Perceptions of Beauty, by Alia El-Bermani
At Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery. Shows through October 18.
Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott
A woman leans into the mirror in a restroom. She applies eyeliner, concentrating on the few millimeters of skin at the base of her eyelashes; her face is utterly rapt, and she is more focused than she has been all day. We move past such scenes quickly because we don’t want to be caught staring. “Public Restroom,” a work by Alia El-Bermani in her show Perceptions of Beauty now at Sullivan Goss, offers us a chance to stop and contemplate such a scene, but offers no place of comfort in doing so. Rather, El-Bermani’s gritty realism denaturalizes the process of “beautification” our culture works so hard at and wants so deeply to take for granted.
We expect the forms of women to be the chief pleasures in images that include them, yet none of El-Bermani’s women serve us in this way. The woman in “Public Restroom” has been painted with more detail than her surroundings, but this painterly tour de force is also an emotional snake pit. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, the details — her hand, the eyeliner, strands of her own hair — cast strongly defined shadows onto her face. Attached shadows swirl severely across the painting like oil on water, disrupting her outline, making caverns out of what we would want to see as, at most, creases. Her skin is painted in harsh ochers, siennas, and umbers, against which the pearlescent grays of the bathroom stalls in the background offer refuge. Under the artist’s seemingly truthful eye, every bit of her becomes made-up and discordant, even ghoulish.
Another work, “Paige at Mirror,” announces even more explicitly what the artist is about. In it, El-Bermani restages Norman Rockwell’s “Girl at the Mirror,” which appears on a bulletin board within the work. Rockwell’s humorous and poignant image portrays a girl’s hope and frustration as she confronts her own image and compares it to the magazine before her. In contrast, El-Bermani’s work is simply depressing. Given El-Bermani’s idiom, the girl seems right to be glum about her looks, and the magazine image she contemplates is entirely dehumanized: it hardly seems worth emulating.
We never see things, only our thoughts about things, and this is truer of our seeing of women than of anything else. Paintings like these, by disrupting our seeing, also disrupt our thinking. They ask us to make a place for beautiful images that represent women who, for all their striving, are not beautiful. They ask us to make a place for images that show us that it is the way we look at women that makes — or breaks — their beauty.