Ten Baltimore Based Artists Weigh in on the Purpose and Limits of Beauty

In May 2018, we released our fifth print journal around the theme of Beauty. We asked a variety of Baltimore-based artists and creative entrepreneurs: What does beauty mean to you? What is its purpose and how can it be accessed? Who are the artists and culture producers who explore and challenge the idea of beauty in their work?

The ten artists in this article were featured in our recent print journal as part of an ongoing portrait series by Justin Tsucalas, and we included a quote from each about the way the define and relate to beauty. However, the issue of beauty is fraught and complicated, definitely worth considering further.

Here, we offer their extended quotes and ideas around beauty in their entirety, where an online platform offers us the luxury of space for their ideas in a more complete form.

Tiffany D Jones, Artist

For me beauty is a euphoric experience. Whether that experience is raw, sad, or happy what makes it beautiful is the ability for it to move you into a layered world. There is beauty in pushing boundaries, making someone uncomfortable, and getting a gut wrenching response. Beauty can also be simple and light, which is a necessity sometimes. There is beauty in balance, knowing when to give enough and understanding when something can be too much. As an artist there is a back and forth dance that happens when creating art.

In my work I find beauty in stories and relationships. The relationship between artist and subject, or artist and medium. Whatever way you approach my work there is a relationship begins to build. As with any art work one connects to the work at first glance, then the relationship builds another layer through either the meeting of the artist or the understanding of what the work is. Sometimes I incorporate text giving hints or insight to the story, but sometimes there isn’t text and the examination and deconstruction of the art begins, giving the viewer the opportunity to understand their story, find the story, or create a story. Sometimes these stories are only feelings or memories, or they are of historical context.

I believe or see my work taking on the challenge of redefining beauty in the sense of examining the ordinary, encouraging or challenging whomever interacts with it to dig a little deeper and appreciate the beauty of discovery.

A small snippet of the artists that I am inspired by and expands the idea of beauty are works such as those from Gordon Parks, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Roy De Carava, each of them present a story a life, and ask to dig deeper, to look and see.

I think of this more as what is the purpose of taking the time to find beauty? In that sense beauty creates a platform to share, to learn, to challenge, to welcome. Beauty can force us to slow down and to take a moment, and sometimes even ask questions and engage in dialogue.

When thinking of my own work and experiencing it with others, it opens the door to a conversation, where either myself or others learn from it, but it is those moments whether my work is about others or myself it gives voice. Or the works from Gordon Parks, Latoya Ruby Frazier, Carrie Mae Weems, Dawoud Bey, Roy De Carava, and even more recently the portraits of POTUS & LOTUS by Amy Sherald & Kehinde Whiley. The beauty of their artworks are a wide range of why they are beautiful, but yet their beauty all create space for conversation, interaction, and to live and there is beauty in that. I remember seeing Carrie Mae Weems, From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried, and an original Kehinde Whiley in person for the first time (two seperate exhibitions) and I was overwhelmed with few words, all because I felt present.

I access beauty through my life encounters and experiences, through people I know or don’t know. I access beauty through who I am, and learning myself to be. I access beauty in the quiet moments, or in the midst of chaos. I accessed beauty from the women in my family, from the men in my family, and I appreciate the ease of access I had to it the older I get. Growing up as a young black girl I had the privilege of understanding who I was and the culture behind it because of my mother.

As a black female artist my idea of how our culture accesses beauty is through a narrow window, if there is any window at all. I wish I can be more optimistic about it, but as the world shifts and changes, the ugliness of it can sometimes overshadows the beauty, sometimes discouraging any progress we believe we have made once we step out of our bubble. But again, as a black female artist, it is through my history and experience, that when ugly makes its introduction I get that, “Oh this is familiar” feeling. So it is through those feelings I create because that is where I have always created, because we had to understand and learn our own beauty, and the space of ordinary or what wasn’t viewed as beautiful by others wasn’t usually the topic of discussion in mainstream. I (we) found beauty in simply being who we are, which is why I am so inspired by the works of artists such as Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Roy De Carava, and others.

In any industry the standard of beauty is dictated through a hierarchy system by individuals with deep pockets. I believe a collective can control or shift the understanding of what is beautiful. The problem is finding those to do the work to shift and redefine it.

