group show 53
On Beauty

Essay by Roula Seikaly

On Beauty may be the most open-ended call for images that Humble Arts Foundation founders Jon Feinstein and Amani Olu have put out into the world. Other calls, and the resulting exhibitions, have been shaped by more narrow parameters; for example, Radical Color suggested color photography’s explosive potential, and ‘Roid Rage placed Polaroid pictures in contemporary practice as more than sweetly nostalgic artifacts. As guest co-curator, I was excited, and a bit terrified, by what would be submitted in response. Without surprise, that excitement was well warranted. The variety of imagery and processes reflects the nearly uncontainable breadth of images that their makers define as representing “beauty.” 

In reviewing submissions, Jon and I were motivated by similar drives: seeing work that consciously addressed or acknowledged familiar tropes such as still lifes and classical sculpture; how contemporary photographers portray such subjects and the historical tension that accompanies them. 

A call for images that assess beauty would not be complete without images portraying the physical space we inhabit, historically, and in present times. Landscape, the American West in particular, was among the first subjects addressed by 19th century practitioners because, practically speaking, it stood still long enough to endure the lengthy exposure times such imagery required. From those images, or in part because of them, expansion into the western territory under the banner of Manifest Destiny as articulated by photo-historian Liz Wells in the title Land Matterswithout regard to who inhabited this “uninhabited” land. 

Carolyn Benedict Frasier’s image Looking Glass stirs thoughts of how early photographers  like Timothy O’Sullivan and Eadweard Muybridge portrayed the western landscape, cloud formations and other atmospheric events for expeditionary projects that ultimately reinforced notions of nature’s beauty as a national birthright. Just under a century later, photographers whose work was featured in William Jenkins’ seminal New Topographics exhibition were chosen because they highlighted what could be found in human-altered landscapes. Amidst the regularity of creeping suburban sprawl, “beauty” may be seen in what is imperfect or irregular. Alessandra Gerevini’s Untitled image, emphasizing what appears to be a dying tree that obscures the composition, hints at beauty that requires more than a passing glance to appreciate. 

Not surprisingly, we also received an abundance of portraits, perhaps the foremost photographic subject. Definitions of beauty have been asserted photographically since the medium’s inception and commercialization. Initially criticized as too exacting or unforgiving to capture the human form, straight and manipulated images of the body over time have established beauty “standards” for women and men that are both harmful and often reinforce whiteness as the norm. Many of the artists submitting to this call appear to be respond to the white, western, heteronormative dominance in photography's history of representation, and relish problematizing it. Lissa Rivera’s entry from the series Beautiful Boy, for example, transmits the trust between an artist and her muse/lover, and celebrate transgender identity. Alesia Exum’s portrait of burlesque star Munroe Lilly conveys the performative and personal facets of her subject all while subverting expectations of who should celebrated in portrait form. 

A robust response to a call for imagery that conveys “beauty” such as we received could merit the generalizing and tired platitude “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” There is truth in that, of course, but a more critical analysis focuses on the open-ended potential of that statement. The images that we received and ultimately chose to exhibit reinforce that photographic interests and practices are as wildly divergent as ever, and that artists are emboldened to explore subjects that two decades ago wouldn’t enjoy a wider viewing audience. That exploration, that desire to subvert dominant attitudes toward or definitions of beauty, suggests to us that a burdensome cultural stranglehold is loosening, and may someday be broken outright.