Makeup as Muse: Gina Beavers

Gina Beavers monograph

Despite my art history background and general love of art, I am less than eloquent when writing about it.  Nevertheless I will continue soldiering forward with the Museum's Makeup as Muse series, the latest installment of which focuses on the work of Gina Beavers in honor of her recent show at Marianne Boesky Gallery. Beavers' practice encompasses a variety of themes, but it's her paintings of makeup tutorials that I'll be exploring.  Since I'm both tired and lazy this will be more of a summary of her work rather than offering any fresh insight and I'll be quoting the artist extensively along with some writers who have covered her art, so most of this will not be my own words.

Born in Athens and raised in Europe, Beavers is fascinated by the excess and consumerism of both American culture and social media. "I don't know how to talk about this existence without talking about consumption, and so I think that's the element in consuming other people's images. That's where that's embedded. We have to start with consumption if we're going to talk about who we are. That's the bedrock—especially as an American," she saysThe purchase of a smart phone in 2010 is when Beavers' work began focusing on social media.  "[Pre-smart phone] I would see things in the world and paint them! Post-smartphone my attention and observation seemed to go into my phone, into looking at and participating in social media apps, and all of the things that would arise there...Historically, painters have drawn inspiration from their world, for me it's just that a lot of my world is virtual [now]." 

Hippie-chic-pale-pink-butter-2015

But why makeup, and specifically, makeup tutorials?  There seem to be two main themes running through the artist's focus on these online instructions, the first being the relationship between painting and makeup.  Beavers explains:  "When I started with these paintings I was really thinking that this painting is looking at you while it is painting itself. It’s drawing and painting: it has pencils, it has brushes, and it’s trying to make itself appealing to the viewer. It’s about that parallel between a painting and what you expect from it as well as desire and attraction. It’s also interesting because the terms that makeup artists use on social media are painting terms. The way they talk about brushes or pigments sounds like painters talking shop."  Makeup application as traditional painting is a theme that goes back centuries, but Beavers's work represents a fresh take on it.  As Ellen Blumenstein wrote in an essay for Wall Street International: "Elements such as brushes, lipsticks or fingers, which are intended to reassure the viewers of the videos of the imitability of the make-up procedures, here allude to the active role of the painting – which does not just stare or make eyes at the viewer, but rather seems to paint itself with the accessories depicted – literally building a bridge extending out from the image...Beavers divests [the image] of its natural quality and uses painting as an analytical tool. The viewer is no longer looking at photographic tableaus composed of freeze-frames taken from make-up tutorials, but rather paintings about make-up tutorials, which present the aesthetic and formal parameters of this particular class of images, which exist exclusively on the net."  The conflation of makeup and painting can also be perceived as a rumination on authorship and original sources.  Beavers is remaking tutorials, but the tutorials themselves originated with individual bloggers and YouTubers.  And given the viral, democratic nature of the Internet, it's nearly impossible to tell who did a particular tutorial first and whether tutorials covering the same material - say, lip art depicting Van Gogh's "Starry Night"  - are direct copies of one artist's work or merely the phenomenon of many people having the same idea and sharing it online.  Sometimes the online audience cannot distinguish between authentic content and advertising; Beavers's "Burger Eye" (2015), for example, is actually not recreated from a tutorial at all but an Instagram ad for Burger King (and the makeup artist who was hired to create it remains, as far as I know, uncredited).

Gina Beavers, Smoky Eye Tutorial, 2014

Another theme is fashioning one's self through makeup, and how that self is projected online in multiple ways.  Beavers explains: "I am interested in the ways existing online is performative, and the tremendous lengths people go to in constructing their online selves. Meme-makers, face-painters, people who make their hair into sculptures, are really a frontier of a new creative world...It’s interesting, as make-up has gotten bigger and bigger, I’ve realized what an important role it plays in helping people construct a self, particularly in trans and drag communities. I don’t normally wear a lot of make-up myself, but I like the idea of the process of applying make-up standing in for the process of self-determination, the idea of ‘making yourself’."

