colourform logo |Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art Skip to content|
What's New |
Exhibitions |
Events |
Learning |
About us |
Visit Us |
Policies |
 

'The Analysis of Beauty'

"I now offer to the public a short essay, accompanied with explanatory prints, in which I shall endeavour to show what the principles are in nature, by which we are directed to call the forms of some bodies beautiful, others ugly; some graceful, and others the reverse."
William Hogarth, ‘The Analysis of Beauty’, 1754

‘The Analysis of Beauty’ takes its title from William Hogarth’s 250 year old treatise, an exemplary examination into who and what we find beautiful – and why. The exhibition brings together seven leading image-makers who examine afresh the politics and poetics of creating images of beauty, investigating where beauty lies, and who determines its location.

No woman escapes ‘beauty’.” As society becomes ever-more image-saturated, when every newsagent contains 1½ - 2 million glamorised and eroticised pictures, when cosmetic surgery is reaching epidemic levels, when no image is free from digital manipulation, the artists examine afresh the politics of beauty.

 
Kirsten Glass
“Beauty is always and inevitably compounded of two elements. Beauty is made up, on the one hand, of an element that is eternal, and on the other of a circumstantial element, which we may like to call contemporaneity or fashion”
Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’

Baudelaire famously remarked that beauty was always comprised of two elements – one timeless; and the other peculiar and specific to the present. A true painting of modern life, he noted, had to capture something both transient and special to its own time and something indeterminate in time and space. This intangible something would be beyond our own fleeting fashions, and belong only to the world of the imagination.

Kirsten Glass orchestrates a cast of characters, taken from fashion magazines and a range of printed sources, who are enlarged, interrupted, dismembered and distorted, as well as enveloped by luscious swirls of colour. Alongside role models drawn from the world of images that we all inhabit, Glass’s uniformly female figures become alternative alter egos – surrogate selves placed into the world – in what is a form of extended performance, acted out through unexpected means. The models’ airbrushed perfection and beauty is, on the one hand, echoed by Glass’s painterly pleasures: our attention swings between the graphic immediacy of the figures' silhouettes, and their unruly, voluptuous painterliness. On the other, the figures' idealised appearances are dramatically undercut by both the pictorial violence done to them, and their monstrous enlargement. Painted on the ‘heroic’ scale employed by the abstract expressionists, Glass’s protagonists are often larger than ourselves, and look down at us, eliciting a complex compound sensation encompassing attraction, alienation and alarm in equal measure. Drawing together commercial and advertising photography, pop culture and the history of painting, the artist creates tautly constructed, self-contained worlds, whether in painting, collage or in three dimensions.

In her two-dimensional work, Glass creates a staccato rhythm of gesture and glance between a cast of glamorous female models. Their eye contact either pushes our eye around and around a flattened-out picture plane or else the figures brazenly confront our gaze. Her images are akin to an orchestrated power struggle of eye contact between each model and ourselves, which is both disorientating and distancing. Echoing the militant superficiality of fast fashion, the artist never provides an obvious physical or psychological entrance point into her images. Instead, Glass's objects exert such a physical presence that we feel they intrude outwards onto our own space and seem to surround us. Her figures seem to be both bursting out of their frame yet constrained within a whirling vortex of images, as though trapped within a claustrophobic world of shimmering surfaces.

The critic Michael Fried described portraiture as essentially a ‘theatrical’ picture-form, where figures address us directly as if in conversation with us or sharing our space. Glass exploits this form, common to the stately home portrait and the magazine cover. She also manipulates our desire to suspend belief by being enveloped in a fantasy world of make-believe. Yet she does so whilst deftly wrong-footing our expectations, and blocking any obvious form of response. Discordant jump-cuts between subject and treatment interrupt our empathy with the individuals represented. Instead, we switch continually between suspension of disbelief and being overpowered by the objects' forcible assertion of their own physicality.

