Simple Beauty Proves Challenging at Hagendorn Foundation Gallery

08-06-2012, Reviews, Casey Lynch

Margriet Smulders, Lupinelure, 2004, Cibachrome print

Margriet Smulders, Lupinelure, 2004, Cibachrome print

Hagedorn Foundation Gallery’s current show, Botanical Mirabilis, features the photographic work of Margriet Smulders and Bryan Whitney. After visiting the show, I was left a little speechless (at least for a moment). For reasons I cannot explain, I think I was kind of embarrassed to see the images presented. Strangely, in fact, I felt so weird that I kind of wanted to vomit. The images are pleasant enough, and they have no grotesque or risqué content, so why was I having such a strong reaction to these two bodies of work, and why was that reaction more negative than positive? After revisiting the images, and attempting an objective viewing of my subjective experience, I have found a few possible culprits for my oddly visceral experience of what I would at first glance say are mundane, if crafty, pictures of flowers.

Smulders shows a series of Cibachrome-prints featuring vibrant and sporadic flower arrangements atop reflective surfaces that are reminiscent of seventeenth-century vanitas paintings (which makes sense, as the artist resides in the Netherlands), while New York-based Whitney presents a number of ghostly, yet crisp and colorful x-ray photographs of various plants and flowers. Although there may be something to the uncanny allusion to vanitas in Smulders’s series, or the primary reference to mortality that accompanies the x-rays of Whitney, I do not believe those are at the crux of my reaction. Rather, I think it may have something to do with the unabashed showcasing of images of such straightforward and relatively traditional beauty. If that’s the case, then what repulsed me from t hese simple, elegant, even beautiful images?

One reason for my feeling this way may be explained by Dave Hickey in his book, The Invisible Dragon, a collection of essays wherein he articulates the power of beauty. He asserts that the recent history of art has caused beauty to be seen as an agent of the market—a dirty thing. As he puts it, in 1988, “If you said beauty, they would say, ‘the corruption of the market.’” But he goes on to show that it is beauty that has actually worked against the status quo, giving Robert Mapplethorpe as a prime example. Hickey focuses on Mapplethorpe’s X Portfolio, a collection of photographs whose essentially pornographic and homoerotic imagery caused a political uproar. Hickey attributes the controversy not to the vulgarity of the content, but to the fact that the beauty that the photographs possess celebrates the artist’s “corruption” (fetishizing homosexual S&M) as opposed to expressing a forgivable symptom (like the angst of Francis Bacon).

To bring it back to the pictures exhibited at Hagedorn, it seems that I, and I assume many other viewers, especially other cynical art-school types, are still quick to show disgust for images of uninhibited pulchritude, especially those of the most basic symbols of beauty, the flower. In many ways, that which is easily accessible, digestible, and understood as beautiful is seen as surface-level and shallow, thus obviously an agent of the market and therefore “bad”; and the images at Hagedorn could easily fall into this category. Hagedorn, however, is a nonprofit gallery whose mission “has been to broaden the Atlanta audience’s basis for visual reference in photography and photo-based art to artists who are concerned with the role of their work in the socio-political and cultural arenas.” Because I accept this statement as being earnest, I am hesitant to view the works shown there as solely functions of “the market.”                                  

Regardless, I don’t believe that simply viewing a collection of works that I find unappealing, for reasons legitimate or not, enough to give me a physical reaction. Perhaps my response had to do more with my feeling of embarrassment. In Manet and the Object of Painting, Michel Foucault describes how the gaze is returned to the viewer by a good picture. Similar to Hickey’s exegesis of the X Portfolio, Foucault presents a scandalous image (in its time) to illuminate his point. He summons Manet’s Olympia, saying that the offense of the picture is not the nude courtesan, but the lighting of her. According to Foucault, because of the frontal illumination, the light source is cohabitant with the viewer, in other words, the viewer is the light source. Thus, there is an embarrassment, a guilt, associated with causing the amoral subject to appear. Maybe it is in this way that I feel ashamed to see the “evils” of the art world; because I am an artist and a viewer of art, I am responsible for the apparent simplicity and errant beauty of the work at Hagedorn.

The pictures at Hagedorn are on par with neither Mapplethorpe’s photography nor Manet’s painting, and although there is exceptional skill exhibited by Smulders and Whitney, any socio-political or cultural critique is lost, if not wholly absent. What is present in the show is the same thing I found important to the artists when I asked them a few questions. Smulders’s images match her passionate personality (which came through clearly, even in email). They are sensuous and saturated scenes tainted by a hint of chaos, producing a feeling of evanescence. Whitney’s x-rays, like his process, are a bit more technical. In an email, he explained that over 10 years of experience with the medium allows him to create deceivingly simple images that capture the un-seeable, and speak of the unknowable.
I think what prompted my reaction to the show can be explained by basic psychology. As Freud would have it, my id is innately drawn to the seductive beauty of the photographs of Smulders and Whitney, but my ego represses those desires in order that I may be more socially acceptable to my cynical peers. I actually did not have a negative response to the art; I was revolted by the fact that I liked what I was seeing. The saturated colors and suspended moments of subtle movement in images like Lupinelure by Smulders demanded my attention; the line-work that creates almost-patterns amongst layers of translucency in images like Rose by Whitney were interesting when viewed up close as well as when standing at a normal distance. The thing which has made me so sick about the pictures on view at Hagedorn is the fact that I have to come home and write an honest review that ends with “I like pretty pictures of flowers.”