Francis Bacon said, "There is no perfect beauty without
some strangeness in the proportion." But prettiness is notable for its
absence of anything strange, odd or "off." As Dostoyevsky put it,
"The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious ... ." Beauty alludes
to something deeper or higher, darker or more luminous, while prettiness is
merely visually pleasing on the surface, hence beauty is rooted in nature,
while prettiness is rooted in culture.
Today, thanks to cosmetic surgery, we have an epidemic of prettiness, while
true beauty is harder and harder to find. In the art world, it's a sleeper
issue that is rarely discussed, yet casts a long shadow over everyone and
everything, including Ellen Frances Tuchman's The Four Seasons show at Sylvia
Tuchman uses bits of fabric, jewelry, exotic postage stamps, beads, buttons,
ribbons, embroidery and acrylic paints to create mixed media works of startling
delicacy, works so feminine you can almost smell the perfume. Resurrection
or Praise (Spring), is emblematic, a pastiche of buttons, broaches and beaded
filigree, a nature stamp with a bird on it, painted leaves and violets and
a tiny print of a peony, all set on a field of pale salmon/rose pink vellum.
And, like all the others, it's all very intricate, exquisite and precious.
These works might almost be considered meditations on femininity. Yet they
are also perplexing because, while they resonate a sense of wonder that extends
beyond mere prettiness, and while their titles refer to nature's cycles with
their inevitable overtones of mortality, the works themselves never quite
extend to the ineffable regions of beauty -- at least, not in the sense of
"mystery." Au contraire, their appeal is as artfully domesticated
as buttons and bows, sugar and spice and those things little girls are supposedly
made of. Or, then again, maybe this the visual equivalent of "girl talk,"
and maybe a guy shouldn't even be trying to discuss this stuff.
The mixed-media assemblages of German artist Eva Kiss in the back gallery
return us to the (sur)reality of life, death and history. Her "letters"
-- sketchy, expressionistic drawings and paintings on smallish wooden rectangles
-- can be both enigmatic and visceral. Letter No. 17 employs drawings of a
room with a bed, a chair and a curious tubular duct connected from the wall
to the floor. They are superimposed over the face of a young woman with full
lips and large, wary eyes. A subtle chain link fence pattern is imposed over
all that, and we don't know what's going on here, but it's eerily interesting.
Much the same goes for Letter No. 29, a vaguely Egyptoid nude painted in profile,
holding an apple. Around her are the forms of a boat, a jug, hieroglyphs,
runes and vertebrae, and who knows what it means? But, because it works visually,
it also resonates at a deeper psychic level. Such expressionism may come naturally
to Kiss, whose father was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp and
who returned to his native Hungary after the war because he could no longer
stand to live in Germany. He communicated with Kiss, who remained behind,
mainly by letters, which she says were "like poetry." As an adult
artist, she has continued to communicate over the years through letters which
now assume a visual form. Composed of materials such as acrylic paint, charcoal,
glass, wax oil and ashes, among other things, they are addressed to the viewer,
whoever that may be. Like all such things, each represents ongoing impressions,
pieces of a continuum, and while not always obviously "beautiful"
in the obvious sense, they evoke puzzles or paradoxes that recall the words
of Buckminster Fuller, who said, "When I am working on a problem, I never
think about beauty. But when I'm finished, if the solution is not beautiful,
I know it is wrong."