A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the opening reception for ‘Body Beautiful’ at Untitled Space. Curated by gallerist Indira Cesarine, ‘Body Beautiful’ is an ode to the human form, and one that feels timely in our current socio-political climate.
Discourse on bodies is everywhere these days, from twitter threads to the halls of Congress. It has fostered many a think-piece covering a range of topics, from the fashion industry to school dress codes, racial violence to reproductive rights. The art world has responded too, exhibiting diverse artists who are tackling issues of bodily autonomy and representation in their work. This trend is building momentum and it’s invigorating to observe. We are finally seeing work made by diverse artists, which means we are finally learning about the experiences of people who are different from us.
‘Body Beautiful’ is a strong contribution to the discourse on bodies from the contemporary art world– particularly the New York scene. In scale alone the exhibition demands attention; it boasts fifty artists, all of whom brought troves of fans to the opening at the small TriBeCa gallery. And while the line for entry did wrap around the block at one point during the evening, the exhibition itself never felt crowded. Many figures dance across the gallery walls, but they exude the same energy, like many instruments playing a single note. Below are a number of my favorites, organized harmoniously for your viewing pleasure.
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I am besotted with Anna Cone’s portraiture, which bestows contemporary bodies with a grandiosity akin to that of medieval art. Magna Mater is an exquisite example of the artist’s idiosyncratic style; it situates a feminine black body in a red cape atop a pillar, her head crowned and flanked by putti. Below, a number of lithe white bodies perch and prance as academic nudes are wont to do. But despite the plethora of bodies filling Cone’s canvas, the viewer’s focus remains on the central figure, a woman symmetrically and hierarchically positioned to indicate her power and beauty. Furthermore, the golden halo hovering around her head implies the divine ordinance of her power. Might she levitate into the turquoise blue sky that surrounds her, and ascend to the heavens like the Virgin Mary?
It’s meaningful to see the Virgin as a woman of color, especially within the trappings of Western art-making, because such pictures emphasize the erasure of black bodies in classical European art. This choice brings to mind Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black models posed as European aristocracy. Like Wiley, Cone subverts Christian iconography to reveal its construction along racial lines.
However, race is only one component of Cone’s intersectional practice, which dismantles Western beauty ideals. Society has long prized whiteness, but also thinness and heterosexuality, and these inequalities are inextricable. Exalting different versions of beauty is a necessity, and there is no greater exaltation than that of the religious variety; Cone affords her subjects this honor. She does so gracefully, integrating her model into Christian iconography with ease. Magna Mater doesn’t announce itself as an anachronism or a political gesture; rather, it emanates sacrality like a Titian or a Caravaggio masterpiece, reliably eliciting awe from the religious and secular admiration from non-Christians. It doesn’t demand attention so much as hold it, effortlessly.
The artist has made certain choices to maximize this effect. Though Magna Mater is a seamless blend of different photographs, it maintains the painterly quality and harmonious composition found in Medieval and Old Master painting. These aspects situate the subject among her grandiose peers– the Virgin Marys of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Furthermore, the work’s gilt frame reinforces the subject’s divinity; gold and slightly weathered, it is regal rather than gaudy, like a reliquary that still shines. These touches illustrate the subtle yet meaningful power of Cone’s artistic voice. She guides the viewer to the source of her work’s power– the subject– like a prophet or a messenger guiding us along a pilgrimage. Our destination is not a cathedral, though, or any tangible place. Cone ushers us towards a conceptual space where all bodies are viewed with awe and admiration.
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More brutal in its exposure of human cruelty is the work of Dafna Steinberg. The artist, who claims her fatness as a part of her identity, confronts the same structures of aesthetic beauty that Cone aims to dismantle. However, Steinberg points her lens at the disturbing truth that lies beneath these structures; those that don’t fit the aesthetic mold are demonized– turned into cultural monsters– and chastised for being seen. “Simply existing, as any other person would, is a rebellious act,” the artist declares on her website. And then, crucially: “I’m not a monster. I’m not ugly.” These words, poignant as they are, find truer and more raw representation in Steinberg’s photography, on view in ‘Body Beautiful.’
In an untitled work from the series Le Belle Fleur Sauvage (This Is My Body), Steinberg uses dress and self-portraiture to assert the validity of her presence. Unwilling to mask her shape, she wears a tight white t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Fat Bitch’ atop a stylized red heart. The slogan is a highly-charged and empowered reclamation of a vulgar slur. She looks away from the camera and into the distance, not bothering to capture her whole head in the frame. Taking this photo is not a priority for her, and that feels characteristic of a woman spicy enough to wear a shirt that says ‘fat bitch.’
