‘Beautiful’ is an adjective you expect to be associated with art but rarely is it used to describe it, particularly when the art is good. ‘Beautiful’, in relation to art, somehow implies that it is vacuous, without intellectual weight or depth. This view is so far-reaching that it extends to all who trade in beauty – such as designers, who are often thought to be superficial, as are models and beautiful women, who are deemed ‘stupid’ based on appearance alone.
In Degreened, Frances Goodman’s recent exhibition at Smac Gallery in Cape Town, she challenges this culture by confronting viewers with glaringly beautiful art. Her series of two-dimensional paintings with glittering surfaces begs your interest. The word ‘beautiful’ hovers on your lips when you spy neon works featuring large, sequinned pouts and flashing smiles, but it is the series of sculptures of flowers, ‘Lady Garden’, that drives beautiful home: these brightly coloured, oversized renditions of tropical flowers with hard petals are visual spectacles. This is the case not only because they are large and wonderfully crafted, but also because they are made from thousands – if not millions – of artificial nails. Part of the attraction is disbelief.
Excess is a uniting thread in this exhibition: an excess of materials, colour and beauty itself. Everything is overstated. This has been a marker of Frances’ art. Few will forget her 2011 exhibition Till Death Us Do Part at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg, where visitors were greeted by a massive tent made from wedding fabrics and an installation involving 100kg of confetti bearing the word ‘forever’.
‘My working methods derive from the laborious, repetitive and obsessive nature of making something by hand that references historical notions of “women’s work” and craft practices,’ Frances says. ‘Furthermore, my practice is a response to the consumerist, capitalist world we live in. Making something desirable from thousands of throwaway objects is a critique of the value, or valuelessness, of labour and goods within these structures.’
She began working with artificial nails in 2014 for her Goodman Gallery show Nail Her, in which she collaborated with designer Suzaan Heyns on a dress made from thousands of these plastic extensions. Frances views artificial nails as ‘a metaphor for the type of woman I am interested in making work about and for: tough, striking, alluring, repellent, strong, brittle, sexual and abject – the hyper-feminine’. Her interest in exploiting surface beauty to reveal the apparent emptiness of female beauty has ironically been the means for her to create art with depth that communicates important ideas about society.
Feminine beauty is presented like a honeytrap, an idea echoed in Frances’ rendition of a Venus flytrap made from false nails. ‘I think beauty itself is a red herring,’ she says. ‘The power lies in the way women choose to wield their beauty and desirability. It’s about intention and stance, about not apologising for being a woman or being a victim of the media and consumerist world, which have become inescapable.’
A hidden danger that belies a beautiful exterior is revealed in her sequin paintings, however it is the beautiful woman who ‘traps’ men – or the male gaze – who is the ultimate victim. Through the medium of sparkling sequins and the artful poses struck by the subjects, these victims remain beautiful even in the moment of their horrible, terrifying death.
‘I believe the pressure to be beautiful is a double-edged sword for women. They are expected to be beautiful, to spend time and money on their appearances and to conform to societal expectations, yet they are judged when they do just that – and when they don’t,’ says Frances. ‘Confidence and assertiveness are confused with vanity, and beauty is often conflated with stupidity. These are old stereotypes; we all know them. The question is, how do we change them?’
Frances suggests that women are trapped by their beauty not only through their assiduous pursuit of appearing ‘pretty’ using artificial means, but also in a patriarchal world where women are more commonly victims of violence at the hands of men. Beauty can lead to a bitter end.
It’s an unexpectedly dark message for such a ‘beautiful’ show – but that’s the point. Frances has long been driving a strong feminist theme in her art. With a third wave of feminism generating interest in work of this nature produced by women, she is starting to attract international attention and recently enjoyed a solo exhibition in New York at the Richard Taittinger Gallery, where she transformed single false nails into giant sculptures. It seems Frances has turned the art of becoming beautiful into a dark but engaging pursuit.
This feature originally appeared in House & Leisure’s March 2017 issue.