"A woman must continually watch herself," critic John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing. "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."
As a bona fide woman, I get the feeling. I've learned to both understand and subtly combat the way I envision myself looking to an outsider, when groggily preparing coffee first thing in the morning -- hair disheveled, eyes at half mast. So many actions are subconsciously played back to me in my imagination as they are happening, as if I'm constantly watching the movie of my own life. In this way, women are intuitive image-makers, constantly creating and starring in their own ever-shifting visions.
A photography exhibition entitled "The Real Thing," featuring artists Juno Calypso, Natasha Caruana, Pixy Yijun Liao and Melanie Willhide, is dissecting the various ways that appearance and reality become entangled in art and life. Dealing with identity, relationships, gender and sexuality, the artists explore the alien peculiarities from a distinctly feminine point of view.
London-based Juno Calypso transforms hotel bedrooms and pink tiled bathroom into dystopian landscapes. Amplifying the anxiety of primping oneself to surrealist extremes, Calypso's photographs are part 20th century photographer Francesca Woodman, part "The Sexy Getting Ready Song."
In her photos, mirrors reflect the images of women into infinite echoes, mimicking the scrutiny with which many of us examine ourselves. "I can trace my obsession with mirrors to when I used to play with my grandma's trifold vanity mirror," Calypso explained to The Huffington Post. "I’d stick my face in it and close the panels around my neck to create an infinity room of moving heads."
"From the age of 12 to 21 I developed an anxious regime of beauty rituals," Calypso continued. "Being young and financially unstable most of these took place in a bedroom or bathroom -- the type of room I stage all of my work in now. Preparation for an occasion could and would frequently begin three days in advance. Everything would be waxed, plucked, bleached and shaved. Layers of fake tan, butters and mousses would be applied, acrylic nails would be re-filled; hair extensions and eyelashes glued in. It was a very hot and sticky process. By the end you’d feel like a slippery bronze fish attempting to walk on land."
My grandma always calls putting on makeup "putting her face on," alluding to the many steps women endure to become "themselves." Maybe it's this commitment to image-making on a daily basis, Calypso suggests, that turns women into artists. "We’re used to crafting something and are willing to put in work till we achieve what we want to see."
While Calypso's images are fantastical and uncanny, Natasha Caruana works in a documentary style, sneakily photographing uncompromising details of her dates with married men. Caruana finds her unwitting subjects on online dating sites designed for affair, and uses their time together to discern their motivations for cheating. While some are purely sexual, many of the men express patterns of loneliness or alienation that lead them to infidelity.
Her photographs are presented like clues of a crime scene, capturing a truthful encounter founded entirely on deceit. The husbands lie to their wives. The artist lies to her subjects. And yet, a certain authenticity rings through the images, captured in the moment.
Working somewhere between documentary and fiction is Pixy Liao, whose series "Experimental Relationship" captures her and her partner in a variety of poses based loosely on real life. The premise of the series stems from Pixy's Chinese upbringing, in which the ideal romantic partner was an older, authoritative and protective figure. Now, collaborating with her partner Moro, who is five years younger, Pixy toys with the expectations and realities of romantic partnership.
In one image, Pixy acts as the protector while a naked Moro clings to her neck, almost like a child. Her images refract the typical male/female relationship into its more nuanced iterations -- the moments girlfriend is powerful, boyfriend is soft, girlfriend is scared, boyfriend is needy.
"The photographs in 'Experimental Relationship' are not a documentation of our real relationships," Pixy told HuffPost. "It’s more as an idea storyboard of my thoughts on relationships. Sometime I’m trying to describe our relationship. Sometimes it’s the things that I would love to do but cannot really do it in real life."
Melaine Willhide, on the other hand, creates imaginary mementos of romantic relationships in her series "Sleeping Beauties (The Box Under the Bed)." Exploring the ways photographic documents can supersede the real, Willhide meticulously crafts faux vintage photos, complete with scrawled personalized messages, fingerprints, glue stains, watermarks and other artificial imprints of time. The purposefully obscured objects conjure memories of romantic narratives that never were, while exploring the artifice always already embedded in romantic souvenirs.
For Pixy, the four artists in the exhibit almost represent four distinct stages of a woman's life. "I think all of the four artists’ work in the show are autobiographical in some way ... First, there’s Juno’s work as a single young woman. Then there’s my work of living with somebody. And later it’s Natasha’s work of having affairs. In the end, there’s Melaine’s work as the aftermath of the relationships."
Together Willhide, Calypso, Liao and Caruana construct distinct interpretations on a single theme: reality, in whatever mediated, convoluted shape it may appear. "The Real Thing" is on view until February 27, 2016 at Flowers Gallery in New York.
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