What Price Beauty? One Artist’s Take

November 6, 2009

Every woman makes a decision, even by not making one, on what lengths she’ll go to uphold her youth and beauty, whether for herself or someone else. In Rachel Havnonian’s current “Power and Burden of Beauty” at the Jason McCoy Gallery, her installation includes drawings, sculptures and film stills that challenge viewers to consider and reconsider the price of beauty.

Her work covers topics we have heard much about since the feminist and post-feminist art of the 80s and 90s. She explores the subject from the point of view of the way in which females are raised in the US by interrogating the world surrounding beauty queens and pageantry.

Using solid white marble as her medium, she constructs quiet, subdued worlds which invite the viewer to stare in silent reverie. Invoking Greco-Roman-like silhouettes of grand, larger-than-life-sized women, Havnonian dares visitors to experience her bleached-out world which feels at once ancient and futuristic — as if all our great classical past has been super sanitized in some dark future.

Rachel Hovnanian, travel photo of Himba female from trip to Namibia in 2008

Kimberly Brooks: Aside from being a woman who is confronted with these issues daily, what inspired you to make it your theme?
Rachel Hovnanian: On a sketching trip to Africa, February 2008, I encountered Himba tribal women in their home setting in Namibia. Visiting with them and observing these strong, beautiful women, I was able to see some elements of our own society stripped of pretense and standing starkly in high relief. It became a sacrament for me, celebrating their strength and toughness, as I observed them living in the desert. Their roles in their society, their dignity and their bearing started me on the journey to strip away my preconceptions; and more personally, how powerful was their beauty and their clarity. I was moved profoundly seeing them and being welcomed by them. I created a short film so that I could capture, remember and show to others. As women, possessions, gender roles, stereotypes drive us to actions and limitations that are artificial rather than real.

Rachel Hovnanian, The Power and Burden of Beauty, Installation

KB: What does the child’s bassinet and wallpaper of beauty icons signify in this context?
RH: I thought it necessary to relate how early in a woman’s life the strictures and celebration of beauty were inculcated. In an artful way, I simply wanted to present the reality. From our earliest days we are plunged into the roles and perceptions: from the traditional pink accoutrements, to the ways in which we are exposed to the outside world. As children, we learn ‘the rules’ very quickly and how punishing are deviations. Women are forced to rebel and question in order to become their own person. The ornate bassinet sits as a small votive before the wall of images, a sacrificial position.

KB: Describe your process of working, any routines you may have that might be unique, curious.
RH: Most of my work is in my studio downtown, off the West Side Highway. I work from early morning to early afternoon. It’s my pattern. When working on the 11 foot sculpture of the Beauty Queen, I worked in a large studio beside local craftsmen and other artists in a family-owned sculpture studio in Massa Carra. It has been in the hands of the Corsannini family for many years. There, I must follow the schedule of the family. The lights are turned off in the cavernous work area at midday. We wash our hands in preparation for the meal. Our faces are white with the marble dust. Massimo, Alessandro, Leo and I break crusty bread fresh from the local bakery. We eat the rich local cured meats flavored with fennel; and peppery olive oil made from Leo’s father in law’s orchard. The smell of fresh cheese fills the room and we slake our thirst with the rough local wine. There are no labels on the wine because it comes directly from the vineyard’s cask.

Rachel Hovnanian, Who’s to Judge?, Video Still, 2009

KB: Is there a work of art that inspires you?
RH: The celebration of photo-shopped images, cruel distortions of reality has affected me deeply. Photos of Miss America and Miss Universe are a fascination for me; and gave much impetus to the work. My Beauty Queen totem, perfectly postured, is meant to invoke ice and snow. She is judged every year and is open to harsh criticism and idolatry. She is mute, standing 11 feet tall on an altar with an almost unconscious quality. She wears an evening gown and holds a bouquet, staring unseeingly off in the distance. She lives for the ages as do the celebrity figures at Madame Tussaud’s–permanent and ephemeral; solid and fleeting.

