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An interrogation of beauty in these postmodern times might be one of those ventures readily placed in the 'too hard' basket. On the part of Beauty 2000's curator, David Broker, it is certainly courage and conviction that seems to have driven him to excavate for this poisoned chalice. As cultural phenomenon, beauty has captivated us for centuries, perhaps becoming increasingly befuddling with the aesthetic and political fractures of our times. However, what emerges from this exhibition is not only an awareness of the ontological complexity of beauty but also a sense that certain epistemological obsessions with it verge on folly. As many of the works in Beauty 2000 seem to indicate, beauty is like fear. It makes good prey, and perhaps perversely, we derive some degree of pleasure in the taunting.
In Beauty 2000, Broker presented works by eight artists which address 'beauty in our times'. This exhibition was timed - with an apparent use-by date - indicating that ideas about and performances of beauty are in a constant state of flux, representing momentary aesthetic aspirations and respirations. The borders between the territories of popular culture and art are constantly contested and the critical distance upon which the 'aesthetic disposition' relies is under rapid fire. Subsequently, like beauty itself, this art is elusive. It does not elucidate what constitutes beauty nor does it represent beauty. Rather it prompts us to reconsider some rather invidious claims and assumptions about beauty, particularly in relation to the binary tyrannies of Western thought. Among the contestations are constructions of identity predicated on more specific articulations of and encounters with beauty as constructed through popular culture. Desire is interlaced with such conceptions and becomings of beauty, promises of romance and sex. Richard Grayson's Why Must I Be A Teenager In Love and Still Love evokes nostalgic and sentimental memories of youthful yearnings and lost loves. For Broker, "nostalgia is beautiful because it implies the refusal of anything that is not".1 The promise of youth is also the promise of beauty. The nostalgic is an idealist, a romantic who believes her or his own mythology. The romantic legacy of idealised beauty is not without inconvenience especially when it verges on delusion. The legitimacy of classical beauty is open for ridicule in Jeff Gibson's painting Hugo which depicts a 'comic-strip style' face and stag antlers. The antlers open this archetype of masculine perfection to satiric scrutiny.
Likewise, Eve Klein (aka Christine Morrow) and Susan Gray address the manufacture of the trappings of feminine beauty in various commodity forms. Klein has produced an elegantly packaged and presented signature perfume, Eve Klein's Eponymous Perfume. Gray's Soda Fountain which pours bubbling pink liquids could be the fountain of youth. Similarly, Di Ball's insipid nail polish paintings, The Sum of Some Women's Lives, makes explicit the repetitive regime of attaining beauty, that lives can be measured by the number of nail polish strokes. Questions about 'objects of beauty' surround some of these works whose pretence of commodification and consumption make us acutely aware of the tensions and complicities between beauty as an ontological state and as a multi-million dollar industry.
Through such tensions between the natural and the unnatural, appeals to an uncertain otherness are made. Mikala Dwyer's untitled installation and John's Meade's Tour de Force II draw us into the melee between culture and nature. Like those works which play on seductive merchandising, these works also toy with desire, that beauty is acquired by association. Both works have a sense of decor, of being display, yet they also bear more sinister countenances: Meade for a wanton exploitation of desire and Dwyer for a more coy and disparate manipulation of sensibilities. Bianca Beetson's Sunday Best also engages seemingly given sensibilities, scrutinising their 'suitability' in order to assert a cultural difference and displace a colonising and hegemonic beauty. Di Ball's Krystal Ball series, delves into a mysterious and fantastic reality, the space of virtual reality in which she explores the flows between her multiple identities and her art as an aesthetic, almost exotic, exercise.
Broker is nothing if not honest in his curatorial essay when he writes, "in that Beauty 2000 is about beauty, it also is about the appreciation of beauty and therefore taste, my taste."2 He has taken successive fragmentations and deconstructions to their end, which begins with himself. As a performance of the adage 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder', he has prioritised his subjective gaze as a curator and it is this gaze which has tethered these works. He is not appealing to a higher order which makes claims and distinctions about the nature of late 20th century art (although he is fully aware of such distinctions), but rather he is adopting a subjective position in which the exhibition becomes an extension and is revelatory of self. Subsequently, Broker's personal taste and experience frames the art and imprints the artspace and is woven through the autobiographical 'I'. And this is a taste and experience, formed in the fissures of these times, through which seeps popular culture as not just a superficial influence but a demand that says 'look again'.
1. David Broker, "B2000", catalogue essay for Beauty 2000, IMA. Brisbane, 1998, unpaginated