I hit puberty in the mid-90s, at the height of Nirvana and Calvin Klein’s heroin chic. This meant that my notion of ideal beauty was forged in the crucible of the grunge aesthetic as interpreted on runways and in magazines—listless, dead-eyed models who were underfed and underwhelmed. At 14, this is not a difficult look to emulate: bored and skinny are two traits that come pretty easily. But as I grew up and filled out, I had to confront the fact that my waifish days were behind me. I was never going to be five foot ten, and couldn’t expect to weigh 95 pounds under any reasonable circumstances. Not tall enough, not thin enough became an unwelcome subconscious refrain as the skeletal image of Kate Moss haunted me well into adulthood.
And then came my salvation in the myriad contours of Kim Kardashian. Yes, she may well be the herald of the coming cultural apocalypse, but she can also be almost singularly credited for precipitating a major shift in our collective perception of beauty. As Kardashian’s voluptuous image proliferated across the media spectrum, suddenly—for girls and women of all social backgrounds—an ass wasn’t something to wish away. It was something to be embraced, enhanced—even faked, if necessary. And by the time Kardashian broke the Internet, it was pretty clear that in popular culture, the pendulum—a perfect bottom-heavy metaphor—had swung.
This is a common pattern throughout history. The ideal female body changes as frequently and wantonly as the hemline on skirts. It’s one of the small cruelties society inflicts on women. Barring drastic intervention, the body you’re born with is essentially the body you’re stuck with. So if you happen to be a Marilyn in the age of Twiggy, you’re simply shit out of luck. I was immediately reminded of this vexing little fact of existence when I saw “Seduced and Abandoned,” the first solo show of artist Chanel Von Habsburg-Lothringen. (It’s also the inaugural exhibition at the artist-run space Boyfriends Chicago, founded by Ben Foch and Chelsea Culp of New Capital, and Leo Kaplan, formerly of the Hills Aesthetic Center, which closed this summer after a fire.)
Von Habsburg-Lothringen, a Detroit native now working out of LA, has created a series of images using layered photographs: “stock images,” she calls them, shot in her studio against a brightly lit, almost clinical backdrop. The models Von Habsburg-Lothringen uses in the work are all people close to her, most notably her grandmother. The artist poses the 90-year-old woman with a variety of objects including adult diapers, bibs, canes, and medical scrubs—things that are essential to her aging grandmother’s daily existence. She then juxtaposes these items with the presence of luxury goods: designer handbags, shoes, jewelry. “I wanted to explore the idea of the things we need versus the things we desire,” she says.
The result is a series of unsettling and startlingly poignant vignettes. The bright lights and tight focus show Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s subjects no mercy. Flawed bodies and the ravages of age are on full display. Further, all of her models are masked, their faces covered with smooth, almost featureless latex reminiscent of Michael Myers from Halloween. The masks have a dehumanizing effect on their wearer, paradoxically compelling the viewer to search for any perceptible elements of humanity with a greater sense of urgency. (Funny enough, the same thing happens with Michael Myers in the films: Just cry, damn it—she’s your sister!) The masks leave only the eyes visible, which I found to be one of the artist’s most ingenious touches. Her subjects are all at the wrong end of the desirability spectrum, victims of society’s ever-wandering eye—but Von Habsburg-Lothringen is forcing us to look right at them. It reminds us that culture demands that we, especially women, do everything in our power to be looked at until we’re deemed no longer fit to be seen.
Von Habsburg-Lothringen says she’s interested not only in art as a finished project but in the impetus coursing beneath the work. “Seduced and Abandoned” was inspired in part by her desire to explore her grandmother’s shifting life stages and the dearth of images we have of people nearing the end of their existence. The work took on a particular emotional resonance when the artist revealed to me that her grandmother recently passed away.
Von Habsburg-Lothringen says there are also feminist undercurrents to the work. (She studied at Detroit’s Cranbrook Academy under Liz Cohen, who in a brilliant subversion of machismo culture created Trabantimino. The work is a brilliant balance of conceptualism and materialism in which Cohen both built a tricked-out lowrider and featured herself as the bikini-clad model sitting astride it.) But she stresses that there are also elements of comedy, cinema, and camp. “I think art should be fun,” she says. “And I definitely try to use humor as a lubricant.” In “Seduced and Abandoned,” this effort is embodied by the poignant and vulnerable images of Von Habsburg-Lothringen’s grandmother, who not only breaks your heart but makes you wonder what kind of cool-ass nonagenarian would let her granddaughter photograph her in see-though lingerie.
“Seduced and Abandoned,” through October 18, Boyfriends Chicago, 3039 W. Carroll, boyfriendschicago.com. Sundays 1-4 PM or by appointment at email@example.com.