As artists we challenge this word and tackle it in many ways. But there is also a point where we come to this intersection of what is accepted and what is not accepted. It is at that moment as an artist when we decide if we are ready to take on the responsibility of redefining what is understood to be beautiful. When hit with rejection do we make a u-turn and try again, or do we go straight forward full speed and challenge. So artists can set the tone, make a trend, but changing a definition can begin with the artists, but it redefining what the public receives as beautiful moves beyond the artist studio, and that takes a movement.

Cindy Cheng, Artist

I honestly don’t actively think about “beauty” when I’m in my studio – that’s a word with such a vacillating definition. Instead, I look for strange forms, sensory or tactile surfaces, inventive collections and displays, things that come together in an attempt to dodge predictability and provoke the act of close looking.

Everything in that list is visual, so I am interested in aesthetics, but aesthetics is expansive and inclusive and I think of beauty as exclusive. That being said, I think that there are fantastic artists who use, twist or exploit beauty in their work – artists like Valerie Hegarty, Andrea Dezso, The Haas Brothers, Dana Lok, Samara Golden…I could go on for a while. But I think part of what they’re doing that’s so interesting is they actually twist apart beauty, or allow it to get a little funky, in order to open the door into an uncomfortable space. Instead of beauty functioning as a thing to be admired or as a thing that just continues to perpetuate standards we already understand, these artists squeeze the characteristics of the beautiful in order to strip away the normal and leave a weirder something that is abject or glitchy.

In terms of how our culture accesses beauty, I think actually culture structures and perpetuates the concept of beauty. Beauty isn’t this pure thing, it is the constructed embodiment of the ideal.

Playing off this definition, if beauty can be used to cultivate desire then it can create need and it becomes a tool that can be used for not just social or economic but also political reasons. Maybe also when beauty causes a rift – when it demonstrates a division of ideals – it becomes politicized. This is definitely an over-simplification, but it would be interesting to have a discussion around this idea.

How can artists offer new methods of delivery or change its definition? I do think I addressed this in my previous answer, but again, one of the things artists can do with relative fluidity is deconstruct concepts and present them in such a way as to highlight discrepancies, intent, function etc. Or, this deconstructed content can be reinvented in order to present a new possibility or in order to create a non-normalized space. Artists work within a transformative space where they can re-jigger logic, rules, realities and definitions and within that practice beauty becomes a malleable tool. And, for me, this is how beauty has been used and reinvented in the most interesting ways by artists – as a means, not as the thing itself.

Lexie Mountain, Artist

The term “beauty” automatically implies its binary opposite, some sort of canon-deemed ugly, and I don’t think binaries exist. I don’t want them to exist. Sometimes I don’t think anything exists, so I’m definitely not an arbiter of what beauty is – outside of what has been inculcated into my personhood through social, cultural, genetic circumstances, of course. Defining beauty in the work of others is easier: it is beautiful when people are confident in their style, when they are working outside the norm, when they are living their most authentic life creating the most authentic work they possibly can.

I hope I’m not trying to define beauty for anyone! If anything, I’ve tried to upset conventional beauty standards in art and music by ignoring them or flouting them. In Lexie Mountain Boys we stuff our tights to bulging, paint our teeth, fluff up some merkins, draw on wrinkles and unibrows and then scream and scream and scream and run around in a deliberate attempt to shake off “beauty,” to crawl out from under it and reclaim a version of it that suits us. Maybe we haven’t done a good enough job of telling beauty to get bent, because it’s still hanging around.

The purpose of beauty within art is clearly to fuck us all up with arbitrary values. Beauty wants to hang out and appreciate vases and jewels and those things are nice and all, but rough edges are beautiful too. Lots of things are really beautiful and to decide what is and isn’t beautiful leaves a lot of important things out of the discussion.

Beauty is like a t shirt gun of your own opinions, at its best and worst. You aim at the thing you want to be Beauty and you hurl the balled-up fabric of your love and attention at it with the force of a thousand suns and, boom, its beauty now. Everyone can do this in their spare time. Like everything with a binary opposite, beauty and the process of defining it is both useful and stupid.

If we extend the t-shirt cannon metaphor, which I like because it kind of double-entendres the term CANON, then beauty is accessible to whoever has the most, I don’t know, t-shirts? Historically speaking beauty has been defined by a bunch of white men who spent tons of time depicting and then consequently blaming white women and people of color for being obsessed with themselves, so the most important thing is to say that if beauty if attractiveness to those in power, your attractiveness does not define your self-worth.

