Mirror Images

Perceptions of Beauty, by Alia El-Bermani

At Sullivan Goss, An American Gallery. Shows through
October 18.

Reviewed by Beth Taylor-Schott

ElBermani.nocturne.jpgA 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.

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