Glass’s signature palette consists in one part of sweeping, gestural skeins of creamy paint in the flat, high-key, high contrast hues of industrial printing. Such tones and smooth textures are seductively redolent of skin, also recalling the handling of De Kooning, who famously remarked that “oil painting was invested to portray flesh.” Yet elsewhere – jarringly – otherworldly encrustations of bitumen-black impasto clog the canvas. Glutinous, sticky, and dense, these passages exert as much of an olfactory impact as a visual one, and resemble magma formations more closely than 'belle peinture'. Glass's world is both lustrous and foreboding; it twists together the confrontational and the charming.

Yet these seemingly incompatible elements are woven together so deftly that we’re never aware of our attention forever shuttling between one set of possibilities and the next. Rather than occupying our own time, Glass's paintings inhabit an imaginary time of their own which is impossible to locate: our imagination is sent in divergent directions between an acid-hued future and an unrecoverable past.

  *
Kirsten Glass
'Untitled', collage, 2003.
Courtesy One in the Other, London
+ Click image to enlarge
Louise Harris
Louise Harris’s series of monumental watercolour paintings are based upon found images of full-frontal portraits from ‘Vogue’. Through a process of transformation and translation, the models’ faces become glowing, evanescent fields of colour rather than merely records of desirable, youthful flesh and bone. Harris uses watercolour in the most seemingly perverse way; adapting a medium normally reserved for Sunday painters, she works on a scale ordinarily used to represent monarchs and dictators.

These are portraits which operate in an uncharted territory between type and individual, seeming to offer neither records of individual physiognomies nor commentary or assessment of character. Rather, the images seem to yoke incommensurable symbolic languages from fashion photography and formal portraiture to renew the self-portrait as a genre, as the models’ faces meld into the artists’ own. The models, almost uniformly, possess brilliant cobalt blue eyes, full rouged lips, and tumbling blonde hair: the peculiar similarities between each work, and their similarities to the artist’s own contingent appearance, suggest that the process of creating an image echoes the process of self-fashioning we all undertake, assimilating the identities of others from the world of images into our own.

This sense of indeterminateness – of finding it impossible to tell where one individual ends and another begins – is reminiscent of Thomas Ruff’s series of ‘Anderes Portraits’. Ruff’s works, similar in scale to Harris’s, are composite images where several different faces are exposed on the same paper, each overlain on the other. Harris’s work, like Ruff’s, reminds us how far we habitually equate knowledge of the physical contours of an individual’s face with knowledge of their more intangible qualities. This tendency, sometimes called ‘physiognomic fallacy’, is the basis of painted portraiture: that we identify qualities, virtues, and ideas through physical correlatives. Harris undermines this by underlining the models’ shared characteristics, so that each face seems synonymous with each other. We’re led towards the conclusion that the very idea of communicating individual identity through images is a self-contradictory enterprise. Whilst these are beings whose beauty we aspire to possess, their faces are almost wholly elusive.

Confronting these images, presented on the heroic public scale of history painting, but demanding the intimacy of a purely private engagement, is to be placed in an unexpectedly difficult and demanding situation. What are we to make of Harris’s distortions of the models’ bone structure, which are pushed to the brink between beauty and its opposite?

As we attempt to pin down the contours of each face as they float across the paper surface, and gauge what they signify, our eyes are led as if in a dance, in a circular motion around the picture plane. Harris’s blurring and idealisation of the models’ features, and their serial presentation, directs us away from the ostensible subject matter, and instead towards her exhilarating, joyous play with the paint medium. The artist’s careful nuancing of the models’ expressions initially suggests vivid animation and a direct engagement with the viewer, but denies us any access to psychological information about them. We are thrown between being seduced by the illusion of an intimate encounter with another being and the sheer virtuosity of Harris’s technique. The artist’s animated, lambent paint surface sits in tension with the brittleness of the image-as-likeness. These are images also redolent of Marina Warner’s description of how the female form and face can come to signify almost any abstract quality or value, such that an image of any woman will oscillate between “an expression of desiderata and virtues” and a flesh-and-bone individual.

