A preoccupation with the notion of ideal beauty fuels the painting practice of Andrew Barns-Graham. His work questions historical notions of beauty and a contemporary fixation on the cult of perfection.
Focusing primarily on portraits of flawless women, Barns-Graham’s hard-edged, anti-gestural style subverts the idealised images of the fashion and beauty industries, appropriating their conventions and exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. Through this process, his work comes to express both beauty and bathos.
Barns-Graham’s technique places an emphasis on superficiality—of the characters depicted as well as the painted surface. His highly-refined technique allows him to create the smooth surfaces and perfectly even colours that give his paintings an unsettlingly faultless finish. Detail is pared down to a minimum, focusing attention on the women, who are themselves anonymous, archetypal figures.
Throughout Barns-Graham’s work, there is an interest in the mechanics of glamour—the ways in which beauty is produced and perceived—in both contemporary and historical settings. Context in the works is produced superficially through costumes and theatrical props, but the models themselves remain relatively unchanged, acting as representations of a prototypical idea of glamour. This ironic acknowledgement of the irrelevance of physical context satirises the extravagant and impossible scenarios produced in images from the fashion and beauty industries. In other pieces, the picture plane barely contains the model subjects, denying any context, physical or otherwise; even those works with more complex backdrops remain static, the context acting as a ‘set’ rather than a ‘setting’. This too may be seen as a subversion of the conventions of such commercial images, where beauty is always located within a glamorising narrative.
Barns-Graham's work raises questions about the contemporary function of beauty. Historically, physical beauty has been equated with spiritual goodness, a parallel that has since been abandoned. The viewer of Barns-Graham’s work is presented with perfection but the intended response is ambiguous. On one hand, the work seems emotionally charged, but on the other does not prescribe a single narrative. Instead, thelack of context offers a limitless array of potential interpretations, with speculation demanded from the viewer.
The perfection of the subject in Barns-Graham’s paintings is attained through the obliteration of identifying marks and features, creating a uniformity of surface that is distinctly unreal. This critically references the unattainable beauty presented in the retouched images espoused by the fashion and beauty industries as realistically attainable. When all idiosyncratic marks and details are erased, and colour and form are remodelled to reflect nothing short of perfection, the result is a disconcerting lifelessness and empathetic distance. In this way, Barns-Graham’s work is familiar, but troubling.
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