White men depict women and poc to be looked at, looked upon, objectified, beheld, and we are left to unpack the trauma of outdated ideals – ill-fitting t-shirts, if you will! Too boxy! The material is stiff and the iron-on is itchy! I access beauty by saying to myself, I am beautiful, big is beautiful, weird is beautiful, queer is beautiful, resistance is beautiful, inner strength and self-care is beautiful, my friends are beautiful and I love them. Most importantly, whether or not I personally feel beautiful I must recognize that I am of value. Despite the fact that my closet is filled with t-shirts that do not fit properly at all.

Elissa Blount Moorhead, Artist and Producer

I’m not preoccupied with what is beautiful , ugly, dissonant, profane or sacred for that matter. I just want to create work that make me feel what “is.” I find “beauty” in the honest and potent representations of our humanity. The things that I feel on my spine. Black people, to some extent, are both alienated and coveted for our “beauty”.

I think beauty is too limited of a descriptor. I can’t find much use for it as a concept for what I want to produce. I find myself using the word occasionally but I know I really mean something more akin to resonance or power. My creative partners and I talk more about “intensities”.

I want to produce emanations of who we (Black people) really are. I like to experience those things, objects, creations, that make me feel euphoric or devastated. The image’s lack of interest in perfection or any gaze is what I find “beautiful.” Beauty is often associated with positive or pleasing feelings.

I see a Kerry James Marshall painting and I feel intense joy but also introspective, vulnerable, affirmed, and sometimes ripped to pieces. Do people describe the work of Khalik Allah, Frances Bodomo, Jack Whitten, Ornette Coleman, The 12 O’Clock Boys, Nas, Chester Himes, Bill Morrison, Shabazz Palaces, Melvin Edwards, Frank Wilderson III, or Kool Keith as “beautiful” or powerful? Work has to be much more than “beautiful” for me to return to it again and again.

I hope the specificity of my work, and work I produce with other artists, gives voice to stories and images that aren’t often represented in mainstream film or at least not very persuasively. I hope I am shifting the lens a bit by calling out details and perspectives that matter to me. I am interested in ritual, matter of factness, the raw mundane visual narrative. As Amiri Baraka puts it – “Not the Special Occasion (as Smokey Robinson sings of) but the day to day always continuous exercise of astonishing grace.”

The poetics of quotidian Black life, the regularity, ubiquity, and simplicity. The dialectics of the non-dramatic domesticity that involves, humor, love, strife, care, and highlights the familiar. This is what I would offer as a refusal of subjugation and an idea of beauty, a manipulated and scaled version of a radical Black being-ness.

TNEG is my film studio I run with my partners Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed. It is a motion picture studio whose goal is to create a Black cinema as culturally, socially, and economically central to the 21st century as was Black music to the 20th century. I try to remain among a critical mass of Blackness (literally and figuratively). I try to spend time with other projects and people that are in some way pre-occupied with our narratives.

I dwell in the attempted erasures and explore both immutable Black culture and the impermanence of its physical manifestations. The aesthetic and narrative choices I am making hinge a lot of things that may be unseeable. I am really trying to grasp it myself then hopefully share a feeling or vibration I can make knowable.

How does our culture access culture? I imagine it depends on which culture? I am assuming a lot of big cultural institutions access it based on what is vetted by gatekeepers, maybe a lot of consumers do that too. Who controls it and how can artists offer new methods of delivery, or even change the definitions?

I guess I may be ambiviliant about this too. We know who controls it… the people in control! Creating unexpected pathways, permeations, and ways of seeing while changing definitions of access and culture is the exact job description of an artist/cultural producer, isn’t it?

Jackie Milad, Artist

As an artist I want to turn beauty inside out. Delivering a beautiful work to the world is not interesting to me, especially right now. Undoubtedly there is something beneath the surface that is way more compelling. It can be hard sometimes because I gravitate to the shiny pretty paper, or paint, and there I am, making something “beautiful” again.

Recently I’ve been tearing, stepping on, and painting over my older works, all that precious shit, and attacking the surface of my drawings with less care and consideration for the end “product.” I want my art actions to be authentic, and uninhibited– and this approach to making can be hard, but so worth it.

These days we want to engage with authenticity on every level of our lives– the uglier, the rawer it is– and most artists have been ruminating on this idea for a very long time, and that is the work that I personally want to see and think about. Seems to me we’ve had enough of beauty for beauty’s sake in art for the past sixty years, some would argue even longer than that.