Artist Rachel Hovnanian

Rachel is a classically trained artist who received her BFA at the Univ of Texas in Austin. Hovnanian grew up in Texas where beauty pageants were celebrated, meanwhile, her parents rejected this way of thinking as they were anti Vietnam war activists–her latest body of work reflects these conflicting values, “The Power & Burden of Beauty.” You can visit her website at www.rachelhovnanian.com.

Fear and Faith: The Art of Rebecca Campbell

October 29, 2009

Rebecca Campbell, Said the Lady to the Man, 2007, oil on canvas, 100″ x 84″, image courtesy of LA Louver Gallery

There is a passage in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables that makes me think of Rebecca Campbell’s installations and paintings — both are at once familiar and menacing. Hugo speaks of the ways in which physical places from our pasts become holders and place cards for psychological memories and experiences. “But when we are distant from them we find that those things have become dear to us, a street, trees and roofs, blank walls, doors and windows; we have entered those houses without knowing it, we have left something of our heart in the very stonework. Those places we no longer see, perhaps will never see again but still remember, have acquired an aching charm; they return to us with the melancholy of ghosts…”

Rebecca Campbell, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, 2009, avocado tree, steel, velvet, and fiberglass, Windex, glass, and bronze, 13′ x 16 ‘ x 18’, image courtesy of LA Louver Gallery

In Rebecca Campbell’s works, there is something of Hugo’s concept of “aching charm” that does indeed return to us with “the melancholy of ghosts.” In her recent Los Angeles show “Poltergeist,” Campbell recreated her parents’ front entry way with eerie precision. Walking in through this recreated threshold, visitors were faced with a blackened tree with aqua blue birds scattered throughout. Campbell walks the line of stark contrasts — suggested death and life, darks and lights, fears and faith. Her latest show opens this Thursday, October 29 at the Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe gallery in New York and runs through December 5th.

For Fragonard and My Mother 2009, Oil on Canvas 36 x 27 inches, 91.4 x 68.6 cm
Image Courtesy of Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe

Kimberly Brooks: Your paintings seem to recreate idealized version of memories. How do you come up with your subject matter?
LEFT: Rebecca Campbell, I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff, 2009, 13′ x 8′ x 14″, oil on board and mixed media, image courtesy of LA Louver Gallery

RIGHT: Rebecca Campbell, Parents Entry – Photo of the inspiration location for the installation I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff

Rebecca Campbell: Because I’m interested in exploring aspects of childhood, memory, nostalgia and time I often use the house I grew up in and things in and around that house as inspiration. For my last exhibition “Poltergeist” people entered the show through my parent’s actual front doors. The doors were surrounded by my interpretation of the rest of their entry way. The doors were framed by 300 red “bricks” made of individual pallet knife oil paintings on panel. Other revisited objects include the kitchen table, bedroom wallpaper, shag carpet, the forest, our piano, an avocado green wall oven and the stairwell. My personal nostalgia gets charged with broader reflections on pop culture, art history, myth and religion.

KB: Tell us about what inspired you to make certain pieces in your recent shows.

RC: Right now I’m curious about the fact that when a person is having a really strong experience of nostalgia, time seems to collapse and the past, the present and everything in between become one. For example a nostalgic moment for me might be triggered by a memory of walking through the forest when I was five but that memory then triggers a hundred others from dancing to Boys Don’t Cry while drinking black label beer in the park when I was a teenager to cutting lavender for the dinner table yesterday afternoon. Time becomes a circle and it’s both sad and sweet at the same time.

Rebecca Campbell. Pale Rider, 2009 Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 25.5 inches, 91.4 x 64.8 cm

A good example of how I incorporate this into my work is Daddy Daughter Date. The original idea for the painting is based on my relationship with my father as a teenager. Going on a “Daddy Daughter Date” was a tradition in our church. When you were 14 you got dressed up and went to a special dinner with your dad where you learned how to be a lady, waiting for doors to be opened, using silverware properly, and provoking thoughtful conversation. The reality of my 14 year old self was very different. I was sneaking out to underground clubs and flirting with every dangerous thing I could find. The kicker is that now I am a parent. So I restaged this drama between a father and a daughter in my current house and let the painting evolve from its inspiration point into an amalgam of experiences and time periods.