However, the slogan also feels like a blast of defensive energy, a thousand volts forming a shield around the artist’s alter ego. She cocks one hip and sucks on what I assume to be a lollipop– two gestures that read as performatively flirtatious and nonchalant. I am reminded of Cher Horowitz from the 90s flick Clueless, who preached, “Anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good.” Lolli-pop sucking is the epitome of performed sexual confidence, and Steinberg utilizes its connotations to convey the energy it takes to exude ease. When we recognize this layer of vulnerability, the slogan ‘fat bitch’ feels like a defense mechanism employed by Steinberg, or the character she plays in this photograph. If she beats her bullies to the punch, taking the words from their viperous mouths, she will find their taunts less potent.
That confidence and vulnerability coomingle in a single photograph is a testament to the artist’s skill, as well as her deep commitment to a truthful rendering of the fat experience. Steinberg’s alter-ego dons a shirt that reads ‘fat bitch’ as a way to navigate the world she lives in, to find a way to express herself while keeping herself safe. Hers is not a quest to accept herself as beautiful– she knows she is. What is at stake here is safety, and Steinberg implores the viewer to consider her well-being.
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Also notable for her contributions to the body positive art movement is the artist Elisa Valenti, whose work I have previously explored. As per usual, her geometric nudes do not disappoint. They emphasize the beauty of the body’s parts, like individual love letters to the thigh, breast, and belly. Too often we are focused on achieving a silhouette with specific proportions, and not tending to the creamy expanse of a tummy roll.
In my previous essay on her work, I noted that Valenti evades comparison to Picasso despite their shared interest in cubist nudes. She simplifies bodies instead of contorting them as her predecessor did, defining shape through color rather than line. Modern Dance, one of the largest works exhibited in the show, maintains this distinction, but invites comparison with a different twentieth-century great– Matisse. The frenchman’s Dance features a number of lithe figures holding hands in a sprightly dance. Even the dancer with a protruding belly is otherwise lean and athletic. Valenti’s frolicking maidens strike similar poses amid their dance, in what appears to be a conscious gesture to Matisse’s painting. However, the differences stop there. Where Matisse emphasizes muscle to construct the female form, Valenti celebrates skin and allows its pastures to delineate shin from calf. In Modern Dance, peach brushes up against dusty rose and soft brown the color of cherry wood.
There is a difference between painting a body dancing and painting what it feels like to dance, and Valenti captures the latter. Her work is proof that a body positive approach to figurative painting has implications beyond diversification; body positivity invites a new perspective on color, line, and composition. It also removes the sheen of voyeurship from the work, and thus re-calibrates the relationship between the subject, artist, and viewer.
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A theme that winds through ‘Body Beautiful’ is identity performance, and I touched on this issue in my analyses of Cone, Steinberg, and Valenti’s work. Their portraits illustrate how social inequities based on gender, sexuality, race, and size render all images of bodily presentation inherently political. However, I was also intrigued by a number of works that explore self-presentation outside the context of identity politics. Of note is East Coast Summer, painted by the artist Annika Connor.
Annika Connor is fascinated with the pose– that intentional contortion of the body employed to perform a particular character or sensibility. Her protagonist in East Coast Summer lounges without ever relaxing; she reaches an arm behind her and twists at the axis of her waist to accentuate her swelling breasts. The figure’s knees are strategically bent and extended to emphasize the length and curvature of her legs.
East Coast Summer is also characterized by a keen sense of the painting’s materiality. An exercise in artifice, its thick brushstrokes mirror the constructed quality of the pose. Every dab of color is a reminder of the figure’s posturing for an invisible camera or an unseen viewer. Connor’s rendering of her subject speaks to her wary view of identity performance in the age of social media. She highlights the unnatural quality of the pose to critique the physical and psychological demands of self-performance.
The discomfort this performance necessities is underlined by Connor’s manipulation of space. The artist situates her model on a sharp yellow slope, as steep as the diagonal line from the top-left corner of the canvas to the bottom-right. From a bodily perspective, maintaining this contorted pose on such a slant presents a substantial physical challenge. Psychologically speaking, the angle is incredibly disorienting; it elicits vertigo and a loss of control. These sensations reveal a potential pitfall of self-performance– an attachment to one’s facade, and a mounting fear that it will one day crumble.