 

Shan Wallace, Artist and Photographer

One eye sees and the other feels, and there’s beauty that is seen beyond what the eye can penetrate. As an artist, I just unveil the silent beauty that many turn the blind eye to or may overlook. My photographs are a journey of radiance, there are various degrees of beauty: a portrait of a small black child, a vacant home, a snapshot of my homie Vega selling clothes on the corner of Greenmount and North ave, and those bittersweet candid moments that may show you misfortune but will sing you a beautiful melody.

Art has a will of its own, and in that capacity beauty is deeply rooted and lies concealed within. The culture is the beauty, and the art is what we do to reveal our most secret self.

Consciousness allows you to access beauty in different ways, beauty comes in many forms. We access art by our outward expressions of beauty through storytelling, whether it be through photographs, rap, or literature. As artists, we should be harmoniously involving thought and creating art that challenges us, encourages us, and teaches us to broaden our definitions of beauty, destroying the shackles that limits our vision.

Lydia Pettit, Artist and Curator

In terms of art, I think beauty is something that strikes a chord within you – an art object that really moves you visually, inspires awe, and connects deeply. The way somebody speaks or writes, the identity within their words. Concepts, too – sometimes you don’t see the beauty in a work of art until you understand the process, intent, or the state of mind the artist was in when they created it.

I am challenging the idea of beauty that exists in our culture at large. So much of my life was dominated by the elements of physical beauty, and that my body is something that is contrary to that idea.

I seek to normalize my body and the natural processes and experiences it goes through. My fat body is what it is – and to paint it in honesty is a cathartic experience, and gives me the power to control my image instead of feeling controlled by social pressure. Some paintings are about being quiet and engaging in the beauty of color and light, and some are about absurdity and melodrama, whether or not it’s beautiful. So, maybe, it expands the idea simply by embracing what’s there.

At some level, we all want beauty to be subjective–innate qualities in a person that make them special, give them personality, and make them attractive to us inside and out. But, right now, beauty is a set of rigid standards determined by our media, cultural climate, and those in power – White, Thin, able-bodied, symmetrical, ski jump noses and hairless skin. Anyone with qualities that deviate from these unspoken but obvious guidelines is considered the other. Then, people are told they need to “correct” these imperfections – I think beauty is used to produce, market, and sell an idea of success and, in many ways, to keep us in line. Film, television, magazines – even art.

We all need to question what beauty really means to us – it can be innocent, in telling your partner or friend or anyone that they are beautiful, in appreciating a work of art simple for its aesthetic or conceptual beauty – but the way it is used now can be damaging to impressionable people who, from the time they are children, are told that Beauty, above all, is the most valuable thing we could posses. I think that there are many kinds of artists that are harnessing the language of beauty and redefining it for themselves.

In art, what we can do is to expand our representation. Museums and galleries need to show more work created by and depicting people of color, queer people, fat people, disabled people, really anyone that does not fit those standards set before us. I’m not sure how much this would help, but at least more people will see someone similar to them in a place of reverence, and that can make a person feel valuable.

 

Alex Ebstein, Artist

Beauty is something that is visually arresting – an unexpected form, an intricate surface, a strange texture, perfect lighting or spacing, etc. It is the outline of, or package for, a larger message. It is inextricably linked to the underlying concept and concerns in the work. Beauty has layers and depth, the Initial sensory pleasure coupled with information that resonates, and stays with the viewer after they’ve left the physical work behind. Beauty is presenting a new potential for an object or material, having it serve as a shorthand for a set of ideas, changing (at least briefly) that material’s relationship to the world and viewer.

I use a combination of traditional art materials and readymade, functional objects, and present them as analogous to painting. I infuse perfect, mass-produced textures with the presence of the hand, interrupting expected surfaces with fissures, holes and thick areas of paint. I don’t know that it expands the definition of beauty, but it does challenge the viewer to consider the conceptual implications of the materials that make up a piece of art.

Beauty is a means of communication, an arrangement of a message to make it memorable, palatable, or interesting. Beauty does the work of attracting audience, holding the attention long enough to encourage a more meaningful and thoughtful exchange.

Beauty is accessed through open-mindedness, empathy, and a willingness to question. It has an endlessly flexible definition, which is why it is something so often associated with art, with arguments for and against its value in this context.

Ginevra Shay, Artist and Curator

For me, some of the most profound functions of beauty in art are to create the possibility of openness, to reignite sensitivity, and to inspire resilience. I find myself most drawn to art that attempts to represent the complexity of human experience. More specifically, art where you can discern that the artist has conceptually, physically, or emotionally given some of themselves up in the process of making. I believe that when this happens an intimacy is established which opens the possibility for reciprocity between the viewer and the work of art. In my experience, in the simplest terms, beauty resides in this reciprocity.