Harris’s use of watercolour gives full reign to the artist’s painterly pleasures: it necessitates painting-as-performance, requiring complete spontaneity and absolute dexterity to retain the medium’s brilliant, translucent colours. Each work is successful only when appearing utterly effortless, as though it had brought itself into being independently of the artist’s will. That the images are composed from sheer washes of pure colour convinces us we are encountering imaginary beings, conjured from almost nothing. The artist’s sweeping gestural strokes act in tandem with the gossamer paint surface, to draw our eyes around and around the picture plane rather than to stop upon contingent detail. It is as though Harris had followed Baudelaire’s advice to artists to “endow the whole of nature with a supernatural element that gives every object a deeper, a more deliberate, a more despotic meaning”.

  *
Louise Harris
'Untitled', watercolour on paper, 2004
+ Click image to enlarge
Oonagh Hegarty
Oonagh Hegarty disrupts the workings of images from mass culture; of disposable and cheaply printed glamour photography and daytime television. The artist describes her work as “a battle of control – a need to pin down the properties of a personal experience of the mass media, and a struggle to define an individual encounter with an entity that cannot be contained.” Her work conceals and transforms images from the world around us, rescuing them from over-familiarity and the split-second scan we habitually give them. Hegarty decelerates our response to the millions of images around us, asking us to reconsider the passive form of attention we pay to the visual world. These images, which form the ambient background noise of our experience of the visual world become both vivid and strange.

Collage is the unifying principle behind Hegarty’s diverse processes, procedures and products. Her working methods are frequently labour-intensive to the point of absurdity and beyond; she takes the most mundane, commonplace, or throwaway images and transforms them, holding them up to a sustained scrutiny so that we may pay closer examination to their workings. Works such as ‘Jo’ and ‘28,710’ subject found objects to an extraordinarily “slow and archaic process” which completely reorders their meaning and function. ’28,710’ for example, is the number of 20mm x 20mm squares of cellotape which the artist has overlaid over the entire screen of a second-hand portable TV. The surface resembles some alien accretion, and impedes our ability to read the photographic image as transparent; its surface is literally rendered opaque. The effect of blurring her source material is to endlessly frustrate our attempts to know the bodies represented, or to possess the image. The title alerts us to the volume of time expended by the artist, to the meticulous application of each piece, and to her methodical tabulation of each repetitive action.

Hegarty uses only found images, which are artless and lacking in any of the qualities traditionally associated with aesthetic interest or artistic competency. The artist seems to propose that it is precisely these anonymous pictures which are emblematic of our experience of the world of images in the twenty-first century. Her selection and orchestration of such materials, however, is both highly sophisticated and poetic. The utter ordinariness of the television in ‘28,710’ creates a strange disjuncture between the melancholy domestic interiors it recalls and the syncopated, joyous dance of pixellated colour across its screen. The effect is almost like watching an unexpected interruption to live television – the only time we pay close and sustained attention to that which we take for granted is when it is interrupted. As the artist notes, “A repetitive sticking process allows the original image to be buried, trapping excerpts.”

As the artist notes, the effect of her transformations are to create a “vacuum” or a “silencer” around the image, trapping them “like a fly caught on flypaper, where a moment of time is held in space.” Thus ‘Jo’ reads more as a historical artefact from another culture than an everyday object. It is “buried”, as the artist says, under her own layers of intervention. The artist inflects the surfaces of these ‘banal’ mechanical images so that we can neither read them as indexical signs or as symbolic ones. Our ability to “read into” the image, as Richard Wollheim calls it, is complicated rather than arrested, as we read the object as now sculpture, now picture. As our imaginative entry into the scene is endlessly deferred, our energies are bounced back to our own position as viewers, to the pleasures and reassurances we seek in the world of images and in their manufacture.

Although Hegarty refers us to ‘Jo’ as a particular individual, it might be said that she directs our imagination towards a contemporary sublime – the unimaginable number of near-identical images transmitted globally across the internet, on television and in print. In Hegarty’s hands we feel to become anthropologists, encountering our peculiar and alarming visual environment for the first time.