Gina Beavers, Pink Ombre Lip, 2019

As for the artist's process, it's a laborious one. Beavers regularly combs Instagram, YouTube and other online sources and saves thousands of images on her phone. She then narrows down to a few based on both composition and the story they're trying to tell. "I'm arrested by images that have interesting formal qualities, color, composition but also a compelling narrative. I really like when an image is saying something that leaves me unsure of how it will translate to painting, like whether the meaning will change in the context of the history of painting," she says.  "I always felt drawn to photos that had an interesting composition, whether for its color or depth or organization. But in order for me to want to paint it, it also had to have interesting content, like the image was communicating some reality beyond its composition that I related to in my life or that I thought spoke in some interesting way about culture."  The act of painting for Beavers is physically demanding as well: she needs to start several series at the same time and go back and forth between paintings to allow the layers to dry.  They have to lay flat to dry so she often ends up painting on the floor, and her recent switch to an even heavier acrylic caused a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome. 

The artist at work, April 2020

But it's precisely the thick quality of the paint that return some of the tactile nature of makeup application.  This is not accidental; Beavers intentionally uses this technique as way to remind us of makeup's various textures and to ensure her paintings resemble paintings rather than a photorealistic recreation of the digital screen. "The depth of certain elements in the background of images has taught me a lot about seeing. I think I have learned that I enjoy setting up problems to solve, that it isn't enough for me to simply render a photo realistically, that I have to build up the acrylic deeply in order to interfere with the rendering of something too realistically," she explains.  Sharon Mizota, writing for the LA Times, says it best:  "Skin, lashes and lips are textured with rough, caked-on brushstrokes that mimic and exaggerate wrinkles and gloppy mascara. This treatment gives the subjects back some of the clunky physicality that the camera and the digital screen strip away. Beavers’ paintings, in some measure, undo the gloss of the photographic image."

Beavers also uses foam to further build up certain sections so that they bulge out towards the viewer, representing the desire to connect to others online.  "Much of what people do online is to try to create connection, to reach out and meet people or talk to people. That is what the surfaces of my painting do in a really literal way, they are reaching off the linen into the viewer’s space," she says.  This sculptural quality also points to the reality of the online world - it's not quite "real life" but it's not imaginary either, occupying a space in between.  Beavers expands on her painting style representing the online space: "It’s interesting because flatness often comes up with screens, and I think historically the screen might have been read like that, reflecting a more passive relationship. That has changed with the advent of engagement and social media. What’s behind our screen is a whole living, breathing world, one that gives as much as it takes. I mean it is certainly as 'real' as anything else. I see the dimension as a way to reflect that world and the ways that world is reaching out to make a connection. Another aspect is that once these works are finished, they end up circulating back in the same online world and now have this heightened dimensionality – they cast their own shadow. They’re not a real person, or burger, or whatever, but they’re not a photo of it either, they’re something in between."

Gina Beavers, Trying to Paint Laura Owens Untitled 1997 On My LIps, 2020

Let's dig a little more into what all this means in terms of makeup, the beauty industry and social media.  Beavers' work can be viewed as a simultaneous critique and celebration of all three.  Sharon Mizota again: "[The tutorial paintings] also pointedly mimic the act of putting on makeup, reminding us that it is something like sedimentation, built up layer by layer. There is no effortless glamour here, only sticky accretion.  That quality itself feels like an indictment — of the beauty industry, of restrictive gender roles. But an element of playfulness and admiration lives in Beavers’ work.  They speak of makeup as a site of creativity and self-transformation, and Instagram and other social media sites as democratizing forces in the spread of culture. To be sure, social media may be the spur for increasingly outré acts, which are often a form of bragging, but why shouldn’t a hamburger eye be as popular as a smoky eye? In translating these photographs into something more physical, Beavers asks us to consider these questions and exposes the duality of the makeup industry: The same business that strives to make us insecure also enables us to reinvent ourselves, not just in the image of the beautiful as it’s already defined, but in images of our own devising."

Gina Beavers, Cleopatra Eye, 2015

This ambiguity is particularly apparent in Beavers's 2015 exhibition, entitled Ambitchous, which incorporated beauty Instagrammers and YouTubers' makeup renditions of Disney villains alongside "good" characters.  Blumenstein explains: "So it isn’t protagonists with positive connotations which are favoured by the artist, but unmistakably ambivalent characters who could undoubtedly lay claim to the neologism ambitchous, which is the name given to the exhibition. Like the original image material, this portmanteau of ‘ambitious’ and ‘bitchy’ is taken from social media and its creative vernacular, and is used, depending on the context, either in a derogatory fashion – for example for women who will do absolutely anything to get what they want – or positively re-interpreted as an expression of female self-affirmation.  Beavers also applies this playful and strategic complication of seemingly unambiguous contexts of meaning to the statements contained in her paintings. It remains utterly impossible to determine whether they are critically exaggerating the conformist and consumerist beauty ideals of neo-capitalism, or ascribing emancipatory potential to the conscious and confident use of make-up."

