Female beauty, for as much as it has been celebrated and reviled through time, hit a commercial stride at the turn of the last century with a focused assault on the necessity of products to enhance and, well, ultimately perfect that which nature had given. And while "assault" might be too strong a word up-front, it certainly has become that, an all-out assault on the senses, with vast psychological repercussions we are barely beginning to understand. This is not to deny the historical record; look no further than the empowerment to women from ventures like Madame C.J. Walker's and Estée Lauder's companies to see positive enactment in the dark days of women's suffrage.
"The Western commercialization of beauty is an oppressive institution which primarily suggests Eurocentric and misogynistic standards for the construction and development of visible identity," explains artist Orlando Estrada, the sole male representative in the Girls' Club's latest guest-curated exhibit, "Esthetic Theory," in its Annex Space. "My work usurps these notions by suggesting a fundamental lack of understanding about the very physiological processes at work to keep the body alive." Estrada, a visual artist working in photography and installations, culls from his latest series, "Body Work," which explores his interests "in how the field of queer theory can intersect with modern mysticism to suggest misunderstandings about our bodies."
Although it might seem that artist and curator Rosemarie Romero would be poised to criticize this rampant culture that has undermined developmental psychology via the bullying of glossy magazine pages, it is perhaps more apt to believe she has organized a show that, like the early pioneers of women's beauty, opts to empower not only the artists but the spectators as well. This six-artist exhibit seeks to function like "a full-service salon and spa," and as such, the ultimate goal is to reenact the place such businesses have within a community. Romero's work is inspired by urban nail art and its many variants, highlighting, of course, the gaudy and the "chusma." While her alter ego, Porn Nail$, might bolster the tongue-in-cheekiness of it all, it is the communal sense of gossip that gives the work a human soul.
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Because communities come in many shapes and forms, Romero has purposely married the work of artists who operate in the high- and lowbrow genres to create a sense of customary feminine practices, both the personal and the manufacturer-suggested types. These predicate on traditional and nontraditional notions of beauty as well as the artistic interpretations of the artists. It helps that the show allows for interaction with Romero as she executes manicures and with Estrada's "Sound Garden," a sound healing regimen developed from remixed pop music, power stones, and the physical body.
Chicago-based Sarah Beth Woods' hair-braided sculptures explore gender performativity and sensuality, while fellow Chicagoan Helen Maurene Cooper's lifelong infatuation with storytelling and narratives is explored in the patterns and designs of a wallpaper installation of original nail photographs. Crystal Pearl's videos tackle the woes of Latina subjectivity and embodiment in the throes of "fashion, pleasure, and excess," according to the news release, while Jill Weisberg manipulates vintage adult-magazine pages with nail polish in an almost sacrosanct form of juvenile vandalism, blurring "figuration and abstraction, repulsion and desire."
How successful this endeavor will be will rely ultimately on the level of interaction the viewer brings to the table, because not unlike the beauty, cosmetic, and fashion industries — for all the bullying they could potentially muster, even under the guise of "art" — it is the consumer who falls prey to the glossy ploys of her own free will. Maybe a retrograded catharsis can occur; maybe the bonhomie of the "chisme," the healing powers of a spa, and the minute interaction of a human touch while getting pampered can work to begin taking this business model back to its original roots of empowerment, far from the shackles it has rusted unto modern woman. At an institution looking to nurture the careers of women artists in South Florida, an exhibit like this is a giant step in the right direction.