Thursday, March 25, 2010

Power and Burden of Beauty

Artist Rachel Lee Hovnanian’s newest exhibit is awe inspiring and poignant for women of all walks of life. Hovnanian’s exhibit, “Power and Burden of Beauty,” focuses on the unhealthy emphasis that many women place on beauty and unattainable physical perfection. Today, the energy put into looking good by so many people and the subsequent stress caused by seeking the unattainable is astonishing. The vastly skewed perception espoused by beauty magazines and mainstream media advertising portrays women as sexual objects and chips away at our society’s idea of what is considered attractive. Hovnanian’s series of works investigates a truer notion of how beauty should be viewed.

Her latest exhibit incorporates and builds upon many of the topics Hovnanian addressed in works she completed earlier in her career, and, as such, it is a thorough exhibition, one that truly shows the complexities of Hovnanian’s artistic capabilities. In her earlier works, the artist incorporated still life motifs to illustrate the phases of a flower’s transition from its earliest stages to wilting. Hovnanian often restricted the palette of her pieces to the color white, because white is commonly used as a symbol of purity and untainted beauty. Her oil painting series of the white Narcissus flower further revealed the process of the flower’s passing into unavoidable wilting and its ultimate death, consisting of a number of paintings of this same flower at different stages. Hovnanian explains, “In a hectic life, white flowers provide a moment of rest for our eyes.”

Hovnanian’s exhibit,” Power and Burden of Beauty,” opened in New York City in October of 2009. The installation, too, is all white, consistent with the artist’s central theme. The exhibit is sectioned off to allow the viewer to grasp its depth amidst its monotone palette. Each installation integrates the exploration of beauty’s social meanings and costs. The most noticeable piece is an eleven-foot-tall, all white beauty pageant queen totem, standing perfectly upright and staring blankly into space. Holding a bouquet of flowers with a tiara sitting perfectly atop her head, the beauty queen looks eerily perfect. The beauty pageant totem reveals the idea of society’s drive for perfection and the obvious inconsistencies that come along with these desires.

While walking through the exhibit, spectators listen to an audio track of a woman, who complains, “Oh my god, I look like I have a beer belly.” A male voice then says, “You’re not twenty-one anymore.” The woman then whines, “It must be the lighting.” The male voice responds, “Your body looks awful.” This dialogue continues in a similar vein for a few minutes, after which point it loops again. These audio clips evoke sentiments that many women can relate to, juxtaposing a psychological soundscape with the stoic classic aesthetic of the pieces themselves.

Hovnanian’s other work that catches the eye in the exhibit is a white wall with artificial “Texas Beauty Queen Cream” jars lined up on it. Each jar is stenciled with phrases that the artist took from real beauty products. Each phrase is more shocking and appalling than the last. For instance, one jar says, “Make your boyfriend’s jaw drop,” and another “Look hot while protecting the planet.” These quotes were originally intended to entice women into buying the products, but Hovnanian uses them satirically to mock the ridiculousness of what they are suggesting. Why would a beauty product suggest that the phrases, “look hot,” and “while protecting the planet,” should ever be uttered together?

Hovnanian’s works address a social condition that demands impossible expectations of feminine beauty. Even trying on clothes in a dressing room can be an uncomfortable task for women, as clothing stores are often plastered with images of skinny, sexy, overly photoshopped women staring back at them. Likewise, magazines with article titles such as “Get great buns in 10 days,” tease them with unrealistic expectations. One of the most interesting pieces in Hovnanian’s exhibit is a dressing room equipped with unflattering and especially tiny bathing suits. These suits emphasize the pressures of body image and cultural scrutiny, specifically focusing on the role of weight and the pressures to be thin. The installation also has a fun house mirror and purposefully obnoxious lighting. The fun house mirror symbolizes what some women see when they look into a mirror: obscured reflections looking back at them with fluorescent light glaring down illuminating every flaw. Hovnanian reveals that if women were able to ignore and learn from the harmful stigmas created by the media and other influences, they could flourish and gain true confidence. I recommend Hovnanian’s exhibit because it portrays an important message about identity in an approachable and eloquent way. Also, check out her works online, by visiting her website at: http://www.rachelhovnanian.com/.

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