Rebecca Campbell, Daddy Daughter Date, 2008, oil on canvas, 90″ x 67″, image courtesy of LA Louver Gallery

KB: Do you have any routines or process that might be unique, curious?
I’m interested in the combining realism and abstraction to create an experience that interests both the brain and the body. My art always has an aspect of story telling in it that appeals to the part of us that responds to language and symbols but it also always has an abstract aspect created by using huge brush marks or strange materials that affect people in a visceral way. I’m as happy to be using a turkey baster and a broom as I am to be using a three haired liner brush.

Artist Rebecca Campbell, photography by Erik Torregroza

KB: Is there a work of art that inspires you?
RC: The centerpiece of “Poltergeist” was a 13 foot tall tree that has been encased first in Fiberglas and second in a finely tailored couture dress of black velvet. A flock of 30 hand blown glass bluebirds perch on bronze feet across the crown. The birds get their brilliant blue color from the Windex they’ve been filled with. The whole composition rises from a 7 foot wide dish filled with salt from the Great Salt Lake that shines like snow. The inspiration for this piece came while I was driving to Utah to visit family and passed a large stand of burned trees in deep snow drifts outside Cove Fort. The cadaverous white field against the dense charcoal silhouettes reminded me of Sargent’s Madame X, at once ravishing and ruined.

John Singer Sargent, Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madame X), 1884, oil on canvas, 82″ x 43″, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

KB: What else about painting moves you. What is it all about for you?
RC: It’s about tracking ghosts. It’s about selling diamonds to poets. It’s about that slippery little idea of a connection that is deeper than butter and as long as water. It’s about the blasphemy of nihilism against the righteousness of being wrong and faithful.

I can put it in terms of Barthes. The slice between holds the power. Truth, Love, and Forever are all impossible right? But if you hem them together they become mythic. Something tied neither to the definition of its parts of the sum of its syllables. It becomes true the way that although narcissus is made of paper, his addiction to himself reveals itself every morning in a billion medicine cabinets.

If you invite love into reality it will undoubtedly show up and immediately be misunderstood and infected with the malignancy of being human. It will be abstracted and misapplied. That does not make it untrue. That makes it tragic and worthwhile above all else.

About the Artist
Rebecca Campbell (b. 1970) was born and raised in Salt Lake City, the youngest of seven children in a strict Mormon family. By age twelve, Campbell had begun to develop a critical eye, questioning the parameters of the church and the role it ascribed to her gender. This led to her departure from the church. Campbell did not bow to pressure to conform to the societal norms, but instead spent her teenage years developing her passion to make her art, which included sculpture and installation, as well as painting and drawing. Campbell left Utah to study at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon, receiving her B.F.A. in 1994. While continuing to make art, she worked as an independent exhibition curator in Salt Lake City 1994 through 1998. In 1998, Campbell received a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and in 1999, moved to Los Angeles where she earned her MFA from UCLA in 2001. Campbell’s paintings have been exhibited in Los Angeles, New York and Basel, Switzerland and featured in publications including Art News, the Los Angeles Times, Art Papers, X-TRA, Art Ltd., and Artworks Magazine. Campbell is represented by LA Louver Gallery in Venice, CA and Ameringer-Yohe Fine Art in NYC, NY. Recent exhibitions include Superficiality and Superexcrescence: Surface and Identity in Recent California Art at the Ben Maltz Gallery in Los Angeles, CA in June of 2009 and a solo exhibition opening in October 2009 at Ameringer-Yohe Fine Art. You can visit Campbell’s website at www.rebeccacampbell.net .

