Releasing their own personal genies from their magical makeup bottles, three artists look at beauty salons, finding surprisingly serious sub-texts in these overlooked feminised spaces.
In consideration as a site for intellectual, aesthetic or socio-political attention, the beauty salon has invariably been overlooked. Historically shunned for shallowness and often relegated to the realm of feminine frivolity, recent developments in feminist theory have seen a shift in these attitudes and this is what makes the recent Beauty Salon exhibition an exciting addition to this contemporary liberation of what is allowed through the canonical door for serious study.
Featuring works by Jennifer Campbell, Cathy Lomax and Alli Sharma the exhibition turned its gaze on the lily gilding that goes into achieving and maintaining the surface of appearance by ‘confronting, critiquing and celebrating the ritual and routine of beauty’.
|Cathy Lomax, Type: Unreadable, 2019, oil and mirrors on cardboard, installed at Beauty Salon.|
In the celebrating corner we find Cathy Lomax whose painting constituency is firmly rooted within film, her paintings capture selected images culled from movies, stilled moments re-configured in new often ambiguous narratives. In Beauty Salon alongside images of iconic ice-queen blondes such as Catherine Deneuve and Eva Marie Saint, Lomax also shows paintings of beauty’s tools, those magical genies locked within their glass bottles, colouring tubes of foundations and glossy nail varnishes. A critique of these luscious make-up advertising and packaging conceits is somehow implied without however overlooking or denying their allure. There is also the obvious connection between beauty and painting products both coming out of tubes both dealing with application and illusion.
|Cathy Lomax, Beauty Grabs, 2019, oil on paper installation at Beauty Salon.|
With Lomax these products are personal, back in the day, before her current career as painter she was a make-up artist initially working for Cosmetics a la Carte where she became an expert at mixing foundations especially for women of colour. In the accompanying catalogue for the exhibition writing about how professional make-up artists are often unable to match skin tones of black models she quotes South Sudanese model Nykhor Paul’s recent embittered Instagram post
‘Dear white people in the fashion world! Please don’t take this the wrong way but it’s time to get your shit right when it comes to my complexion! Why do I have to bring my own make-up to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t’
|Cathy Lomax, Skin, 2019, oil & acrylic on paper, 18x25cm.|
It is an issue which Lomax is obviously aware of as evidenced by the inclusion of several paintings of black models such as Venus De Milo and Highlighter. Alongside these are two larger paintings which she defines as non-white - Dangerously Shiny and Beautiful in Basalt - both based on classical statues. Explaining their inclusion Lomax says ‘when beauty becomes fixed in stone it becomes easier to control - it is halted and static and has little to do with the messiness of a living person.’
In her recent PhD thesis Leslie Jones re-defines the concept of the beauty salon. She traces a path from the intellectual salons of 18th century France where writers and artists would gather at the home of a female host, to recent black feminist scholarship on beauty salons describing them as ‘community based epicentres for black females to gather, discuss politics and initiate social activism.’
Accompanying the paintings Lomax also included an essay film a joyous romp through 1930s ladies elevating out of powder puffs, stars being pampered and made-up to the moment and Legally Blonde where Reese Witherspoon shows the ladies in a beauty salon how to flirtatiously pretend to pick something off the floor to get a man’s attention.
More than celebrating, Lomax is unashamedly investigating her own fascination with beauty, not only within the realm of old school Hollywood ‘woman as spectacle’ but also taking in more contemporary concerns. To quote Catherine Breillat, writing about the film Baby Doll ‘Beauty is her prerogative’.
|Jennifer Campbell, Smoke it up Definer (detail), 2019, found wooden panel, acrylic paint, shredded paper documents, found image. Cathy Lomax, Dangerously Shiny, 2017, oil on linen, 90x80cm. Installed at Beauty Salon.|
More obvious critiquing and confronting come via Jennifer Campbell and Alli Sharma. Campbell’s complex part sculpture, part painting constructions, present an intriguing and intelligent counterbalance to the show’s theme. They are somehow inexplicably critical of the beauty business. She says ‘my artworks document an obsession with surface colour, yet my personal approach to make-up is quite masculine and almost chromo-phobic’. In contrast to slick representations of cosmetic containments Campbell uses paint almost like stage make-up which she ‘slathers onto shabby materials such as discarded polystyrene or paper pulp’. Her paintings suggest make-up as experienced through a prism of joyful papier mache classroom art lessons.
|Jennifer Campbell, Colour Me Miracle, 2019, polystyrene, silk clay, sea sponge, acrylic paint, artificial sand, tarmac, novelty bottle, jade stone, makeup sponge, novelty wooden egg half, installed at Beauty Salon.|
In amongst the purple glitter explosions, the sweet-like hundreds and thousands with golden eggs, and a coral coloured shell holding a purple elastic scrunchy amidst what looks like a cluster of worms, I am intrigued and amused to see a small collage of a men-in-tights image of Robin Hood.
|Jennifer Campbell, Sea Witch, 2019, paper, paper pulp, acrylic paint, artificial sand, artificial hair, found sand scooper, polymorph plastic, air dry clay, clay sculpting tool, silk clay, installed at Beauty Salon.|
Campbell says she went back to her 12-year-old self, when she would spend her pocket money on iridescent baby blue lipsticks and nail polishes ‘always with a layer of glitter gloss on top’. But as the work progressed she was led to a deeper exploration ‘between the ideas of the feminine and ideas about transformation and mutability’. This questioning of gender stereotypes presumably explains the men in tights inclusion. Campbell also offers the notion that with the imagined threat from AI, far from dismissing feminine experiences maybe they can offer ‘a vital pluralistic approach to how we can view the structure of human identity’.
|Alli Sharma, Chippy 3, 2019, oil on canvas, 26x20cm.|
Alli Sharma’s paintings of chipped nail varnish are a much more up-yours attitude towards the beauty industry. Admitting to liking a good manicure she also states that she actually ‘loves the way chipped nails look - suggesting the aftermath of a glamourous occasion’. Her punky finger salute reminds us that perfection is not always achievable. Sharma has also included within the show’s catalogue a series of photographs of women putting on their make-up on the tube which adds a slice of the reality of everyday life far removed from the shiny seductive clinical environs of most beauty salons.
Jennifer Campbell, Cathy Lomax, Alli Sharma
Alison Richard Building
University of Cambridge
9 May – 14 June 2019