The Pleasure Principle

The Joseph Gross Gallery aims for brainy beauty.

Wait long enough and everything comes back in fashion, from polyester dresses to beauty in art. The revival for both of them didn't start yesterday, but the momentum for both is still growing.

Between Fantasy and Pleasure, the current exhibition at the Joseph Gross Gallery, is a response to the second trend, according to its curators, Alena Williams and Mia Ruyter. Williams, who has worked for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and for art collectors in Los Angeles, is now a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. Ruyter is an assistant professor of art at the University of Arizona, although she is currently on leave.

While working in the Los Angeles art community, Williams felt that many artists who deal with issues like cultural history and identity politics were not being widely exhibited because of the popularity of a critical perspective epitomized by art critic Dave Hickey. Hickey, professor of art theory and criticism at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, has become nationally known since his book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty was published in 1993. One of Hickey's prime criticisms of contemporary art is that it has been taken over by academic artists (born in universities and bred through government funding) who value "meaning" and turn their noses up at "beauty" in art because it's the hallmark of commercial, second-class art that sells.

In curating Between Fantasy and Pleasure Williams says she and Ruyter wanted to show that meaning and beauty are not mutually exclusive. "We wanted to put together work that not only had some sort of critical engagement ... [but] still elicit[ed] visual pleasure." The exhibition includes art by seven women working in photography, video and installation art. All four photographers work in large-format color images, and it's clear from the saturated colors and seductive forms that their work is geared toward the eye. In the broadest sense, their images are about fantasy and the places the imagination can take someone.

Chicago photographer Jeanne Dunning has been exploring issues surrounding the female body for over a decade. Her two photographs in this exhibition are from a series that combines women and a large, gel-filled, flesh-colored sac that Dunning calls a "blob." "The Blob 1" depicts an attractive woman sitting on the floor with a giant blob in her lap. Whether the blob is an amorphous mass of flesh that has been shed or the weight of giant breasts pulled over her thighs by gravity, the blob does not seem to affect the woman who stares out at the viewer with a forthright expression. "In the Bathtub 2," a sensual image, shows the blob as a comfort to the nude woman who cuddles it like a baby's blanket in the bubble bath. These two images seem to deal with sexuality, but according to art critic Maura Reilly, in the series as a whole, the blob deals with fears of obesity, which illustrates the common problem of seeing individual artworks out of context.

Ramona Poncé is an artist with a lifestyle, according to the New York Times. Ponce is always stitching up wild costumes, and her parties are not to be missed. She made her wedding a Halloween art event and embroidered her wedding gown with the best and worst reasons to get married (according to her friends). Ponce has assembled three of her handmade wedding garments and other wedding paraphernalia to create the installation "Marriage of Good and Evil." The fabrics are lush, and the dangling garments look great in the space, but how deep is the content? Not terribly. The whole installation is amusing as much as anything.

Mia Ruyter uses herself to re-create paintings in art history, including works by Manet and Goya. Ruyter dresses up in colorful clothes, creates a basic set and assumes the pose of a person in the painting. Her gaze is rather confrontational, and her dog accompanies her. Ruyter's photographic self-portraits draw on the work of photographers like Cindy Sherman who have assumed other people's identities, but Ruyter has decontextualized her images or pulled them out of their visual and historical context to shoot her scenes against a black background. The result is photography that is less accessible, not just intellectually, but emotionally. This gap points to what Between Fantasy and Pleasure misses in terms of addressing the dialogue about beauty in contemporary art.

Beauty is more than skin deep. It's a cliché, but it also is at the core of what Dave Hickey and other contemporary critics are talking about when they discuss beauty in art. Such beauty is about more than exquisite surfaces; it is about evoking a powerful response in the viewer. Visually, contemporary beauty also is not what it used to be. This "beauty" can be impure, as Ronald Jones has written. It embraces work like Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial, homoerotic nudes, according to Hickey.

I think that the best art both evokes a powerful response in viewers at large and has the intellectual depth to bring even sophisticated viewers back again and again. I do think intellectual artwork that evokes a powerful response in viewers with a background in art also can be meaningful work. The problem is that in the last two decades of the 20th century, the art world became so self-contained and self-absorbed that much art had to be decoded before it could be understood, let alone enjoyed, even by sophisticated viewers.

As for Between Fantasy and Pleasure, I was not particularly moved by the artwork, although I don't feel I could fairly assess Dunning's work in particular from two photographs. (Whether "beauty" applies only to single images or to whole bodies of work is another question.) Obviously, not everyone would respond the way I did, and these are national artists, some of whose work has been well reviewed. After all, I do believe in the importance of the emotional response to art and in a certain level of accessibility in art, but I wouldn't put Dave Hickey's favorite artists (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and Edward Ruscha) on my top artists' list.