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BEAUTY CUTS - MADE TO MEASURE

Iris Schmeisser, 2005
Curatorial assistent Museum of Modern Art New York, NY

Roswitha Huber's most recent work presents "beauty cuts" in the form of an artist's book. These cuts, a term the artist borrows from the realm of fashion and design, are framed by the cover of the book -- the shape of a woman' body. With "Beauty Cuts," Huber deliberately explores the double entendre of the phrase. It refers to the artistic practice of cutting and framing, a conscious aesthetic act. It also refers to the quality and consequence of such an act: the violation of a surface. The material quality of the surface is decisive and therefore foregrounded in Huber's art. It is, however, not only this material quality of objects and their specific surfaces the artist is interested in, it is also the malleability and vulnerability of the human body she explores in her most recent work. "My works have their origin in the creative tension between private, subjective ideas and social concerns," Huber argues. The concept of "beauty cuts" combines the artists' interest in the creative act of selecting and defining shapes through the process of cutting with her cultural and social interest in the aesthetic treatment of the human body, especially the female body. As a result, her work seeks to create a dialogue between the visual arts, fashion, design, body art -- such as tatooing, body scarification, performance -- and cosmetic surgery. The boundaries between public and private and the distinction between aesthetic and cultural practice are consciously transcended. Art and life are not cut off from each other according to the artists' point of view: "Among the themes in my drawings, objects, artist's books, illugraphics and painted surfaces are discursive treatments and interpretations of reality, based on mentality, autobiography, everyday life and popular culture, enriched with private metaphors".
Huber's experimentation with diverse materials, shapes, surfaces and boundaries reflects her border-crossing investigation of the role of the female body in contemporary Western art and culture. Cutting through different layers of cultural meaning, Huber's artists' book explores, among other things, the ambivalence of cosmetic surgery as regards the female body. Beauty is a standard set by the fashion industry and its celebrity cult. Beauty is a normative and measurable category in Western art, as exemplified by Leonardo Da Vinci's measuring and framing of the human body and its proportions. And beauty -- the cutting and measuring of human skin and flesh -- represents the principal category of cosmetic surgery. In those three realms -- the realm of fashion, the realm of art, and the realm of body work in cosmetic surgery -- change is the only constant category, the artists argues through her work. Self-expression and identity, as the artist suggests, are bodily matters. Performed upon and through the body, beauty cuts across the boundaries between personal and political, between private and public. For the artist, the practice of cutting represents a mode of (self)-expression: a significant body of her work consists of used photographs from popular magazines as well as old family albums, found images the artist recontextualizes, repaints, reshapes and reassembles. In this respect, there is an in-built ironic if not parodic element in Huber's "Beauty Cuts". The cover which frames the book's interior images shows a woman's body on which the dotted lines, the painted boundaries of a cosmetic surgeon's pen have been inscribed. Contradicting the traditionally gendered dichotomy between male surgeon and female body -- a feminist contention -- Huber, a woman artist, endows the practice and possibility of transforming a woman's body into an expression of female agency, a conscious aesthetic choice. Using goat leather as a binding, the look- and feel-alike of human skin, the artist seeks to bring out the haptic quality of the material: touching the book also means touching the naked body of a woman. We encounter this body, however, only in its abstracted, two-dimensional form: it is a fragmented body, as its head, arms and legs are partially or fully cut off. Moreover, this body has been compartementalized into different sections -- ready to be cut and pierced. Striking a recognizable and familiar pose, it is a body that obviously displays itself as an object of aesthetic and erotic desire, as if represented on the glossy page of a magazine or an advertisement for a beauty product. A text cuts across this body like the bordure of a fashion contest. Instead of "Miss America," however, the artists' inscription becomes visible: "Beauty Cuts". The measuring of the female body in order to make the clothes fit its shape is ironically inverted through the use of a dadaist pun: what is put on display, meant to cover and not meant to be covered, is a maid made to measure. This body is desirable and erotically charged, because it can be measured and cut up, because it becomes a container for all sorts of creative fantasies.
Standards of beauty are variable, Huber implies. Whereas normativity may have an inherently violent dimension -- the submission of one's agency to an exterior standard -- there is also, she insinuates, the possibility for recoding and for resistance. Aesthetic embodiment and its malleability may be conceived of as an act and expression of choice. However, in contemporary Western culture, cosmetic surgery is still an issue of luxury in the same way that fashion and design are. The cultural commodification of beauty is something the artist mocks, as the golden inscription of the text imitating the style of exquisite beauty products indicates. Whereas the female body can be a site of commodification and submission, it can also be a site for agency and creativity. Huber purposely defies any determinacy and narrowing of meaning in her work in the cultural issues she seeks to explore: "Nothing of what sets the creative operation in motion should remain unexploited, and nothing is taken for granted," the artist explains. What rather fascinates her is the body as a discursive site of a multiplicity of inscriptions: a body can be vulnerable to the incisions of "beautification," but it can also be vulnerable to sickness and death. The body can be an agent of performance, creative expression and style: it can be covered and discovered, adorned and pierced, wrapped and disguised. The body can be an expression of resistance against particular norms and bodily limitations. To undergo an act of physical transformation can be joyful and pleasurable, especially when combined with an erotic quality. Parody and mockery may, in fact, represent bodily matters that allow a playful approach to identity. It is the fascination with the female body as a container of these ambivalences that the artist aims to explore. Some of Huber's beauty cuts pierce through the female body like an x-ray or knife, laying bare the organs underneath. These -- uncanny -- representations also evoke the medical discourse of vivisection, traditionally performed by male doctors and scientists on dead female bodies. Huber is interested in these different encodings of the female body in a variety of contexts and the creative possibilities of their transformation.
