Cosmetic culture

When it comes to a “make-up artist”, where does make-up end and art begin?

Just as the fashion world has been getting closer to painters, sculptors and video artists, collaborating with them on everything from fabrics to films, the beauty world, too, is having a fine art flirtation. This isn’t just about big brands trying to tap the creative credibility of the gallery world. Rather, from Cindy Sherman to Turner Prize nominee Karla Black, artists themselves are increasingly enamoured of the power of the cosmetic.

Sherman has long featured the transformative power of make-up in her “Untitled” film stills and recently teamed up with MAC cosmetics to create three promotional “portraits”: Sherman as a bright but innately melancholic clown, downcast eyes rimmed with cerulean blue and purple; Sherman as an ageing Hitchcock heroine, exuding wealth in a leopard fur coat, lips coated with a violent violet hue and cheeks burnished with badly applied bronzer; and Sherman as a plastic surgery maven with a touch of prom queen, all saccharine pinks and eerily stretched eyes and lips. “We sent Cindy the sets of products and gave her carte blanche,” says James Gager, MAC creative director.

Gager says Sherman was attracted to the MAC project because “she knew there was no way this would ever even subliminally resemble anything typically found in make-up advertising, which was her ideal.”

Karla Black uses Lush bath bombs, lipsticks, concealers and lipglosses for her sculptural installations. Marnie Weber, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist whose work is featured on the cover of Sonic Youth’s album A Thousand Leaves (1998), uses make-up to create personas, specifically her ghostly pale, fictional characters, the Spirit Girls. Olaf Breuning’s recent installation, “The Art Freaks” at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, is based on decorating nude bodies with make-up-like body paint to create colourful images inspired by famous artists. And video artist Shana Moulton has created an alter ego, Cynthia, who “relishes” the life-changing potential of beauty routines and explores kitsch consumer fetishes.

London-based illustrator Julie Verhoeven’s recent video collage, “If You Are Happy and You Know It” juxtaposes Technicolor Estée Lauder lipsticks and Serge Lutens perfumes. “I wanted to see if I could find a way of working with the products while ignoring their function; merely judging them as a component for a collage,” she says. Her relationship with cosmetics is not limited to work but also extends to her public persona. “I find make-up essential for survival,” says Verhoeven, who is known for her coloured mascaras and rainbow-hued eyeshadows. “I would struggle to continue to live a fulfilling life without my make-up bag close to hand: the ability to transform and take on a mask is totally essential for me, and strangely comforting.”

For Parisian artist Cédric Rivrain, who uses make-up products to create his whimsical and detailed works on paper, the allure of cosmetics is more straightforward. “I use eye shadows, blushes and foundations because make-up products are the finest pigments you can use for drawing,” he says.

Rivrain first discovered the possibilities of make-up as a child, playing with his mother’s lipsticks: “I loved all the rich colours and always added some of her eyeshadows or lipstick on my drawing to add deeper tints. I never stopped, and now I only use powder-base products that I apply with my fingers.” His favourite brand is Shu Uemura because it has “the most vivid” pigments and “the most subtle. The texture is so light it instantly becomes one with the paper.”

As for those who find the idea of fine art dabbling in the superficial world of beauty a high/low step too far, Rivrain says: “Both make-up and art transform our surroundings for the better.” It’s just that one gets washed off at the end of the day.


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