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Lastly, I’d like to discuss the delicious pairing of Shamona Stokes’s Break Into Blossom with Meegan Barnes’s Hollywood Booty. Both feature a voluptuous derriere supported by wide hips and thighs, provoking an expansive dialogue regarding the symbolic potency of the nether regions.
Stokes’s reincarnations of ancient deities demonstrate the persistence of archaic symbology in the modern period. This subject features prominently in my academic research, in part due to my ongoing correspondence with the artist for the last few years. I’ve come to see symbology as a study in spirituality, history, and identity politics, and– full disclaimer– recently collected one of the artist’s early sculptures.
Because I have followed Stokes’s practice for some time, it’s particularly exciting to see her work in new contexts. Though only a foot or two physically separate Break into Blossom and Hollywood Booty in the exhibition, each inch represents a thousand years. The former’s rotund hips and minuscule arms recall ancient fertility goddesses like the Venus sculptures of Willendorf, Lespugue, and Hohe Fels. It’s strange to think that the objectification of female bodies originated in the quite literal production of objects modeled after the female form. It’s also discomforting to realize that fertility remains the key signifier of female worth; marriage and childbirth are expected paths for women in most contemporary cultures, and western beauty ideals remain bound to youth and fertility.
Not content to merely identify the persistence of heterosexual gender roles, Stokes performs a transformation on the body of her immortal goddess. She has sliced a vertical line through the figure’s abdomen, and folded back her flesh to reveal a patch of young buds. Like flowers peeking through cracks in concrete, these buds interrupt the pale expanse of the creature’s skin.
This image reminds me of the biological process of succession, in which the earth stimulates growth after interference has eradicated all flora and fauna. It begins when lichen and other vegetation that can thrive on sediments appears on pavement or volcanic rock. These life forms erode the surface of the rock, turning it to soil, from which larger plants can grow and thrive. Gradually, the sidewalk and the hardened lava disappear, and a dense thicket takes their place.
Perhaps people operate the same way. Might a crack in the infrastructure of the patriarchy stimulate such a prosperous chain reaction? It begins with a kernel of self-love, an awareness of the external factors that suffocate our spirits in a thick layer of concrete. Conscious of our constraints in a quasi-Marxist sense, we will then be enabled to destroy Western beauty ideals and the heterosexual binary.
Stokes visualizes both biological and feminist secession in the sculpture, Break into Blossom. Firstly, the sculpted figure embodies the textures and colors of a paralyzed earth, as well as the first wave of vegetation to reclaim its territory. And secondly, the sight of a woman tearing off her skin is highly symbolic given the cultural value of female beauty. That the figure in question represents a millennia of women further strengthens the power of this symbol; this fight is an ancient one. The Venuses before us are here with us still, in the echoes of our voices and the very matter that composes our bodies.
As the more contemporary ‘edition’ of the rear end, Hollywood Booty is an amalgamation of all these symbols and is thus particularly multivalent. Its title refers to the current popularity of a particular body type in Hollywood, that incubator of anatomical trends.
On one hand, the Hollywood booty is an achievement; it expands the societal definition of beautiful to include more sizes and ethnicities. For those not bequeathed an apple booty at birth, it’s more healthily achievable than pre-pubescent chic. But on the other hand, the Hollywood booty fetishizes curvy and fat people and people of color, whose bodies are now ‘trending’ like a designer bag. Furthermore, the women who benefit from the booty craze are often anatomically-blessed or surgically-enhanced white and/or light-skinned women like Iggy Azalea and Kim Kardashian. Because the exaltation of curvy bodies disproportionately benefits white women, it’s also a kind of appropriation.
Hollywood Booty bears the weight of this duality but doesn’t crumble beneath it. This is, in part, due to the known stabilizing qualities of the abdomen and the haunches. For women and others with ovaries, the center of gravity hovers here, near the pubic bone. From this nucleus of stability Barnes finds a comfortable balance between celebration and exploitation, inclusion and exclusion, identity-performance and voyeurship. Furthermore, Barnes’s choice of material– glazed stoneware– has strong connotations with the earth, lending her work an even stronger sense of groundedness and materiality.
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These works are not just my favorite pieces from ‘Body Beautiful’– they are also emblematic of the issues that weave through the exhibition and out onto the street. When we encounter bodies we come into contact with social norms that dictate how we should treat them. Faced with these norms, we can choose to accept or question them. ‘Body Beautiful’ provides much-needed ammunition to combat the status quo. The exhibited works are worth returning to, again and again, to foster one’s empathy for other people, including oneself.
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‘Body Beautiful’ is on view at Untitled Space through December 14th.