Marilyn Minter Splashes Los Angeles

October 20, 2009

Marilyn Minter, Installation shot of Green Pink Caviar, 2009, Times Square, New York

Luscious. Naughty. Saturated. Decadent.
Such is the moment we are immersed in when we stand in front of the art of Marilyn Minter. Los Angelenos can be in that moment when her show opens at the Regen Projects Gallery this Saturday night. Just like the oozing green je ne sais quoi that spills out of a mouth and gets tongued against a pane of glass in “Green Pink Caviar,” this art show also leaks out of the gallery onto Sunset Blvd., just like it did in New York’s Time Square, and as the video backdrop for Madonna’s latest tour.Marilyn’s images capture singular micro gestures in great detail — a tongue swirling teasingly on pink and green colored caviar, Pamela Anderson soaked and rapturous. Detail often defines the entire character and story itself. And that story is usually a party and that party is well underway when the viewer arrives, suddenly undressed and feeling kinky. But don’t be satisfied with just seeing the billboards. The paintings are awesomely large, glittering enamel extravaganzas. They envelope and probe the viewer just as the tongue probes that caviar. It’s shocking to be naked at a party, isn’t it? Welcome to the Marilyn Minter Show — which runs from Oct 24th to Dec 5th at Regen Projects in Los Angeles.

Chewing Pink 2008, c print. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Marilyn Minter.

Kimberly Brooks: How do you come up with the images that comprise your work?
Marilyn Minter: I don’t think I can illustrate it, as it’s a conflation of a lot of events, it’s what I had for breakfast that morning! My creative process is just getting into the zone and letting the moment of discovery happen. I take pictures that I don’t even remember taking until I get the film back — I’m in the zone when I take those kinds of pictures.

KB: Your images and video capture deliciously — even psychedelically — parts of people in their most uninhibited state. What inspired you to use the tongue and lips against glass which has become so iconic in your work.
MM: I wanted to make enamel paintings along the idea of ‘painting with my tongue’. So I organized a shoot to get the reference material for the painting “Pop Rocks”. I was shooting stills of models with long tongues swirling and sucking bakery products from under a pane of glass. My makeup artist shot some short videos during the shoot just to see how it would look. The low definition videos looked so good that we made plans to do a professional high definition video. This made sense to me as I have made both billboards and produced a commercial advertising a painting show in 1989. You can see a trailer of the video “Green Pink Caviar” at www.greenpinkcaviar.com.

Marilyn Minter, Strut, 2005, Enamel on metal, Image courtesy of Salon 94, New York & RIGHT: Detail of Strut

KB: How do you make those magnificent paintings? Why enamel?
MM: I invented this way of painting a long time ago, I use layers and layers of translucent enamel paint on metal to produce a luminous, almost hallucinatory finish. I soften all the hard edges with my finger tips. This is why my paintings look so different than oil and acrylic paintings, they’re actually layers of enamel paint. In the detail of “Strut” above, you can see the fingerprints on the surface of the painting.

KB: What is one of your favorite works of art?
MM: I saw Charles Ray’s Ink Line back in the late eighties in an art magazine, then later in his catalogue and I was lucky enough to finally get to see it in person this year at Matthew Marks Gallery. It’s the best piece of art I’ve seen all year — it’s one of the best pieces of art ever made, and it made me glad to be an artist.

Charles Ray, Ink Line, Moving Wire, Spinning Spot, Installation View, 2009. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Minter has been the subject of numerous museum and gallery exhibitions worldwide. She was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and featured on a series of billboards throughout New York City in conjunction with the exhibition. Her work is the subject of current solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio and The Cannery in Murcia, Spain. Minter is represented by Salon 94 in New York,Gavlak Gallery in Palm Beach, Andrehn-Schiptjenko Gallery in Spain and Regen Projects in Los Angeles. Green Pink Caviar will be gracing the digital billboards on Sunset Boulevard in LA, a public art project happening concurrently with Marilyn’s first exhibition at Regen Projects, opening October 24th and running through December 5th.

Artist Marilyn Minter. Photo by Johan Olander

First Person Artist is a weekly column by artist Kimberly Brooks in which she provides commentary on the creative processtechnology and showcases artists‘ work from around the world.

First Person Artist/ Huffington Post Luncheon

September 4, 2009

The Huffington Post and Kimberly Brooks will be hosting a lunch for Featured Artists Oct 15 in New York City. Invitation forthcoming.

What Climate Change Might Look Like: Chris Larson’s Deep North

April 30, 2009

Every now and then an artist so vividly articulates a quiet fear that it takes my breath away. Fresh from the celebration of Earth Day, a year long celebration, I wanted to share with you “Deep North” by artist Chris Larson.