 

*
Oonagh Hegarty
'28,710', mixed media, 2003.
Photograph Nigel Davison
+ Click image to enlarge

Jean-Pierre Khazem
“It may be imagined that the greatest part of the effects of beauty results from the symmetry of parts in the object: but I am very well persuaded this prevailing notion will soon appear to have little or no foundation.”
William Hogarth, ‘The Analysis of Beauty’, "Of Uniformity, Regularity, or Symmetry"

In one of the earliest attempts to examine the nature of beauty, and of how artists can create an idealised, beautiful human form, Francis Bacon remarked in 1597: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in proportion.” Bacon observed two alternative methods of creating exemplary models of human perfection: adapting ideal proportions laid down by historical precedent, or by the invention of 'composite' images, created through the synthesis of innumerable observations. Khazem reinvents this most intractable of problems.

To find an individual beautiful, it is commonly agreed that the eye requires a high level of facial symmetry. Joanna Briscoe has recently argued that, “Evolutionary psychologists claim there is an underlying standard script for beauty: a foundation for what we find appealing. If one looks at a classic painting and measure distances between various points, they will repeatedly conform to a certain fixed ratio. In people considered beautiful they conform more precisely to the ‘Golden Section’: if a gauge that measures these proportions is placed on a model’s face, the distances between features usually correlates exactly.” Briscoe further observes that individuals now see themselves as malleable artworks, remoulding their contours to match an imaginary ideal: ”Now that faces can be broken, cut and stitched into place, we have reached a point of fearful – indeed frightening – symmetry. Individuality has been engulfed by the quest for perfect proportion.”

Khazem’s photographs, and more recently performances, allow us to re-imagine the history of image-making refiltered through the pressures of the present, where bodies and faces possess an unprecedented plasticity. His models’ ultra-symmetrical features are at the very edge of what we intuitively register as plausible or 'natural'. The artist's images might almost be seen as psychological experiments into the limits and boundaries of visual pleasure. If beauty is, in the last instance, a composite or an approximation to an abstract ideal, why do Khazem's apparently idealised models generate both alluring and alienating sensations? These works test where beauty begins and ends: we are left with the alarming sense that the genuine attainment of physical perfection would also constitute disfigurement.

Khazem manipulates his medium to elide the painterly and the documentary, to convince us that we are inhabiting both a fantasy world of his own creation and a recognisable reality. On the one hand, we are put in mind of Barthes’ observation that only photography strikes us as ‘real’, and can persuade us to empathise and identify with a represented other: “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent – light, though impalpable, is a carnal medium, a skin I share with the body who has been photographed. There is a sort of umbilical cord which links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze”. The artist invites us to oscillate between sympathy and strangeness, between an unproblematic fellow feeling and uncomfortable voyeuristic fascination.

On the other hand, Khazem’s scenarios create a tightrope walk between the real and the imaginary, so that his locations are half suburban garden, half paradisical idyll. They recall both Eve in the Garden of Eden and George Seurat’s portraits of the melancholic Parisian banlieue. We might also think of Titian’s Arcadian pastoral scenes or more probably, Manet's 'Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe’. Like Manet, Khazem deliberately confuses the categories of nudity and nakedness, using historical precedent to make his contemporary aesthetic all the more arresting. Whilst we're invited to imaginatively enter a blissful, bucolic world which is once removed from our own, we’re continually blocked from doing so – being jolted back into the technological world by the idea that the model’s appearance is surgically or digitally enhanced. Khazem’s distortions return us to John Ruskin’s view of beauty: “in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty… some sort of imperfection is essential to all that know of life.”