Gina Beavers, Cruella Eye, 2017

Gina Beavers, Beetlejuice Eye and Lip, 2017

More recently, Beavers has been using her own face as a canvas and making her own photos of them her source material, furthering her exploration of the self. "Staring at yourself or your lips for hours is pretty jarring. But I like it, because it creates this whole other level of self,” she says.

Gina Beavers, Painting Pollock, Kelly and Kline On My Lips, 2020

This shift also points to another dichotomy in Beavers's work: in recreating famous works of art on her face, she is both critiquing art history's traditional canon and appreciating it, referring to them as a sort of fan art.  "I think a lot of the works that I have made that reference art history—like whether it's Van Gogh or whoever it is—have a duality where I really respect the artist and I'm influenced by them, and at the same time I'm making it my own and poking a little fun. And so, a lot of these pieces originated with the idea of fan art. You'll find all sorts of Starry Night images online that people have painted or sculpted or painted on their body. It comes out of that. And I just started to reach a point where I was searching things like 'Franz Kline body art,' and I wasn’t finding that, so I had to make my own. Then it started to get a little bit geekier. I have a piece in the show where I am painting a Lee Bontecou on my cheek, that's a kind of art world geeky thing—you have to really love art to get it."

Gina Beavers, The Artist's Lips with Mondrian, Kelly and Rothko, 2020

Ultimately, Beavers perceives the intersection of makeup and social media as a force for good.  While the specter of misinformation is always lurking, YouTube tutorials and the like allow anyone with internet access to learn how to do a smoky eye or a flawlessly lined lip.  "I think for a lot of people social media is kind of like the weather. We don't have a lot of control of it, it just is. It gives and it takes away. There's no doubt that it has connected people in ways that are great and productive, allowing people to find communities and organize activism, it can also be a huge distraction...I approach looking at images there pretty distantly, more as a neutral documentarian, and I come down on the side of seeing social media as an incredibly useful, democratic tool in a lot of ways," she concludes.

On the other side of social media, Beavers is interested on how content creators help disseminate the idea of makeup as representing something larger and more meaningful than traditional notions of beauty. "I was super fascinated with makeup and all of the kinds of costume makeup and things you can find online that go away from a traditional beauty makeup and go towards something really wild and cool...I also had certain paintings in [a 2016] show that were much more about costume makeup, that were going away from beauty. That’s the thing that gives me hope. When I go through makeup hashtags on Instagram, there will be ten or twenty beauty eye makeup images and then one that’s painted with horror makeup. There are women out there doing completely weird things, right next to alluring ones." In the pandemic age, as people's relationships with makeup are changing, "weird" makeup is actually becoming less strange. Beavers' emphasis on experimental makeup is more timely than ever.  I also think she's documenting the gradual way makeup is breaking free of the gender binary.  She says: "I mean with makeup, and the whole conversation around femininity and makeup—I think for a long time when I was making makeup images, there were people that just thought, 'Oh, that's not for me,' because it's about makeup, it's feminine. But it’s interesting, the culture is shifting. I just saw the other day that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did a whole Instagram live where she was putting on her makeup and talking about how empowering makeup is for trans communities...some people see make-up as restrictive or frivolous, but drag performers show how it can be liberating and life-saving."  Another point to consider in terms of gender is the close-up aspect of Beavers's paintings.  With individual features (eyes, lips, nails) separated from the rest of the face and body and removed from their original context, they're neither masculine nor feminine, thereby reiterating that makeup is for any (or no) gender.

Gina Beavers, Painting the DeKooning, 2020
(images from Gina Beavers's website and Instagram)

All I can say is, I love these paintings.  Stylistically, they're right up my alley - big, colorful and mimicking makeup's tactile nature so much that I have a similar reaction to them as I do when seeing makeup testers in a store: I just want to dip my hands in them and smear them everywhere! I also enjoy the multiple themes and levels in her work. Beavers isn't commenting just on makeup in the digital age, but also self-representation online, shifting attitudes towards makeup's meaning, the relationship between painting and makeup, and Western art history.