Chris Larson, Deep North, 2008, C-Print mounted on aludibond, 35 x 35 inches, Edition of 5 + 2 AP’s, Courtesy of magnus muller, Berlin

As an artist, I do not profess any deep knowledge about the science of climate change, but I do have specific images that come to mind when I think about it. There is a moment in “The Inconvenient Truth”, for example, when Al Gore explains how the Gulf Stream– the conveyor belt of ocean currents that guides warm water around what would otherwise be a much colder climate, might break and could theoretically plunge Europe into a rather a rather sudden ice age.

Chris Larson, Deep North, 2008, C-Print, 35 x 35 inches, Edition of 5 + 2 AP’s,
Courtesy of magnus muller, Berlin

I too was flummoxed by the idea that “Global Warming” could really cause extreme cold. Isn’t the concept of rising sea levels from melting ice sheets and glaciers, destroying island nations and flooding millions of coastal residents by the end of the century enough and quite the opposite? But sudden severe changes in temperature in both directions is the potential result of the monster we’ve created through years of carbon emissions and environmental neglect.

Victim of Pompeii, A Time-Lapse Metaphor for Man’s reaction to Global Warming

Whatever the effect, I anticipate being wholly caught off guard by the kind of earth that awaits us in the future, like a victim of Pompeii. Through his stills and films, Larson taps into the fears of man’s impact on the earth while also creating a strange and haunting beauty found in this isolation.

Chris Larson, Deep North, 2008, C-Print mounted on aludibond, 35 x 35 inches, Edition of 5 + 2 AP’s, Courtesy of magnus muller, Berlin

I asked Chris what inspired this vision and he told me that while vacationing in Versiox Switzerland, an intense ice storm moved in the night before covering everything. He said it was “gorgeous and apocalyptic.” This inspired him to recreate the moment in his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. In the fall of 2008, he built a house, and then in February, the coldest month of the year in Minnesota, he sprayed hundreds of gallons of water on the house to recreate what he witnessed in Versiox. He then shot a short film inside of the house called “Deep North”.

Chris Larson, Deep North, 2008, C-Print mounted on aludibond, 35 x 35 inches, Edition of 5 + 2 AP’s, Courtesy of magnus muller, Berlin

Larson’s prints in Deep North capture human naiveté and the wrath of mother nature all at once. It provides a space as quiet as a pin drop– the kind of quiet that only happens in winter– where we can hear ourselves think. And unlike the other messy apocolyptic visions of say, a nuclear winter or a war torn city, the destruction evokes a much larger force than man at work.



About the Artist
Chris Larson was born in 1966 in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he still lives and works as an artist and Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota. In 1990, he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Bethel College, St. Paul, MN, and in 1992, a Master of Fine Arts at the Yale University School of Art, New Haven, CT. His latest work “Deep North” was presented at the magnus muller Gallery in Berlin and at the Rochester Art Center in the winter 2008/09. His next solo show will be at the Burnet Art Gallery at Chambers at the Luxury Art Hotel in Minneapolis, MN. Chris Larson is represented by magnus muller, Berlin (www.magnusmuller.com).

The Art of the Headshot

April 15, 2009

As I navigate the web, both as an artist and a new media person, I think about the images we use to present ourselves. Other than movie stars and professional personalities such as Oprah and Martha, real estate agents were actually the first profession to use headshots as one of the means of conveying who they are and what they would be like to work with. In the marketing and advertising world they call it “branding”. But since that always makes me think of seared flesh on a cow’s ass I tend I stay away from that expression. Whatever you call it, we’re all doing it now.

Take my friend Sharona, for example. Occasionally I receive postcards or web announcements with her face smiling at me. She’s smart, confident and looks it. When I see her picture, I also instantly hear her signature sexy voice. I think to myself, “Man, if anyone is going find me a great house it’s going to be her.” As realtors go, she’s pretty low-key. (She also has the curious distinction of being the namesake of the Knack’s famous song “My Sharona” so she doesn’t have to sell as hard.) But most real estate agents take it much further, putting their faces on everything from billboards, bus stops and print ads. I often wonder when the trend started. It must have been in the seventies, and some blond babe, probably here in Los Angeles, an out-of-work actor, perhaps, thought “I bet if I put a picture of myself on every business card and bus stop, billboard and sign outside the house, people would rather buy a house from me.”