"Beauty Cuts" consists of a variety of multi-media works: "Jacke wie Hose," a multimaterial installation; " ... She suddenly said," a sequence of ten plates; "Cut to fit," a pret-a-porter garment designed by the artist; and "Liquid body" and "Wet Face," a series of overpainted cardboard plates. "Jacke wie Hose" represents an installation with strongly autobiographical dimensions. The title refers to the idiomatic German expression meaning "anything goes" (literally meaning "jacket as well as pants"). Three monumentally enlarged paper dolls -- made from the artists' original toys she used to play with -- frame a coat hanger with paper clothes designed and painted by the artist. The clothes are made to measure the dolls. With this installation, Huber underlines not only the playful aspect associated with dressing and make-up, but also the power of gendered socialization. After all, these paper dolls were fashionable among young girls growing up in the 1960s and 1970s like the artist herself. More than just cultural artifacts from the past, the paper dolls return -- enlarged and recoded -- as the central protagonists of an artistic installation. The dolls as well as the exchangeable clothes made to adorn them are part of a monumental dressing game. They become objects of the dresser's personal fantasies. Collected personal items -- even items the artist wore on her own body -- are piled up on top of a bench framing an oven made of cardboard as well as on top of a cardboard trunk. Both oven and trunk are modeled from original objects taken from the house the artist grew up in. They are the markers for a feeling of home (in German: "Heimat") recreated through paper and cardboard memories. Representing these objects with an ironic distance, the artists obviously takes creative pleasure in their kitsch dimension. Used clothes are gathered in front of an assemblage composed of barbie doll clothes on the wall. They are pinned on top of a circular plane reminiscent of the decorative wallpaper papers fashionable during the 1970s or even alluding to the shape of a mirror. The assemblage -- ressembling the perfectly round shape of a tondo, an extremely aestheticized framing device -- is composed of toy clothes dating back to the artists' childhood. In contrast to the hyperbolic dimension of the paper dolls -- a monumentalization, even caricature of the human form, flattened and standardized to fit a whole range of readymade paper clothes -- the equally uniform barbie items appear even smaller, as they mimick the respective fashion of the times in miniature format. They are minimalist indexes of the extreme commodification of style, even reaching into the realm of children's toys playing with adult dolls that are basically abstract fictions of the female body. In this installation, the artist critically interrogates the gendered and commodified aspect of fashionable toys as well as toy fashion: artificial female bodies meant to be adorned become, as the paperdolls indicate, the decoration of a room. The bodies -- in their overdimensional proportation reminiscent of the famous mushroom scene from Alice in Wonderland -- become containers of the artists' childhood memories. They evoke the experience of dressing up and performing as creative acts that, however, explode conventional notions of style and clothing. According to the artist, the theatrical allusion is intentional, creating an "atmosphere enriched with private metaphors which defy rational explanation and specific classification. I came to object, installation and illugraphy via painting. My objects achieve their concentrated effect through the painterly approach".
"She suddenly said ..." betrays the artists' dedication to this painterly approach, an approach which above all explores the material quality of paint and pencil and how these take possession of and pierce through the surface of canvas and paper. As in "Jacke wie Hose," the framing device of these paintings is the cut-out shape of a female body which is the defining framework of this book, of course. Regarding the choice of material and subject matter, "She suddenly said ..." represents a cross-over work between fashion and painting. The translucent paper the artist chose is, in fact, tracing paper as used by taylors and fashion designers. In this work, however, bodies are traced from two kinds of sources images. They are appropriated from popular fashion magazines and autobiographical photographs from the artists' personal collection both represented as copied surfaces that appear as cut-out shapes on the tracing paper. These borrowed and re-cycled shapes and human silhouettes are painted over. In fact, the artists' brush mimicks the styling tools of beauticians coloring bodies and faces with make-up to achieve a particular aesthetic effect: the enhancement of beauty. The silhouettes made from "perfect" bodies -- models -- and ordinary photographs of innocent faces, are juxtaposed with representations of the uncanny -- skull shapes, animals, monsters etc. -- which cut through the original context from which these bodies were borrowed. Recontextualizing these bodies within a different, unfamiliar setting, a surreal effect is achieved. Moreoever, these borrowed bodies are paired up with consumer items -- food, touristic sites, and hunting trophies -- accentuating the power of commodification and the desires it produces.
"Liquid Body" and "Wet Face," two series of paintings on cardboard, come closest in technique and style to the artists' large-scale non-representational works on canvas. In these two particular series of works, the artist applies layers of paint in such a way that the human bodies she traces on the cardboard receive an almost immaterial -- a liquid -- quality. "Liquid" bodies and "wet" faces, male and female, appear as fragmentations on the cardboard. The bodily shapes are again borrowed from fashion magazines and photographs the artist either traces or paints over in order to defamiliarize their original representation. The beauty that the fashion photographers who originally took the images desired to capture is invested with an uncanny resemblence to the morbid: flesh and pastell colors starkly contrast with the black and seemingly liquid trace of human bodies and faces. The poses these immaterialized bodies strike are recognizable. But it is the artist cutting out their outline with her brush who invests these bodies with her own unique style. The bodies we see in these series are kept in a state of creative tension between the material and the immaterial, between statis and flux. "Body and Fashion are always about change," as Huber argues, "they constantly seem and should be in a state of flux, yet at the same time they are submitted to the contingency of beauty." Roswitha Huber's artists book takes its inspiration from this creative tension of which the female body has been a controversial site in Western art and culture. This creative tension links the private and the public as two realms through which beauty cuts.