The bustling, light-drenched lobby of the JCC in Manhattan may seem an unlikely departure point for a discussion of the darker side of glamour. But beginning this week, the herd of strollers parked in the corner will share the space with "Dangerous Beauty," the inaugural exhibition in the JCC’s Laurie Tisch Sussman Gallery. Through the exhibition of 22 works of contemporary art, seven videos and a companion series of programs, "Dangerous Beauty" examines the damaging psychological and physical effects of society’s pursuit of bodily perfection.
Glamour may once have been the privileged obsession of the elite class, but today, "it’s everywhere," the JCC’s guest curator, Manon Slome, tells The Jewish Week. Cosmetic surgery and diet aids are as common as caffe lattes. Youthful models with clear skin and toned bodies beam out from billboards, newsstands and store windows, reinforcing the ideal of a flawless physique. "You feel anxiety as you compare yourself," Slome says in an interview at the JCC’s sleek cafe. "You think if you purchase the products they advertise, you can perfect yourself."
Responding to what she calls "an obsessive concern with appearance, with body image, with brand names," Slome assembled works by established and emerging Jewish and non-Jewish artists who challenge "the mass ideology of beauty."
"The juxtaposition of image to reality is the undercurrent of ‘Dangerous Beauty,’ " says Slome, a former curator at the Guggenheim Museum of Art. To illustrate, Slome chose the exhibition’s signature image: one of Gregg LeFevre’s large-scale prints of New York street scenes, including construction workers, pedestrians, tenement buildings, dominated by mammoth ads for clothing and cosmetics.
Consider, for example, Joshua Neustein’s "Self-Portrait," created specifically for the exhibition. Behind the eyes of a Venetian harlequin mask, tiny screens play recorded interviews with women who describe their own faces, often editing out blemishes or effects of aging. In Alyson Shotz’s "Pink Swarm," what appears to be a large hanging bouquet of pink flowers reveals itself on closer inspection to be an assemblage of surgical tubing and wires. A comment on "tucked and plucked" artificiality, Slome says, the piece is a "stereotype of Mother Nature: Nature taken to its extremes becomes artificial." In one of the show’s most playful pieces, Daniella Dooling’s "Remdress," the artist fashioned floor-length negligee out of 5,000 pairs of false eyelashes made from human hair.
The broad ideas explored in "Dangerous Beauty" have been addressed in the past, perhaps most famously in Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book, "The Beauty Myth." Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explored the idea of how the body has been manipulated to conform to changing fashions in "Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed." But Slome points to the persistent problem of eating disorders as well as the prevalence of Botox injections, chemical peels and other forms of cosmetic reconstructions as proof that the dangers of a shared ideal of beauty remain a real problem.
Slome admits her own susceptibility: She reads Vogue, carries a Louis Vuitton designer handbag, and patronizes cosmetics counters. "I’m a curator, not a crusader," she says. The aim of "Dangerous Beauty" and the accompanying videos, films, performances and discussions, is not a wholesale revolution, but a shift in attitude. The hope, Slome says, is that viewers will approach the beauty industry "a little less blindly than before."
Several artists in the exhibition expose the tyranny of fashion, as in Janine Antoni’s photograph of manicured hands fused together by long, painted acrylic fingernails and Nazareth Pacheco’s evening dress made of razor blades. The terror of aging is treated in works such as Rachel Lachowicz’s "Forensic Projection," a trio of life-size heads cast from face powder that show the compressed aging process of 60 years; and Margi Geerlinks’ eerie photograph, "Twins," in which one sister applies a face cream to the other, instantly restoring a youthful glow and smooth complexion.
Works by Orlan and Beverly Semmes confront the physical and psychic effects of plastic surgery and dieting. Hernan Bas takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach in a series of photographs from the "Slim Fast Suite," such as "Loose Weight, Feel Great," which shows a leather-clad young man preparing to inject the diet supplement into his vein, using a Calvin Klein belt as a tourniquet. The show features video art by Ursula Hudel and Peggy Ahwash, who appear in the current Whitney Biennial, and less-known artists Claudia Sohrens, Andrew Bordwin and Alan Ames.
Slome, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in England, says she intentionally did not seek to create a "Jewish" exhibition, but brought her concept for "Dangerous Beauty" to the JCC because of its mission to explore the human experience in all expressions. "Jews are part of the human community, and the community center affects every aspect of life," from childhood to seniority, she says.
The JCC’s executive director, Debby Hirshman, says she expects some objections to the exhibition’s discomforting theme and lack of explicit Jewish content. But, she says, "to say that beauty is being distorted in society is not a controversial statement." Moreover, she says, ritual and synagogue attendance are not the only authentic ways to explore Jewish identity: "The values of Judaism, its spiritual component can, in fact, be represented in other media."
To provide a clearly Jewish context to "Dangerous Beauty," however, the JCC has put together a three-month series of programs, performances and discussions drawn from Jewish texts, a fashion show for women over 60, a session on proper nutrition, and two discussions of Jewish men’s body image. Film screenings include Lisa Ades’ "Miss America," which was an official selection of the 2002 Sundance documentary film competition.
"People may ask, ‘What’s this [show] doing at the JCC?’ " says Lori Lefkovitz, the Gottesman Professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
"Since we do live in two worlds, two civilizations that are interpenetrating all of the time, of course [Jews] are as susceptible to the culture as anybody else," says Lefkovitz, who will speak at an introductory program to "Dangerous Beauty" on Thursday, May 30.
The exhibition opens Friday, May 24, at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave., Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Phone: (646) 505-4444.