Special attention must be given to “Bijan”. There’s a corner on Sepulveda and Wilshire Blvds. in Los Angeles where he’s always there spread across two billboards of this major intersection. His face and image are in every picture, always laughing and getting out of a yellow Ferrari or private airplane with his name slathered on it. It’s fabulously ostentatious and not to be missed.

So what is the significance of that single image that you project and how everyone perceives you? When I was college intern working in an international design firm (pre-web), I saw a lot of resumes coming in from around the world. Unlike the American applicants who just submitted resumes, the designers from Europe affixed a passport photo size headshot on the corner. It stunned me how much the picture overrode any impression you could have of how they had spent their entire professional career. The impact on the mostly men who did the hiring was equally poignant. A pretty girl? Who cares where she went to school? Now we all confront it all the time, whether we read the blogs here on Huffpo or whether surveying friends of friends on Facebook.

Whether an activist, writer, blogger, student or artist, everyone is now a real estate agent. Once we admit or embrace this idea, let us examine a couple rules, shall we?

Activists Probably Shouldn’t be Smiling and Baring Teeth.
If your goal in life is to be helpful, like, say, for a real estate agent, smile away. But I’ve always found something a bit aggressive about baring teeth and looking straight into the camera. It must stem from primitive days one animal signaled another not encroach on his meal. Once, an environmental activist friend of mine used a smiling headshot but all words she was writing were “Hey, the Earth is On Fire and We Gotta Do Something About it!” It was a disconnect and when I pointed it out she changed it.

2009-04-13-MaureenDowd.jpgSerious Writers Ought To Go Easy on the Smiling too.
For years when I read the New York Times, I never knew what Maureen Dowd looked like. Suddenly, on the web her picture appeared. At first she looked like how I expected her to look. For a while however, the photographer made her smile and when I read her column on the web it annoyed me. Now her picture looks like wry and witty like her writing again. I can’t imagine reading Virginia Wolfe’s To The Lighthouse and have her smiling at me either.


2009-04-13-picasso.jpgThe Artist’s Image
When I think of Picasso, I think of this black and white photo below. It captures the intensity of his gaze and something even deeper.






The artist’s image is intrinsically linked to portraiture. Before photography, the image of the artist was usually a self-portrait and hence in a state of scrutinization ~ a portrait of the artist staring at their reflection in order to depict his own image. Like this one of Albrecht Durer. My initial self portraits are equally intense.

Albrecht Durer, Kimberly Brooks (Self Portraits)

So then, what kind of image should an artist put out there? Let’s take out the teeth entirely. Artists shouldn’t be smiling, they should be suffering, no? I was recently selected in a juried exhibition in print called New American Paintings which required each artist to submit a picture. When the book came out, most of them were brooding and or looking away. Choosing a picture isn’t easy. I blame modern photography on the frustration– its shutter speed can capture an infinite array of nano emotions but then somehow miss a larger essence.

The Scientist’s Image
My favorite scientist’s image is this one of Einstein, hair messy, sticking his tongue out. He looks perfectly wacky enough to think of something as out of the box and crazy the Theory of Relativity. My brother-in-law Ken Goldberg is an artist and Robotics Professor at UC Berkeley. His Facebook portrait (below, right) is waiting-for-the-explosion wacky. Now he’s blogging for the San Francisco Chronicle and uses the picture on the left.

Ken Goldberg, Scientist, Artist, SFGate BloggerFor some reason, bloggers like to show a happy version of themselves. Even I did it on this post. But is that the real me? I dunno, sometimes maybe. It will never be the right picture. As I tunnel through this thought experiment, I’m still figuring out the other professions. I’d love to know what you think.

