Thursday, March 18, 2010

Suddenly I See....

I set this blog up to be a record of my thoughts and ideas on life as a woman, artist, mom, wife, etc. As opposed to a more third-person look at art or culture. I'll save those discussions for future essays that might be written should I ever go for an MFA or write an article somewhere. Here, I get personal (and please bear with me, because this could be a rather long post).

So, I've been going on a journey of sorts for a while and I've been thinking of how I should write about it, and the postings of a dear friend of mine have actually given me a really good jumping point from which to begin.

It started with a clip from Blow Up, presented within an essay on 1960's Mod London and David Bailey.

I encourage you to read the original blog entry and subsequent posts here.

It was, I thought, quite an extraordinary scene. My initial reaction was overall one of discomfort. First, I kept thinking that these two should get a room. And after that flippant thought came and went, what I was really left with were impressions of the dominance of the male photographer on the woman, the reduction of the woman to a writhing sexual object, the feeling that he was using his camera as a substitute for his sexual organ, and that ultimately I was completely turned off by this scene but could imagine that it could work in the totally opposite way for a man. In a second viewing I paid more attention to how the actor in the scene conveyed his sexual excitement in one particular shot of him looking at his model before he moves closer to her. And I just love how the scene ends, as if a sexual act just finished. It really is a brilliant little scene, even if it left me feeling a bit violated viewing it (because as a woman, I'm identifying with the model, not the photographer).

It brought to mind another film in which model and photographer interact - Funny Face. The scenes in which Audrey Hepburn models for Fred Astaire's photographer are far less sexual, but Astaire is no less dominant. The difference is Hepburn plays it as the innocent child to Astaire's sophisticated man - another sexual stereotype that left me cold (although Hepburn is far more lovely to look at than the model from Blow Up, who looks for all the world like she was pulled from a concentration camp and given a trampy dress to wear). Astaire's character is based upon the great photographer Richard Avedon - one of the most influential fashion and fine art photographers of the last century. Here is a photo by the real Avedon of Hepburn from the movie Funny Face:

These two films got me thinking about fashion photography in general and how fashion photography has defined the ideal image of women since there were fashion photographs. So then I began to wonder whether there were any really successful female fashion photographers and I began my internet search with a google search term of female fashion photographers. That quickly yielded an endless list of sources for photos of females modeling fashion. Well, I'm not a grad student, so I went to Wikipedia, and I did get a dribble of information there. I came across the very successful Andrea Blanch, who interestingly enough started her career as an assistant to Richard Avedon. She is working as a fashion and commercial and fine art photographer in NY. Her web site can be found here.

I wondered if her images would be qualitatively different than those of a male photographer and took a look at some of her work from her website. Here's one image that I found quite different from the usual fashion photographs:

Very strange to see a man in this position.

Here is another Blanch photo:

Much more typical of fashion photographs, but for sure there is a quality of intelligence and defiance about this woman laying there in her underwear. But clearly, Blanch can make sexy pictures of women, and there are many more on view at her website.

A further Wikipedia article yielded another delightful little tidbit - Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who was a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar from 1936-1958 and whose work was highly influencial for a certain famous male photographer discussed earlier in this post. The National Museum of Women in the Arts has a nice article about her here. But there was precious little other information and left me thinking that fashion photography is still dominated by men.

My search got diverted, though, when I came across an entry about the music video "Simply Irresistable" by Robert Palmer, which was directed by the British fashion photographer Terence Donovan in the mid-80s. YouTube doesn't give an embedding capability to this video, so you'll have to click here to see it. By all means, take a few minutes to do so, and come right back please.

Now we have Robert Palmer singing about moving from simple attraction to complete obsession. There are so many interesting things to say about this video, but my favorite line in the song is "she's so fine there's no telling where my money went." What strikes me about this video is the juxtaposition of Palmer singing supposedly about a particular woman who is irresistible to him while he's surrounded by a group of fashion model-type women dressed alike and all dancing sensuously around together in the background or in separate scenes. I began to think this was not an ode to one woman in particular but to beautiful women as a group, and their power over him. With the lyric, "she's all mine, there's no other way to go" he sings about his need to control her.

This video was iconic in its time, as were other Palmer videos of the same type:


Pepsi got into the action as well, because as we all know, sex sells even soda pop:

And these videos were wonderfully parodied in one of my favorite movies - Love Actually (unfortunately the quality of this video is pretty poor - but I don't know where they got the full version of this video as it's not available on the DVD and the movie shows only a small clip):

I'm sure Bill Nighy had a good laugh filming that sequence, and I certainly cracked-up watching it.

But where am I going with all this? Traveling on the journey that all women must go if they are lucky enough to get old. There's no denying that the world rewards beautiful women, raises beautiful women to icon status, and celebrates youth. Thank Heaven that the world now finds additional value beyond beauty and sex appeal for women and can recognize women for their achievements in other dimensions such as science, politics, business, art, etc. This is a pretty recent phenomenon. In my mother's time, those types of accomplishments were much rarer, and I imagine it must have been pretty difficult for my mother, who was a beautiful woman in her youth, to get old.