  *
Jean-Pierre Khazem
From 'Volume II', lambda print, 2001
Courtesy Laurent Delaye Gallery, London and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris
+ Click image to enlarge
Dawn Mellor
Dawn Mellor’s paintings and drawings of celebrity culture, create a parallel world on the size of historical state portraiture, using luscious, viscous sheens of paint in candy colours and rough-hewn marks. Mellor’s cast of characters spans from legendary showbiz icons to figures of contemporary fame and notoriety, from Marilyn Monroe and Liza Minelli to Monica Lewinsky and Courtney Love. Yet each of these collective objects of desire is depicted in a novel light which persuades us of its truth, as though Mellor had represented an aspect of their subconscious, or created a new genre of moral caricature.

The artist focuses uniquely upon female Anglo-American celebrities, whose pictures half the planet is instantly familiar with. She deploys this over-familiarity to rethink our relationship to fame and to the media. She also uses it to look again at our attitudes to the relationship between the unique, hand-made images produced in the name of fine art, and the glut of photographs which dominate the world of images at large. Mellor explores the perverse and parasitic relationship between high art and kitsch; between ‘debased’ images reproduced million-fold and her own delicious, painterly pleasures. As the artist says, “the act of painting itself becomes both pleasurably masochistic and repressed, lending the works a dark possessive undercurrent, a camp humour and a sense of hysteria.”

‘Missy, fingernails and Rene Z’ depicts an unlikely master-servant relationship between hip-hop star Missy Elliott and actress Renée Zellweger, in a sketchy interior left to our imagination. The image seems to create a level playing field between fantasy and reality, satire and homage, and is alarmingly difficult to pin a single interpretation upon. Zellweger, in the somewhat unexpected role of domestic servant, is represented obligingly clearing up Missy’s detritus, who stands confrontationally on a podium. Mellor’s narratives are freewheelingly open-ended, and it is impossible to know how to begin to read each image. If we attempt to see the image as parody, or as celebration, contrary evidence pushes us in a different direction. If an initial glance suggests that the carnivalesque role-reversals are parodic, closer examination reveals a level of loving observation betraying an empathetic, even affectionate engagement.

Elsewhere in Mellor’s ouevre, the more saccharine of contemporary celebrities receive their come-uppance through references to art-historical iconography. Gwyneth Paltrow is pictured attired in a radiant cerise silk ballgown, cuddling a cat. Her image recalls the sentimental overload deployed by French rococo painters, such as Greuze. However, the cat in question is a ‘big cat’ – a lion cub whose claws are drawn ready to tear into the star's expensively toned and tanned arm. Yet for Mellor, the animals are also surrogates for herself, enabling her to achieve intimacy with the distant unattainable figures – “I feel like if I'm anything within each painting, it's the animal they're playing with.”

A photograph of Elizabeth Taylor’s confetti-scattered wedding day takes on an unexpected darkness in the artist’s hands: Taylor, holding her head in hysterical excitement and rolling her head back in laughter, slowly comes to resemble a Munch-like cadaver or Francis Bacon pope, releasing an earth-shattering scream of terrifying and cosmic proportions. The artist suggests an alternative reading – that she is “tearing her hair out of sexual frustration”. The stars’ individual psychoses are, here, an analogue for the mass psychosis of a society addicted to National Enquirer culture and our collective consumption of pictorial concoctions of ‘beauty’ and ‘glamour’.

Yet despite these imaginative transformations wrought upon familiar and much-loved faces, Mellor’s relationship to her subjects remains ambiguous: she both appears to be and not be driven by the consuming passion of the fan. She clearly identifies with, and is fascinated by such characters as individuals, and by the belief system which gives rise to celebrity attachment. Unlike, say, Elizabeth Peyton’s feminised, glamorous fashion-illustration paintings, these representations simultaneously reject and rejoice in desire. Mellor seems to both adore and abhor the sheer grotesquerie, vulgarity and greed of the ‘entertainment industry’. As the artist says, “Madonna is the character I feel closest to as she is a person who is always debased for being excessively vain and egocentric… As a true fan I see it as my mission to reveal their true characters in all their glorious perversity and passionate dedication to their iconic status. I want to worship them”.

