A thread of razor wire femininity runs through the group exhibition Pretty is as Pretty Does. The works are beautiful to behold but also frightening to encounter. Each one, when seen from a distance, expresses a softness that attacks the viewers’ desire, draws them closer and, like Wanda von Dunajew in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, brings them to their knees in submission.
It seems the artists themselves had to submit. Each piece, from David Leigh’s colorful “I’m not gay, I just really love rainbows” to Tanyth Berkeley’s “Grace for Cyberspace,” exudes pain and pleasure. Leigh’s marker drawing greets visitors in the lobby with splashes of color on white walls, which feature delightfully bright, childlike drawings of animals lying dead in the midst of decay.
In Berkeley’s photographs the subjects are women whose beauty lies more in their physical presence than in their aesthetic. Berkeley gives herself to her models and allows them to nearly leap from the prints to confront the audience face-to-face and dares viewers to stare imperfection dead on.
The confrontation, however, isn’t always strong enough to keep the audience begging for more. Judith Schaechter’s stained glass light boxes take the juxtaposition of beauty and grotesque too literally and leave the imagination with little place to wander.
Similarly, Rina Banerjee’s “I’ll get you my pretty!,” a mixed-media installation that attempts to tell a story of travel, incorporates too many knickknacks under its green balloon of silk. The piece, which is meant to transgress space as it hangs from the ceiling and covers the floor (where it shares one of the museum’s large galleries with Schaechter’s work), instead comes across as a stale demand for power.
It is Chiho Aoshima’s “City Glow” that embodies the subversive theme of the show. The seven-minute video, projected as a long horizon in the middle of the exhibition, forces its viewers to give themselves over completely to the sounds and images. The city of the video’s title, looms in the background, never getting smaller as the foreground moves onto the screen, obscuring the anthropomorphized buildings.
With no set horizontal, the perspective shifts subtly as the scene appears at times simultaneously on land and underwater or rolls along unseen hills to look at the landscape from both above and below.
As the natural world takes control from the city, a dark place emerges where women—who claim many of the features of traditional gaki hungry ghosts—hang dismembered from trees or float from gravestones hooked to medical devices. Oddly, these women, who are either merely heads or bodies that lack the possibility of sex organs below the waist, punish the viewer through their very existence rather than embody the role of the punished. They are beautiful despite their death and need not be saved from their suffering.
Hidden throughout the gallery are elements of another otherworldly beast. Teeth and fur peek from corners and from inside the walls. This creature, the work of Santa Fe artist Ligia Bouton, hides under the beauty of a fleur-de-lis pattern—which runs throughout the museum, sometimes along the floorboards and at others directly behind the pieces themselves. The animal shyly shows itself throughout the various rooms, until the back of the museum. There it bursts through the floor and wall to announce its presence. It wraps the show in von Dunajew’s signature furs and solidifies the complete submission to subversive beauty that Pretty is as Pretty Does inflicts on its audience.
Pretty is as Pretty Does
Through May 10
SITE Santa Fe
1606 Paseo de Peralta