Face Value at PUSH Gallery
by Joyce Monson
Pieter Badenhorst, a Cape Town-based portrait photographer, challenges popular conceptions of beauty in his show 'Face Value'. The show, on at the street-front, PUSH Gallery, forms part of the Vision Photography Festival, the visual arts component of the Cape Town Festival. Badenhorst's exhibition challenges viewers to reassess the idea that a pretty face necessarily has all the power.
The exhibition comprises a series of 11 colour portraits portraying classically attractive young women. At 90 x 80 cm, the portraits virtually fill the long, low-ceilinged PUSH Gallery space. In a venue dedicated to issues of social relevance (the space recently invited the public to contemplate the aesthetics of trolleys laden with recycling scraps and the plight of their owners), this latest exhibition arouses curiosity.
At first glance, the line-up of youthful beauties seems to offer nothing more significant than a bit of visual gentrification to an otherwise gritty corner of Long Street. Or, perhaps, just another tedious reminder of the commercial, idealised standards of beauty to which women are meant to aspire. These are the lovely young things who always made the cheerleading squad at school, dated the captain of the rugby team and grew up leveraging their beauty to achieve whatever their youthful fantasies desired.
Badenhorst's hyper-reality portraits have been shot in the objective school style of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. They are tightly framed, straightforward and demand to be engaged. Upon closer inspection, the work toys disconcertingly with expectation of meaning, and is clearly intended to tease our perceptions of beauty.
The women are arguably attractive, but Badenhorst denies his subjects the benefit of a flattering camera angle, complimentary lighting, or any other tricks of his medium. His subjects are lit from the front, framed from forehead to neckline and stare forward impassively. Their facial features are minimally enhanced by the lightest application of mascara and lip-gloss, and the overall effect is the antithesis of the commodified woman that the exhibition at first glance suggests.
The portraits are stark and clinical, revealing lines, shadows and blemishes. The women are presented as specimens. The photographer's objective eye reveals their beauty, as well as their flaws. The overall effect serves to balance our perceptions of beauty and questions our society's predisposal to accommodate and idolise a pretty face.
The PUSH Gallery is also an interesting choice of venue for this exhibition. The pedestrian population at the top end of Long Street ranges from the sublimely trendy to the hopeless disenfranchised, and it is reasonable to assume that the premise of the exhibition may, or may not resonate across this broad range of viewers. Individual perspectives notwithstanding, the visual cues of commercial, contemporary standards of beauty, such as long blonde hair and pouty lips, are reflected in this group of portraits. Whether the exhibition elicits loathing, admiration, or some even more ambiguous viewer response, it is well positioned for engagement and is clearly intended to niggle our sensibilities.
'Face Value' is a clever and effective challenge to our perceptions of beauty, and the deference so often accorded it. While this line of contemplation may not address the most pressing social issues of the day, it does serve to disarm the arrogance of vanity, quell mortal insecurities, and balance the priorities of a society too often obsessed with face value. Perhaps, with that point noted, we can re-frame a few other perceptions.
March 20 - April 30
Joyce Monson is an Art Criticism student in the History of Art Honours programme at the University of Cape Town.
PUSH Gallery, 240 Long Street, Cape Town
Tel: 082 406 4699
Hours: Monday - Sunday, 24 Hours