For me, as a woman whose early adulthood corresponded perfectly to the Robert Palmer era, and who is now old enough to remember how it was and young enough to still want to get up and dance to the music, these images and videos bring up a host of emotions:

- the fear that the power of my own sex appeal is markedly diminished from whatever previous levels I managed to achieve
- the disgust that comes from acknowledging that fear exists
- the maturity to realize that sex appeal is not the most important aspect of myself but rather only one part of me
- the combination of happiness and pride in the growing beauty of my daughter combined with the wistful feeling of my own lost youth as I look at our faces side by side and see the tiny resemblences and remember when my skin looked like that and my eyes had no bags under them

Ariella at age 11

and at 13

How we see ourselves as women is intimately linked to how we look and that's an unfortunate side effect of human nature and society. So I admit that I struggle with the loss of my youth and diminished beauty and try to base my self esteem on my growing strengths in other areas of my life. On days when I've made some progress in my studio I am flying high. And then there are some days when I look in the mirror and steel myself not to get depressed, or fail and get immeasurably sad. It's pretty hard to be neutral.

Self Portrait, circa 2002

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Where's 2013?

I watched the movie 2012 on DVD the other night on my old 1991 Panasonic 35" color TV, and it was still pretty spectacular. I can imagine how this film must have played on a movie screen, or even on a 50" plasma (which is one of my more materialistic yearnings). There's something about movies like this one that I find mesmerizing. Even though there are so many ridiculous moments and an extraordinary requirement to suspend our disbelief. For example:
- as the world crumbles, people are still showing up for work at media stations
- John Cusack and his family manage to avoid dying when their limo drives through a falling office building, in a camper while avoiding hurtling lava missiles, or in a tiny plane when the runway is collapsing underneath them, driving a car out of a cargo plane going 200 miles an hour onto the peaks of the Himalayas, etc., etc.
- the Chinese manage to build huge ships (in tunnels blown out of those same Himalayan mountains) that are strong enough to withstand the forces of earthquakes and tsunamis, within 2 years and without anyone finding out about it (well, I can actually buy the notion that they wouldn't let anyone find out about it).

I could go on and on, but I really don't mind how preposterous the movie's situation is. That's part of the fun. Who wants to watch a movie about the end of the world that's completely believable? My sleep was disturbed enough with the 2012 fantasy.

But there is something weirdly comforting about watching movies like 2012 and Knowing (another end-of-the-world because the sun is getting too active movie - which got terrible reviews but I nevertheless was fascinated by it and watched it twice). We can sit in the comfort of our own homes (or in a theater with 1000 calories of popcorn in front of us) and realize that our crazy, unjust, unsafe, racially polarized, us vs. them world is at least not ending.

What I really want Hollywood to create next are the sequels to these movies. I don't mean the dystopian film genre (The Road, Children of Men, The Matrix, I am Legend, Blade Runner, etc.) I'm talking about 2013 (A Year After 2012). I want to know what those people who managed to survive while 6 billion plus others did not now do every day to rebuild the world. How will they manage? What will they do without the infrastructure of the world? What government will they make? How will they grow food, make medicines... Let's be specific. What we really need is a good HBO miniseries to take us through a 2012 type of disaster and then the rebuilding. I always feel like these disaster movies end just when everything will get really complicated and interesting.

Yes, it's mesmerizing to see landmarks blown up and exciting to root for those scrappy survivors. But I'd really like to see how John Cusack makes his way with his family in their new world, or how those two sweet kids manage to remake civilization in a new non-earthly paradise in Knowing. Will they do better than Adam and Eve? Are human beings capable at all of being able to rebuild the world better than we have now? I'd like to hope so even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

And it's that hope that is the unscripted sequel to all these disaster movies.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

So Much to Enjoy, and So Much to Say

I came across a review of an exhibition of the work of Lionel Esteve in ArtReview Magazine online. The image of Lionel's piece, titled Picture Opened to Prism, stopped me in my tracks.

The picture shown above was from the magazine - a closer view of his piece. The colors just simply leaped off the screen.

Given that this is a sculptural "painting" using gelatin sheets and paper, not paint, I was struck by the creativity and craftsmanship of the work, and felt a kinship of sorts with the artist because I too am looking at color, form and light in a way that makes those formal issues central to my work.

The reviewer, Violaine Boutet de Monvel, had this to say about Mr. Esteve's exhibition, "...his craft - certainly delicate and sensitive - strikes first and last as absolutely decorative and light. Paradoxically, this is as much his failure as it is his strength. ...As much as they fail to inspire any reflection, they succeed in invoking a sense of beauty..." The reviewer goes on to describe a number of pieces from his exhibition, not pictured but which I wish I could see given the description, and then sums up the review by saying, "so much to enjoy, so little to say." If you'd like to see the whole article, go to the Artreview website and look for the Summer, 2009 issue.

This review is a perfect example of what I feel is a failing of the art world - and that is the tendency to dismiss the "decorative" as meaningless. The reviewer laments the lack of content in this extraordinary work. Now, maybe I'm missing something by not being in front of the actual piece, but even from an online image - I can find so much to see. Isn't that content enough??? Why is this "decorative" and why is "decorative" a pejorative description anyway. Why do critics require art to go beyond the sensual and move into other meanings like social criticism, political criticism, etc. I'm not saying that art which delves into those areas is not important. But what I am saying is that we seem to have lost the sense of appreciation of the physical impact of work when we have to search for more content. When art doesn't serve up more commentary it is dismissed as "decorative." Mr. Esteve's piece is superbly crafted and created with a clear sense of mastery over the formal artistic issues (shape, color, light, line, space, tension, etc.). It also happens to be beautiful. I find a tremendous amount of "content" in simply SEEING this piece. The human appreciation of beauty is a source of limitless "content."