V E R S U C H Ü B E R
D I E S C H Ö N H E I T
(On Beauty: An Attempt)
January 20 - February 25, 2023
We are pleased to draw your attention to the exhibition Versuch über die Schönheit (On Beauty: An Attempt) in our Vienna gallery. On display are works by Anthony Goicolea, Erez Israeli, Matt Lambert, Maria Loboda, Robert Mapplethorpe, Navot Miller, Peter Miller, Marcel Odenbach, Rosemarie Trockel, and Marianne Vlaschits that deal with the aesthetic and social implications of “beauty.”
As long as art has existed, there has been an inherent striving for beauty within it. But there has been resistance to it, rebellions against it, and struggles and breaks with it for just as long. The one conditions the other. Like every ideal, the ideal of beauty also proves itself in contradiction. Aversion grows out of devotion: unconditional acceptance is followed by categorical rejection, and vice versa. It is precisely this eternal tension between the affirmation and the negation of beauty that the works in Versuch über die Schönheit address.
Even though the techniques and approaches of the exhibited works are highly diverse, they have one thing in common: they pose the question of the normative, the validity, and the value of beauty. They deal with the whole range of concepts and symbols of beauty; they explore the notions associated with them; and they illuminate their social relevance.
Whether flower or design classic, flawless body or fashion accessory, the most diverse set pieces of our iconography and grammar of beauty are processed, contextualized, exaggerated or alienated. In the process, glaring representation and (self-)staging meet introspection. Outside and inside, image and illusion become blurred. The profundity of the conventional promise of “beauty” is revealed in the form of surreal, pleasurable, aesthetic appropriation and distortion. Designs and counter-designs to existing, long-prevailing standards and normative concepts are created.
Thus, each individual work shows us in its own unique way: no matter what beauty is or wants to be, it does not take place in a vacuum. It is not harmless, trivial or powerless. It is, as the art and architecture publicist Martin Seidel recently noted in his article “Plädoyer für ein eigensinniges Phänomen” (Plea for a Stubborn Phenomenon), “not a superfluous luxury good, but an existential need and a fundamental artistic and anthropological necessity.”
The power of beauty as well as its ambiguity is expressed, for example, in the work of the American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe: a bouquet of lilies—since time immemorial a symbol of beauty and the epitome of a useless plant that serves only to edify—hides a sparkling knife blade. Mapplethorpe, who led a life marked by drugs and sexual permissiveness, and who died of AIDS in 1989 at the young age 42, regularly caused controversy with his photographs. His still life of lilies that starkly contrasts the naked steel of the blade with the open white blossom is therefore chillingly beautiful.
This fascination is also taken up by the Berlin-based American photographer and filmmaker Matt Lambert. His sprawling depictions of queer underground and pop culture celebrate diversity and sexuality in intimate and excessively passionate images. Coming from the porn scene, Lambert works away at concepts and representations of physical beauty. On the one hand, he plays with classic heteronormative stagings; on the other hand, he undermines them, crawls into them, puts them on himself, and finally blows them up. The often-naked bodies in Lambert’s works are female, male, queer, young, old, fat or thin. They sometimes bask in their own bodily juices and celebrate themselves with vibrant joie de vivre.
Navot Miller’s paintings are no less energetic, but the colors, which at first seem shrill and loud, here clothe quiet motifs. The figures and their surroundings are hinted at, while clear lines arrange themselves with poppy flatness. Naked and contoured male bodies brim with neon-colored vibrancy.
Less loud, but all the more haunting, are the works of Cuban-American artist Anthony Goicolea. In 2018, he created New York’s LGBTQ Memorial in Hudson River Park: an interactive bronze and glass installation commemorating the struggle for equality in the queer community and honoring the victims of hate and intolerance. In his portraits shown in Versuch über die Schönheit, Goicolea depicts humorous as well as frightening scenarios, often playing out events of childhood and adolescence, but at the same time taking aim at the narcissism and self-reflection of “beautiful youth.”
Maria Loboda, in turn, explores the beauty of design and the disappointment of interpersonal relationships in her installation Ignore the Returned Love Letters on Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Armchair. In Loboda’s works, cultural codes, pictorial signs, and the grammar of different materials play an important role. As a kind of contemporary archaeology, the multimedia works seem subversive and critical of power structures. The fields of poetry and history inform them, and they lead to a formal equation of language and materiality, whose interactions Loboda investigates in order to question what they express beyond their usual readings.
Peter Miller takes up beauty and transience in a strictly formal sense with his work Kronleuchter (Chandelier), for which he uses techniques of the photogram: he encases an antique but completely intact chandelier in the darkroom with photographic paper and briefly turns it on. The light is refracted through the crystals, exposing the photographic paper and leaving a play of variegated spectral colors. The chandelier portrays itself, so to speak. Its beauty is alienated and creates new beauty of its own.
Marianne Vlaschits, on the other hand, creates sci-fi worlds in which fauna and flora are sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. Body worlds literally open up before our eyes; their orifices and outgrowths interact, (extra)terrestrial life sprouts, flows, and thrives. Vlaschits spreads out a fantastic scenery in which forms of essence and being celebrate a lustful coexistence. Equally alien and familiar, a dreamlike, enraptured, temporally and spatially elusive threshold pulsates here in all its vividness. This fluidity of concepts and materials, of the complex stories of the will that resonate here, open up a perspective on the imaginable unimaginable, the allure and beauty of the supernatural.
Rosemarie Trockel’s work reminds us of the fact that beauty is subject to constant change, and that these changes can sometimes bring painful individual, but also general, distortions. What was considered an aesthetic yardstick and consensus yesterday may be perceived as nothing more than pure kitsch tomorrow. What has long been perceived as repulsive and ugly may become the new standard of beauty. Trockel’s ironic portrait of a gallery owner with a supposedly cut-off ear immediately makes us think of Vincent van Gogh, who stands for exactly that: the birth of a new beauty that no one wants to admit and that meets with bitter rejection before it eventually asserts itself. The artist, however, has long since succumbed to madness.
Finally, Marcel Odenbach’s video Zu schön, um wahr zu sein (Too Beautiful to Be True) directly addresses the function and role that the turn to beauty can have in times of political cruelty and repression. His video was made in Caracas, Venezuela, at the beginning of the suppression of the popular uprising. He filmed contestants in a beauty pageant and had them kiss the camera lens. At the moment of the kiss, the image transfigures and clouds over. The footage is intercut with scenes of police and military violence used to combat the burgeoning unrest. Beauty as soft focus, as a filter and distraction with which the brutality is faded out, that too is part of the DNA of beauty.
Works on View →