Daring beauty

Blue narcissus: Robyn Stacey
Stills Gallery, Sydney

'Which artist does not shrivel up and die when told their work is beautiful?', asks artist Michael Petry. In contemporary art, he adds, 'it is a crime to speak of beauty, to imply that it exists ... for beauty is all emptied out, hollow, shallow, only surface deep, like a good wine to be swallowed and pissed away' (Petry, 1997, 7).

This fear and suspicion of beauty is of course linked to a broader spurning of traditional aesthetics throughout the 20th century. The aesthetic experience came to be seen as embedded in a particular perspective more to do with bourgeois values than with universal standards. Beauty came to be regarded as a 'disinterested' mask for more instrumental objectives, deceptively posing as a tabula rasa but receptive only to certain messages—the deployment of classical beauty for fascist ends is perhaps only the most spectacular example of this. Beauty's perceived blankness was also readily coopted by advertising and commercial interests, which, for many artists, further corrupted it as a site or a strategy for creative and critical endeavour.

Moreover, beauty's traditional association with wholeness, as 'the delicate membrane that keeps in check the nightmare of disintegration' (Charles Taylor, in Petry, 1997, 37), made it an obvious target for those artists celebrating the fragmentation of modernist truths and conventions. With postmodernism, the beautiful was denigrated in favour of the sublime, or in Kant's and Burke's terms, quality denigrated in favour of quantity, form in favour of unboundedness, charm in favour of terror, pleasure in favour of pain.

But perhaps a reinvestment in beauty by contemporary artists is overdue. Perhaps artists have resisted engaging with the beautiful because this entails the risky manoeuvre of challenging the negative hermeneutics which have prevailed in art for so long. Perhaps, as Petry suggests, what remains so terrifying is the hope that lies dormant in the beautiful, the 'feeling of life's being furthered' that Kant ascribed to the beautiful.

Such hope radiates from Robyn Stacey's photographs of flowers. The scale of the images is not monumental but, in keeping with the aesthetics of the beautiful, is of a comfortable domestic size (the exception is Pollen Patch, a compilation of smaller prints which is experienced as a heady wall of colour as one enters the gallery). Stacey has used extreme close-up and a centre-focused composition, thus emphasising the flowers' balanced design, but also drawing attention to the strictly constructed manner in which these natural phenomena are represented. This element of artistic overdetermination is reinforced in that Stacey digitally manipulates the images she photographs or scans 'from life'.

Stacey's approach imbues these photographs with a fecund ambiguity. Beauty and the place of flowers in the cycle of natural reproduction, as well as the implication of one in the other, are, however, constant points of reference. In Purple Fusion (1999), two crumpled narcissi sustain each other as if through an umbilical cord. Notions of the nurturing of human life are again evoked in the glowing beauty of Red Rim (1999), where the flower's stamen appears to transform into the tentative extensions of foetal fingers, the petals cupped around the growing organism in a gesture of protection and love. Likewise Tulip (1998) and Yellow (1998) seethe with the energy of growth and immerse us in the wonder of engendering life. Inescapably, perhaps, Stacey's photographs also bring to mind the central core imagery that formed an important part of the affirmation of women's art practice in the 1970s. These intimate, erotic exposures of the secret life of flowers could be read as celebrations of feminine sexuality and its life-giving force, without the cloying earnestness and reductionism of a Judy Chicago. Stacey's images metaphorically transmogrify from sexual organs—both human and plant—to new life, to pure energy, each time mediated by beauty.

These transformations are made literal in the round lenticular works. This complex technique entails the digital layering of fragments of an image on different planes of a lenticular screen (a surface comprised of microscopic lenses) to give the illusion of depth. As the viewer strolls past, the image becomes animated, unfolding or 'developing itself' in accordance with the viewer's movement. Surface Tension (1998), for example, features a womb-like crucible from which emerges a swirling mass of tiny creatures, indistinguishable as animal, vegetable or synthetic life forms. Plum Lotus in Autumn (1998) has strong central core elements, although its intricate shimmering surface also recalls bejewelled religious icons, or endlessly shifting fractal patterns. The indeterminacy of its associations heightens its aesthetic allure.

Stacey, unlike many of her contemporaries, risks engaging with beauty. As a result she does not fall prey to beauty's predictable traps: an evacuation of concept, seduction that arrests critical distance, or cooptation for instrumental ends. Rather, her work engages us with all the complexities, sensory pleasures and exhilaration of the aesthetic experience.

Robyn Stacey, Tulip, 1998. C-type photograph. UTS Art Collection, purchased 1999.