  *
Dawn Mellor
'Missy, fingernails and Rene Z', pencil on paper, 2004
Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London
+ Click image to enlarge
Jenny Nordquist
“There is a modern type of beauty and heroism: and the nude, this subject so dear to artists, is still an indispensable element of success – whether in bed, in the bath, or in the medical theatre… One of the privileges of art is that what is horrible, if artistically rendered, becomes beautiful.”
Charles Baudelaire, ‘Of The Heroism of Modern Life’

As Naomi Wolf has remarked bluntly: “we live in a surgical age”. Jenny Nordquist’s series of life-size portraits of sitters undergoing cosmetic surgery bring a radically new approach to the tradition of emphatetic, humanist documentary photography exemplified by Rineke Dijkstra and Walker Evans. And yet these are almost anti-portraits, undermining every aspect of the expected relationship between the sitters’ identity and appearance, between their body and self, and between self-presentation and social status. Rather than a conventional ‘portrayal’ of an individual’s stable identity, fixed for posterity through a record of their appearance, Nordquist examines her sitters’ quests to re-imagine themselves, through a process of bloody and painful metamorphosis.

Our attempts to ‘know’ the identities of her sitters are also frustrated by the concealment of their faces by folds of fabric: we confront fragments of a body, rather than their ‘person’. Nordquist notes that her photographs depict a moment of irreversible change in the sitter’s identity: “the physical metamorphosis only represents one side of the act. The metaphysical element of the operation is just as important. Bigger breasts do not make the physical body healthier. With plastic surgery, you are operating on a healthy body and technically making it less healthy.”

Seen at life-size, Nordquist’s images elide the lushly painterly and the intrusively graphic. She accentuates the vivid colours of the operating theatre, and the play of natural light across them, which creates an almost religious atmosphere. The sharp foreshortening with which we approach the unconscious body also recalls Rembrandt’s life-size studies of dissections, such as ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’’, to which Baudelaire refers. This perspective makes us confront the patients’ recumbent bodies from an unsettlingly intimate angle. These are images that might best be seen as an updated form of Dutch ‘vanitas’ painting. When the dominant culture of images positively excludes anyone not possessed of youth and beauty, Nordquist’s evocation of an older pictorial tradition directs us to the ethos underpinning ‘vanitas’ paintings: “For all flesh is as grass. The grass withereth.” [Peter, 1.24-1.25]. She provides us with a salutary reminder of the sheer novelty of our belief in the perfectability, rather than the fallibility of the body.

The depiction of aspects of ourselves we never normally see, recalls Voltaire’s dictum that “we enjoy bodies, without knowing what they are composed of”. Confronting these images, we are jolted into a shocking recognition of the sheer ‘otherness’ of our physical selves. Nordquist’s intimate, keyhole views reveal how strange we now find the pulsating interiors of our bodies. More importantly they provide a dual orientation for our imagination. As the artist notes, “the viewer is confronted with the nauseating processes that people have to go through in order to become idealised objects of attraction”. We’re caught between the imaginative anticipation of beauty – the ‘rewards’ of the operation – and the ‘repellent’ means to this end, “where breasts become bare lumps of meat”.

Jean Baudrillard also advocates adopting a position of strangeness to our ‘selves’ in ‘Plastic Surgery for the Other’: “In facial traits, in illnesses, in death, identity is constantly ‘altered’. But it is precisely that which must be exorcised… If the body is no longer a place of ‘otherness’, of a dual relationship, but is rather a locus of identification then we must perfect it, make it an ideal object.” The commodification of our bodies, Baudrillard suggests, has fundamentally transformed our relationship to the idea of ‘self’.

Nordquist’s sitters are stormtroopers of a new generation adopting ever more extreme measures to transform themselves into objects of desire, and whose expectations of the umbilical link between body and self are different to those of earlier times. Whilst we now have ever-extended possibilities of self-transformation at our disposal, we may be persuaded of Geraldine Bedell’s analysis that “cosmetic surgery is kind of political defeatism: a recognition that it’s easier to change oneself than to change the world.”

