Fashion magazines are notorious for making women feel ugly by teaching them how to be beautiful. They inundate women with unobtainable canons of attractiveness: Kate Moss's skeletal frame, Angelina Jolie's pouting lips, Pamela Anderson's ever-evolving rack, Jennifer Lopez's big-ass you-know-what. The message espoused by these mags is simple enough: Image is everything.
Houston-based artist Laura Lark is well aware of the detrimental effects this flood of images can have on the female psyche. After all, she's a woman. Her current exhibition at Lawndale Art Center takes a not-so-subtle jab at the way fashion magazines seem to dangle the notion of beauty from a stick that's always just a little too long.
"Laura Lark: Primp, Indigo" and "Symmetrical Patterns of Def"
Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main
Through January 31; 713-528-5858
"Primp, Indigo" is a series of six larger-than-life images taken directly from the pages of an undisclosed women's magazine. The images were originally part of a serial demonstration of how one should put on makeup. The first one in the series shows the doll-like model bereft of any cosmetic trappings, a sight we're expected to pity (poor girl!). But after the scientific application of makeup is complete (presto!), she's an enviously ravishing beauty.
In order to render this sequence of images, Lark photocopied the pictures, transferred them to transparencies and projected them on large sheets of industrial Tyvek material. She then used a Pantone marker to jab away at the material. What we're left with is a re-creation of the images done in a hand-rendered pointillist technique. Fashion magazines dissect women's bodies into unattainable parts, so Lark dissected the images themselves into little points. The technique might be simple enough, but the resulting sequence of works is a complex commentary on the media's effect upon women's perceptions of themselves.
When Georges Seurat pioneered the pointillist movement in the late 1800s, he was concerned primarily with "the optical mixture of tones, hues and their reactions (shadows) in accordance with perfectly fixed laws." Over a century later, Lark makes her point (and points) by examining the fixed laws of perfection, insofar as these laws are dictated by magazines such as Vogue and In Style.
These magazines lead us to believe that their goal is to make women "fitter, happier and more productive" (to quote a Radiohead tune), but their unspoken objective is to encourage women to be more active consumers. And this phenomenon is no longer unique to the feminine gender. As Lark said at the show's opening, "Men are the new women." Magazines such as Esquire and Stuff (not to mention the ubiquitous Fab Five from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) have begun teaching men what women have known for years: If you want to be considered beautiful in our society, you'd better be ready to buy a lot of crap.
So how does Lark combat this consumerist conception of beauty? She grips a marker firmly in hand and places her tongue firmly in cheek. Fashion magazines encourage us to buy the proper products so we can remake ourselves in the image of the models on the page, so Lark just remakes the images of the models themselves. Rather than allowing the pretty pictures to dictate what she should look like and how she should go about achieving it, she creates an awkward, dissected reflection of the images, thus robbing them of their allure.
The resulting sequence of works is stunning.
True to the pointillist style, each work is best viewed from afar, where the viewer's eyes can fill in the gaps between the points and allow the supple shading to shine. But a closer look reveals a few surprise subtleties. Rather than the perfect little dots that one would expect from pointillism, the Pantone markers leave rectangular smudges upon the Tyvek. An even closer look at the smudges allows the viewer to surmise Lark's changing mood as she moved across the material, whether she was feeling softly exacting or downright jab-happy.
The choice of Tyvek, an industrial lightweight material with a kinship to fabric, further adds to the visual and conceptual layering in the sequence of works. When viewed up close, the wisps of the quasi-woven material add subtle texture to the model's visage. They look like the little hairs on a lover's face that can only be seen in the dim light during pillow talk. (But then again, I've always had a thing for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, so maybe it's a little easier for me to feel intimate with a ten-foot-tall depiction of a woman's mug.) Conceptually, Lark's use of Tyvek instead of a natural fabric emphasizes the artificiality of the whole enterprise of putting on makeup. After all, the word "cosmetics" comes from the Greek word for "order," so Lark's choice of an industrial, mechanically crafted material is apt.
The real irony of the works lies in the fact that only two colors (white and indigo) were used in their composition. As the viewer progresses from the first panel (Premier Constant) to the last (Ultime Observation) in the sequence, very little change can be perceived in the model's appearance. Barring the shadowy effects of eyeliner, all of the model's work was for naught. She's all dressed up with nothing to show. Lark mocks her entire endeavor, depriving her of the smallest of cosmetic satisfactions.
The conceptual framework behind the sequence might be a pony with many tricks, but the exhibition is still a one-horse show. And that's its only drawback. While each part of the sequence is stunning in itself, the works are very similar to each other. It becomes difficult for the viewer to lend individual attention to each panel. Perhaps that's why Lark included a smaller, more colorful reproduction of one of the panels (Top Depart!) at the end of the sequence. She realized the repetitive works were best viewed as a sequence, so she dished up a slightly more colorful piece of eye candy for us to nibble.
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Repetitiveness aside, the works are well worth a look-see. Their theme (fashion magazines are bad, bad, bad) might not be the most original of concepts, but Lark's take on the topic is fresh and technically proficient. And even if we're loath to admit it, the model herself is a beautiful subject, especially if you have a thing for 50-foot-tall women.
Also at Lawndale
"Symmetrical Patterns of Def" is an interactive exhibit that tells the tale of Mudbone, a fictional, futuristic MC who's the creation of Otabenga Jones and Associates, a.k.a. Jamal Cyrus, Kenya Evans and Robert Pruitt (whose New Kiddz in the Hood recently garnered him top honors at Lawndale's "Big Show"). By giving us a peek at hip-hop's uncertain future, OJA tells us about its exploited past and present.
Although latently political in nature, the exhibition is also a lot of fun. Its "ancient" artifacts include rhyme books, junky turntables and a stack of played-out rap cassettes, all enclosed in glass cases worthy of a history museum. A permanent marker dangles from a string on one of the poles in the gallery space, encouraging us to tag the exhibition. A mural covers an entire wall in the upstairs gallery, where classic hip-hop albums have been arranged in the shape of the African slave trade route. The exhibition somehow manages to walk the line between heavy politics and lighthearted pastiche, all the while sporting a pair of old-school Adidas.