There is a long-standing belief that to be concerned with beauty in art is antithetical to the progress of rectifying social injustices. However, when our present-day society is working against hundreds of years of pervasive images that shape the general public’s understanding of historical events—what’s the right move?

In issue 230 of Aperture magazine activist/lawyer Bryan Stevenson discusses art and images devoid of narrative in the United States from the time period of photographer Edward Curtis: “What’s interesting to me about some of that early art and visual work is that it’s really about perpetuating the politics of fear and anger. And fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression.” This continues, but in many more forms, as we consume images at an unprecedented rate with little to no context, on a daily basis. Nuance, narrative, and context are crucial in understanding images and events. Going back to ideas of beauty being concerned with openness and sensitivity, I believe engaging with beauty also creates the capacity to combat fear.

In order to reshape the dominant narratives of history, to un-condition a nation built on violence we have to engage with beauty frequently, to re-sensitize and rebuild ourselves and our environment. There are countless forms of beauty; one of the roles of artists, and people more broadly, can be to point to its boundlessness, show the overlaps, and see what is shared and what is different among them.

Beauty is ever-present within our society. When we see compassionate acts, compassionate work, we are reminded that humanity can be lovable. Artist Sable Elyse Smith has stated: “Art can be a way to spark empathy.” An engagement with art and beauty — in the broadest senses of the terms — prevents us from being indifferent; it keeps us from becoming numb to the world. Art has the capacity to heal parts of us that feel long-lost or stolen. Engaging with beauty, in the face of loss or horrible conditions can rekindle our sensitivity. It helps us develop a capacity for nuance, which is integral to understanding the world around us.

In order to access beauty we have to be present and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to new experiences. One of my favorite stories of accessing beauty through contemporary art is about my friend, comedian Stavros Halkias. He is famously disinterested in art and it became a sort of game to try to find contemporary work that Stavros would find moving and culturally relevant. After many attempts it wasn’t until we looked at Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ”Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, that the potential beauty of contemporary art finally sunk in.

(”Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, on the surface is a 175 pound installation of ordinary candy—through further exploration, you realize the work is a deep conceptual meditation on beauty and loss. Gonzalez-Torres transforms every-day objects into an allegorical representation of his partner Ross Laycock who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. The 175 pounds reflect’s Ross at his healthiest, and viewers are invited to take a piece of candy, slowly diminishing the pile down portraying Ross’ weight loss until the time of his passing. The piece continues, “Untitled” is continually refilled to Ross’ ideal weight, becoming a metaphor of enduring love and perpetual life.) Perhaps the most awe-inspiring facet of “Untitled” is how we engage it through sight, touch, and taste; embedding ourselves collectively and directly with beauty and loss.

In Stavros’ ability to access “Untitled” through images alone, we see that there is strength in the capacity to be soft and yielding—that artists can remind us that there is beauty in perceiving.

If as a society we want to preserve the ability to discover and invent beauty we have to figure out how to preserve imagination.

Art shows us that we can define beauty for ourselves, What draws us in and what gives us a sense of pause does not need to be shaped by dominant, commercial, or historic narratives on beauty—we can learn that there is power in creating our own definitions of beauty.

Mina Cheon, Korean-American global new media artist, scholar, educator

On Beauty. Can we call it something else?

I worry about Beauty being overused or over-rated; being just about anything, especially when it seems to be valorized when there is something at stake for a thing called natural beauty (what is that?). When beauty is all about nature, we say too much, which then is saying nothing at all. Beauty is constructed, we all know this, beauty exists to serve paradigms of promotion, whether it is for artistic, scientific, or for fashion statements. I dare to say, beauty directs us to our desire. That is why the canon of beauty shifts with every time period, cultural epoch, and artistic movement. Beauty therefore moves to advance and progress, it is a mechanism to consider a promising futurity, which is already defeated. What to do?

In this case, beauty is everywhere we need it to be, but with an agenda we can hardly trust. Can we call it something else?

“Something Else” is something more complex than proportions, balance, harmony, ratio, and ideology since it is about conceptual framing, which then can be charged with a possibility of bringing change and awareness. “Something Else” to me is about the opportunity to bring knowledge, ideas, and cultural informativity (and sensitivity) to things that are gone unnoticed in our everyday lives, a device for education, so we should call it something else. (Peace to Something Else Press, Fluxus, Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles)

 


 

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