  *
Jenny Nordquist
'Untitled #1', from series 'Plastic Surgery',
lambda print, 2004
+ Click image to enlarge
Angela Smith
“The female form metamorphoses from one sign to another: the body is still the map on which we make our meanings; it is chief among metaphors used to see and present ourselves. Meanings of all kinds flow through the figures of women, and they often do not include who she herself is."
Marina Warner, "Monuments and Maidens"

Anj Smith’s paintings bring together the excesses of haute couture and arcane mythology to create allegorical subjects caught up in a delirious moment. She brings into being complete, fully realised worlds where improbable role-play and impossible hybrid genders are acted out in hysterical transformations. Most often, her figures seem to be caught in a process of metamorphosis from one state to the next, where identities are unstable and in flux. They occupy not only the indeterminate point between adolescence and womanhood frequently inhabited by fashion models, but a grey area where the brazenly erotic or voluptuous and demurely girlish co-exist. Her protagonists are located in an unknown place between genders, where facial hair is worn with voluminous skirts and lipstick, or hipster combats slung over boyish frames.

These figures also adopt wildly acrobatic postures and dramatic poses, reminiscent of those in the Romantic fantasies of Henry Fuseli. Larger-than-life, these personae are created for both the artist and for us to inhabit imaginatively as emanations of the furthest reaches of our personalities, explorations of the far limits of who we could be. Whilst initially confrontational, the tone and tenor of Smith’s paintings is exquisitely judged, inhabiting the area between the poetic and playful. She performs a tightrope walk between punky aggression and camp, high drama and theatricality and between luscious painterly virtuosity and Pre-Raphaelite detail. The artist’s minutely realised scenarios are set in an unlikely variety of exotic and distant locations, ranging from gleaming cityscapes to tropical paradises populated by pink flamingos.

Smith’s paintings are unmistakably contemporary, yet her images are headily evocative of the art of the past, whether through her jewel-like surfaces, the complex relationship between figure and ground or extravagant expressive gestures. Certainly both the artist’s crystalline, glacial brushwork and intense ultramarine skies recall the visionary realism of early Flemish painting. The works’ pristine lustrous finish and intimate scale ask of us to treat the image like an icon, drawing us into a distinct and wholly imaginary world. Smith explodes this illusionism however, by passages of almost luridly tactile paint, which represent fur, hair or fabric, by replicating their surface texture. She divides our attention between being intoxicated by the object’s fetishistic power and being drawn into a powerful sense of illusion. The painterly adaptations of her sources impede our ability to read the image as transparent; their surfaces are literally rendered opaque. The effect is to scramble their codes, making them inaccessible to our ownership. It is as though the artist had imbued life into the material of the paint itself, which had become an as-yet-unclassified lifeform clinging to the picture surface.

Smith’s treatment of her female subjects rejects the Enlightenment’s analysis of the nature of beauty. This tradition might best be surmised by Edmund Burke’s ‘Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’. Burke describes beauty as an inherently “feminine” quality, characterised by sentiments of tenderness and affection: “I call beauty a social quality… Beauty, where it is highest, as in women, almost always carries with it the idea of weakness and imperfection. The beauty of women is considerably owing to weakness or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it… Beauty acts [upon us] by relaxing the whole system, affecting the senses by lulling them to repose an inward sense of languor…. I can strengthen my theory in this point, by the opinion of the very ingenious Mr. Hogarth, whose idea of the line of beauty I take in general to be extremely just.” Smith’s paintings turn these ideas inside out, denying, as Judith Butler does, that our bodily materiality exists as a blank or passive state upon which the mind acts. Instead, in Smith’s hands, the human form is seen as an entirely malleable entity capable of transcending the constraints of biology and gender. Rather than re-addressing femininity-as-beauty, her paintings create a contemporary sublime, which is relocated within the body rather than without.

  *
Anj Smith
'Bombina Bombina', oil on linen, 2004
Courtesy Ibid Projects, London
+ Click image to enlarge