What do you think of Beavers's paintings?  If you like it I would highly recommend the monograph, which is lovely and fairly affordable at $40. 


First: unraveling the origins of cosmetics museums

I'm doing the #Museum30 challenge on Twitter, and one of the recent prompts was "origin".  It got me thinking about the very first makeup museum.  While I have no definitive answers, it seems the first cosmetics museum, at least in the U.S., dates back to the 1950s.  And there were several others after that but before the Makeup Museum was established. So let's take a quick peek into the origin of the makeup museum and the other spaces that have gone before (along with a a couple that came after).

In October of 1956 it was reported that the House of Cosmetics, a "cosmetics museum and gallery of fame as a historical repository and a tribute to the cosmetics industry", would opening at the former Reed Company on Harrison Street in Newark, NY.  It was financed and operated by Pitkin, a cosmetics manufacturer that distributed the Linda Lee line of cosmetics.  Among other features, the museum would boast special sections for perfume, lipstick ("Lipstick Lane") and powder ("Powder Puff Parade) , along with gigantic sculptures of a perfume bottle, lipstick and powder box on the roof that would light up at night. The collection consisted of objects donated from the public along with memorabilia from the Pitkin company archives.  A perfume fountain at the entrance spouted a brand-new fragrance called Three Coins, created especially for the museum. Visitors would receive samples of the perfume.

House of Cosmetics Museum, Newark NY, December 1956
House of Cosmetics Museum, Newark NY, December 1956

The odd thing about the House of Cosmetics is that it allegedly opened in December of 1956, but there is literally no mention of it after that.  I could not for the life of me find any information on it following its grand opening, so I can only assume it wasn't successful and quietly closed, perhaps because it was too commercial and focused mostly on Pitkin.  The House of Cosmetics was not the vision of a passionate private collector, but that of the current president of Pitkin as a way to raise the company's profile nationwide and celebrate the brand's upcoming 50th anniversary in 1958.  The space prominently featured current Pitkin products and it didn't seem as though there were outside curators or historians involved, plus, only Pitkin employees served as tour guides.  I know many argue that museums should be run like businesses, and it's a conversation for another time, but I really do think that generally entrepreneurs should not be opening museums.

Fast forward to 1979* when the Pacific Cosmetics Museum, also known as the Museum of Cosmetics History, opened in Korea. While it was established by Pacific Chemicals founder Suh Seong Hwan as part of the company's factory in Seoul, the collection reflects the passion and respect Hwan had for Korean cosmetics history. 

Pacific Museum opening announcment, 1978

With the help of museum director/curator Chun Wan-gil (Cheon Wan-kil), Hwan continued researching and building the collection, all the while becoming more interested in the cultural aspects of makeup rather than seeing them merely as a way to make money.  Not only did Hwan support the museum, he funded research and publications related to Korean cosmetics history.  According to AmorePacific biographer Han Mi-Ja, "Chun Wan-gil seemed truly to enjoy working for the museum.  He poured all his energy and passion into helping Jangwon [Hwan] with it. As for Jangwon, he was amazed and thrilled to watch how the historic relics seemed to come to life after the hands of Chun Wan-gil touched them.  With his guide, Jangwon was able to build his knowledge and awareness of the historic relics, and grew more committed to the cultural activities...Jangwon thought, learned, and discovered a lot while collecting historic relics, building a museum, and presenting the results of his devotion to the world.  He was filled with a joy and sense of achievement, which were not the same as he had ever felt from his business."

Suh Seong Hwan at the opening of the Pacific Cosmetics Museum in 1979.
Suh Seong Hwan at the opening of the Pacific Cosmetics Museum in 1979.

In 2009 the museum changed its name to Amorepacific Museum of Art (APMA) and showcases modern and contemporary art rather than cosmetics, although the website states that "it is an institution dedicated to the antiques and artifacts of cosmetics culture in Korea, as well as making a meaningful contribution to local community and education."  I really can't tell whether makeup is actually on display there.  Ditto for the Pola Museum - while it was established by a cosmetics company president in 1976 and has some makeup on display for special exhibitions, I believe the museum focuses mostly on the founder's personal art collection.  So I don't know if either of those really qualify as makeup museums now, but they were at least started that way.

