Attraction and repulsion can be powerful sensations, felt physically, bypassing critical reflection and even conscious thought. Hard-wired to some extent, these "instinctive" responses also reflect and are, in fact, inseparable from personal history and cultural conditioning. What's more, they carry over into our responses to other people, to what we find physically and morally "attractive" or "repulsive," manifesting most frequently (and most unfortunately) as a fear of and hostility toward difference.
Art provides us with a safe space to test boundaries and acclimatize to the unfamiliar. It allows us to not only expand our notions of what is "beautiful" or "grotesque" but to challenge the very distinction between the two. Perfect Imperfections, which opened at the University of Manitoba's School of Art Gallery last month, collects artistic responses to precisely these concerns, pairing the work of a French Surrealist working in the 1920s with that of four contemporary artists, each with ties to Winnipeg.
A group of eight captivating, historically significant self-portrait photographs by Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob in 1894) is the exhibition's starting point in terms of both chronology and sensibility. In the black-and-white images, we see Cahun, sporting a shaved head and her male pseudonym, openly rebel against received ideas of femininity and beauty, using costume and staging to create multiple, sexually-ambiguous personas. Though made around 1929, the photographs are strikingly contemporary in their treatment of gender as just one variety of performance. That Cahun didn't fully enter the canon of art history until her posthumous "rediscovery" in the 1980s is a testament to the groundbreaking nature of her practice and her identity itself.
Colin Campbell's 1977 video Hollywood and Vine picks up this thread. We watch as the artist methodically puts on makeup and a blond wig, assuming the persona of a wealthy, quietly deranged Los Angeles widow who recounts increasingly absurd stories before wandering off into the Mojave Desert in search of a pony skeleton (reassembling animal skeletons having been a hobby of her late husband's). Campbell's physical transformation provides the backdrop for his character's unhinged monologue, and the portrayal manages to be at once unsettling and empathetic.
Miss Lindsay Ladobruk courts dissonant responses of hunger, arousal, and revulsion (towards food, fat bodies, women's sexuality, etc.) in Strip Sandwich, a performance shown here as a looped video viewed through a peephole in a gallery door. Channeling Divine or Edith Massey in an earlier, trashier John Waters movie, Ladobruk performs a strange and sultry burlesque with a variety of sandwiches as props, daring us to sort out whatever feelings of attraction or repulsion the piece might inspire.
Attacking notions of beauty from a different angle, Janet Werner's bluntly handled paintings seek out ugliness (or at least awkwardness) in celebrities like Paris Hilton and Audrey Hepburn. Photographs from Dominique Rey's 2011 series Erlking (named for a forest-dwelling bogeyman of German literary folklore) reflect still another approach. Donning outlandish costumes fashioned from cheap, ubiquitous materials like pantyhose, balloons, and pillow stuffing, Rey transforms herself into post-apocalyptic craft-store mutants whose deformities are jarringly set against a backdrop of grimly lovely natural settings.
While the exhibition runs until June 14, for the full experience be sure to attend the reception on May 23, which features a screening of Campbell's The Woman from Malibu (of which Hollywood and Vine is the sixth and final part) and a live performance by Miss Lindsay.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a visual artist, writer, and educator.