Michelle Obama, Master Colorist and Me

April 8, 2009

There is a riot of color issuing forth from the First Lady’s closet and I cannot wait to see what she wears next. Say what you will about whether or not it was “appropriate” to wear a cardigan to meet the Queen or whether that balloon skirt was flattering, Michelle Obama is a Master Colorist — and I as well as my artist friends could not be more ecstatic.

A Collage of Michelle Recent Outfits

A woman’s journey through fashion is a life cycle in and of itself. As I look at the bold strokes of Michelle’s color sense today I reflect upon Michelle’s journey in fashion and color as one that might parallel my own and other women like her.

Behold Matisse

As a young girl, I thought of fashion and color as a means to make myself more attractive to the opposite sex. My grandmother once told me, “Red and yellow, catch a fellow; pink and blue, keep him true.” My entire sense of fashion was about sexualization and objectification. I essentially wanted to make myself look pretty for the boys I had crushes on. At camp I would look at Seventeen, Vogue, Cosmo and Bazaar. But when I went to college, I got serious about my studies and great literature and momentarily shunned fashion or looked down upon caring too much about it. This was not just because I didn’t have any money to pay for it. It was also due to the culture inside the Ivory Tower — and I believe many other Ivy League-type schools — which mostly eschews fashion in exchange for the idea that the main purpose of our bodies is to provide a container for our brains. So while I may have I swooned over the finery described in words during a Proustian night at the Opera, fashion stayed in my head whereas Levi’s, a comfortable Gap t-shirt and a cool leather jacket was my uniform.

Obama, Matisse and J. Crew

It is often after women leave the university and enter the workforce that a different sense of fashion emerges and we pick up the magazines again, first for ideas and then reading them with new eyes. I started to become more cognizant of fashion as a language. Navigating the workforce was confining for me at first and my leftover sexy sense of fashion led to unwanted passes. Even though my first job was in the design industry, it was a very macho, male-dominated environment, not unlike Mad Men. There was a need to balance looking creative, smart and tough if you were to be taken seriously. I opted for a reinvention/upgrade of my student self and learned that black boots or heels and a crisp white shirt is better for negotiating a room full of men. I lived in San Francisco. It was often grey and cloudy. And with the exception of an occasional red sweater, most of my wardrobe was black. It was very easy to go shopping. While I only touched color with cool scarves, I had unwittingly become a student of the silhouette. Languages, after all, must be learned one word and one phrase at a time.

Obama, Cezanne, Narcisso Rodriguez

And this is where a lot of us working girls sleep walk well into our late twenties. We’re finally earning money and can afford a fabulous shoe. For me, I had moved to Los Angeles and the working girl uniform from San Francisco was no longer cutting it. (The different fashion styles of San Francisco and Los Angeles is a subject in and of itself.) I suddenly no longer saw fashion as a weapon of either sexuality or power in the work place, but rather as a universe of fabric, texture, color just as vibrant as the ones on my palette in the studio. I often dived into one color at a time, learning what works, what makes sense together and what looks best on me. After gaining a certain confidence, women learn to really celebrate themselves and life itself through what they choose to wear. That is what Michelle Obama is doing with color and so much more.

Obama, Matisse

In reality, a woman’s journey in color and fashion is a sign of a healthy society. All the most oppressive regimes towards women cover them in black. I don’t care what the faux religious excuses of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan are. The silence of color in an entire culture is emblematic of the suppression of women’s spirit and influence on it’s culture. Michelle Obama’s use of color and fashion is empowering and enlightening to the women in this country. It is the fashion equivalent of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and awakens in all of us the beauty of life and every day. As an artist, I am doubly appreciative of splashes of chartreuse and yellow, purple and green as fly across my television and computer screen. As an American Woman, I am filled with pride and hope it spreads like a California Wildfire.

***First Person Artist is a weekly column by artist Kimberly Brooks in which she provides commentary on the creative process, technology and showcases artistswork from around the world. Paintings from Brooks’ recent series, “Technicolor Summer”, will be on view at the Tarryn Teresa Gallery April 10 in a show curated by Yasmine Mohseni. Come back every Monday for more Kimberly Brooks.