Beauty, a text by Colm Tóibín shadows the wall in a chiseled, marble grey next to the entrance of ‘On Beauty’, an exhibition at Large Glass. An introduction rather than an explanation, it nonetheless spells out some of the problems in attending to a theme as elusive, changeable and contentious as beauty.
By self-consciously noting his own attentiveness the text reminds us that beauty is assigned – that we are all potential authors of its definition. This asterisk, a glint on one of Tóibín’s waves, drags us back into the artistic currents at the beginning of the 20th century, when the democratization of aesthetics drew the battle lines between centuries of passive submission to the arbiters of taste, and new sensibilities that sought fresh embodiments of values, such as beauty, in forms that might mean more to people circumstantially ill-disposed to contemplate the waves.
Defining beauty in terms of an awareness of nature or in subtle shifts in our perception of it could feel like an assault on 100 years of artistic manifestos and the tug of war between poppy fields or promenades and factories or soup cans. So is it conceptually taboo to attribute beauty to the natural world, and how might a contemporary artist describe beauty’s qualities?
Perhaps it is with this weight of history in mind that Santo Talone literally deconstructs the layers of his still lifes.Clio (2013) wisely avoids any dramatic lighting that could be confused with a spiritual intent in the vanitas manner, or too explicit a historical revisionism, and tempers the flood of references with an impartial, magazine-supplement style of foodie photography. This deadpan approach formally invigorates the labored subject, and the raw unexpected surfaces of the fruits are intriguing and subtly humorous. Frutta (2012) carefully develops the dialogue – a familiar aspect to any discussion on definitions of beauty – between the idea of an inner and outer world in its arrangement of fruit seeds, stones and pips. The reflections of the seeds in the brass plinth top enhance the suggested transition from a material outer realm to an immaterial reflection of human qualities that lie beyond x-rays and arithmetic.
Francis Upritchard’s Pink and Purple Strike (2012) recalls the inadvertent beauty of ancient museum relics, where primarily functional objects draw on the fragile rhythmic echoes of their actions to describe a transient, discreet form of beauty. There is an unspoken ritualistic quality to her triptych of small bowls – it is impossible to look at them without imagining a lifting to lips, a filling with sustenance or metaphor. Elegant yet childish, sophisticated but open-eyed with discovering, the piece seesaws between naivety and knowledge in a way that balances one of the main problems around the show’s concept, namely the issue of whether beauty in art means anti-analytic. When beauty is proposed as something synthesized, being submissive to it means to be carried away by an illusion, an idea ill at ease with the modernist vaccinations against the potential deceit or propaganda of the image. The stern steel display bracket enhances the delicacy of Upritchard’s sculptures and seems to deliver them as if from another time. Her three bowls are receptacles for an abstruse, hermetic heritage, and an art of veiled caveats.
Luigi Ghirri has taken a photograph from inside the studio of Giorgio Morandi. Atelier Morandi (1989-1990) shares the visual principles of the painter in its gentle tonal fluctuations and simple arrangement of form. Morandi’s careful staging of the ephemeral or overlooked has obviously been a key part of the dialogue around the attribution of meaning or beauty. The small scale of Ghirri’s photographs denies a fuller absorption in the formal qualities of the materials and surfaces in the image, but this feels like a deliberate move to quote the space around the subject – an aspect so important to Morandi, rather than coat tailing on Morandi’s qualities.
“When beauty is proposed as something synthesized, being submissive to it means to be carried away by an illusion, an idea ill at ease with the modernist vaccinations against the potential deceit or propaganda of the image.”
The artist Tacita Dean described Morandi as ‘the painter who could paint dust’. Her meditative film Day for Night(2009) seems interested, like Ghirri, by a definition of beauty at the edges of the spotlight. The preservation of artists’ studios, keeping them dust-free and paused between breaths, points to a definition of the theme that lies in its pursuit rather than its outcome, with the grasping for an ideal rather than its containment.
Hannah Collins sits a photograph of a fragment of statue next to a mirror. On closer inspection you find that the photograph is printed on the back of another mirror, and the fact that the photograph was taken in Sigmund Freud’s house compacts the sense that we are engaging with the impact of psychoanalysis on ideas of beauty, particularly in its broadly adopted expression of an inner world, its refracted gaze, and its roll in toppling older, external manifestations of human ideals. The fact that this broken icon is female further layers our interpretation – we could see beauty as an illusion that antagonizes the fabric of reality, and that the dominant perception of beauty, particularly in art up to that point and arguably way beyond was defined by men, or we could ask whether the new order was any less destructive to women, and whether analysis undermined some of the dramatized virtues elegantly manifest in this ornamental feminine ideal.
Towards the end of Tóibín’s piece, he writes:
‘to be alive now, not to think at all, merely watch it and wallow in the sight of this great whiteness’.
It is a Beckettian sentiment, to simultaneously acknowledge and resist language or history, to feel or experience beyond definitions of feeling or experience, to be both retrospective and speculative. It is an ambition that contemporary artists would do well to embrace. There are moments in On Beauty where the artists feel merely illustrative of this divisive tension, or confused about overstepping the mark on one side or the other and leaving themselves too didactic or too vague. In between them there are flourishes of glimmering asterisks beautifully and eternally preventing posthumous publication.
‘On Beauty’ Large Glass, London. 27/6 – 24/10/14 Links www.largeglass.co.uk www.fondazionenicolatrussardi.com