that I wanted to take.  I think the one I missed taking the most was one of a fire extinguisher against a white wall.  I had just finished reading chromophobia and, as I made my way through several galleries, I kept thinking about the white walls that we put our art on.  It made me think about all the other objects hanging on those white walls.  The picture was simple —  the extinguisher hanging on a sheet of drywall in the corner of a stairwell.  The corner was created where the drywall met the white painted brick of the exterior wall. The bricks thrust forward about 6 inches or about the thickness of the fire extinguisher and then turned again away, following the plane of the drywall.  The extinguisher was framed so nicely and was just hanging there waiting to be used.  It was hanging the same way the art had been hung on the walls of the galleries.

1/28/2010               the image that I made on this day with my cell phone was one that I had seen often for much of my life.  I found myself having dinner at Grey’s Papaya — eating a staple snack of UWS high school students.  As I ate my recession special (2 hot dogs with sauerkraut and an orange drink.) I could not decide which image I wanted to take to remind myself of this moment and many other moments like it.  Should I take a picture of the view looking out to find the apple clock over the intersection of 72nd street to discover what time it was.  Alternatively, was the picture going to be my 2 hotdogs as they sat on a small white paper plate surrounded by a mustard yellow counter with a small white styrofoam cup sitting right next to them.  The missed picture was the food one; as I realized that I am never quite happy with the images I take try to take of food.

1/29/2010               so I almost forgot today, I found myself in a cab riding home at 11:30 without having taken an image.  Sitting in the back of the cab, I realized that I wanted a picture of my ride but also realized that using the flash could bother my driver.  I have always wanted to take a night picture of the back of a cab driver’s head, with the meter centered at the bottom of the frame and a view of the drive going by.  Even if the view were a little blurry, the lack of focus would add to the image, reminding me of all the drunken rides home sitting in the back of a cab late at night.  There is something special to me about a drunken ride home in a NYC cab.  Having grown up in NYC, I knew that it was always able to avoid a drunk driving experience, by raising a hand and finding a ride for you or any friends who might have had too much that night.

1/30/2010               at this point I realized how limited I felt when I had to use my camera phone to take pictures.  There was a picture that I wanted to take but realized that without the “bells and whistles” of a SLR (or as I might call it actual control over exposure), I was not going to get the image that I wanted.  This evening I was walking up 6th avenue heading to the gym when I saw a bike chained up to a street sign.  There was something about the bike sitting there with the helmet attached to the lock that I wanted to capture.  After looking at my phones screen and discovering that this camera just could not get the focus right and that the on-board flash could not quite get the lighting right, I decided to just keep walking.

1/31/2010               http://www.adeepriver.com/hanger

2/1/2010                once again the image that I did not take has reference in the one that I did take.  The image that was not taken was one of my bathroom sink. For some reason, I was obsessed by shaving cream as a young child.  I am sure the reason is linked to watching my father shave in the morning. Actually, I am quite sure this must be a common obsession since my three-year-old nephew received a toy shaving kit for Christmas.  On the other hand, I have now grown a beard when I grew tired of the daily shave, and did not see the point of continuing it.  I started with a constant Don Johnson look but, when all the partners and art directors at the company where I worked did the same, I realized it was time to grow a beard.  Now instead of the shaving cream and hair that you usually find in a man’s sink, you will now find just dry clipped hair from trimming my beard.  I know it is a trade off but I only have to trim once every a couple of weeks, not once every day.  I was hoping to take a picture of this mess in my sink and compare it to the remains of shaving, but I realized that this image was just plane gross, and cleaned up the mess instead.