Going back to the U.S., in 1984 the Max Factor Makeup Museum opened in Max Factor's former studio at 1666 N. Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA.  Overseen by Bob Salvatore, a 23-year employee of Max Factor, the museum offered a veritable treasure trove of Max Factor objects and memorabilia.  From then it's not clear what exactly happened.  Some articles state that the museum closed in 1992, some say 1996; I'm leaning towards 1996 as there are articles from 1995 advertising the museum at that location.  In any case, a portion of the collection ended up at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, which opened in October 1996 and was located at 7021 Hollywood Blvd.  The collection remained there until 2004, when it landed at its original location, the old Max Factor studio. The famed Art Deco building had been turned into the Hollywood Museum in the summer of 2003.  The Max Factor collection is still there so you can visit (well, maybe if the pandemic ever ends!) 

Max Factor makeup room at the Hollywood Museum
(image from thehollywoodmuseum.com)

During this time, Shiseido opened their corporate museum in Japan as a way to celebrate the company's 120th anniversary in 1992.  I've written about this one before so I won't rehash it, but you can check out my post.  A decade later, in 2002, an Alabama paper reported on the Avon Fan Club House of one Mira Dawson.  Ms. Dawson was a top seller and avid collector of Avon memorabilia, even dressing like one of the company's co-founders to greet visitors.  She charged $2 for admission to her home, which functioned as the museum.  Here's to home-based museums!!

Newspaper article on Avon museum, Sept. 20, 2002

A year later, in November 2003 the Coreana Cosmetics Museum opened in Seoul. This was another one started by the company president; however, like the Pacific Cosmetics Museum, it seems to be far less profit-driven than the House of Cosmetics.  The Coreana Cosmetics Museum showcases over 5,300 objects from all eras and seems to have curators and historians working there rather than relying on company salespeople.

Coreana Cosmetics Museum
(image from spacec.co.kr)

Just a few years later, in 2006 the Beni Museum was established in Tokyo.  I've posted about that previously too so I won't go into it again, but you should really check it out as it's fabulous.  So that takes us to late 2007, when I registered the domain for the Makeup Museum.  Interestingly, on Instagram I got to chatting with the previous owner of the domain!  Oldschoolcosmetics had the idea of a makeup museum all the way back in the '70s and registered the domain around 1995, but realized how difficult it was and ended up walking away from makeup entirely.  Here's what she had to say:  "I first had the idea for a cosmetics museum in the 70s when I became really aware of makeup, brands and how quickly things disappeared from shelves.  My dad had a museum background and my parents took me to museums on every vacation. I started to think seriously about it in the 90s and registered the domain then. There were no odd or new domains then, just .com, .org and .net. I don’t recall if I registered .com or .org or both, but definitely not .net. At the time there was a Max Factor exhibit in the LA area, and at least two active makeup schools there which specialized in special effects and Hollywood film work. I wasn’t as interested in that, but it became obvious that the industry was based in NY and LA, rent would be prohibitive, the industry giants could set up a museum faster than I could, would definitely do so after I started up, anything on display could be permanently ruined if there was a blackout or A/C malfunction, and the bulk of the work would be grant writing, networking and managerial. I abandoned the idea fairly quickly. Ignoring all other beauty like wigs, nails, skincare, fragrance, there was still too much for one building if you showed stage makeup, drag history, failed brands, etc. Back then there were less collabs, less brands, less releases a year, the world wide web was just starting and everything was still paper catalogs, in store displays, etc. Now a museum would have to cover cancel culture, influencers, indie brands, brand owners, many more foreign brands, etc.  I used the domain for a private message board about makeup. I wanted to call it makeup mavens but someone had that name and a brand that used it. This was circa 1995? Eventually I got bored with the industry, the sheeple customers, products that disappointed, etc."

Oldschoolcosmetics
(image from @oldschoolcosmetics)

So it was kind of a downer to hear, but that sort of brutal honesty is needed at times, plus it shows I'm not a total failure - it's basically impossible to open a cosmetics museum without any investors or industry connections, or unless you're independently wealthy.  In any case, this person is enthusiastic about makeup again and supports the Makeup Museum.  She has been extremely kind in talking with me about the challenges of opening a physical space and digitizing the collection, particularly as they relate to funding sources.  She has given me quite a few excellent suggestions so hopefully I'll be able to pursue them.  Anyway, in August of 2008 I wrote my first blog post, so I usually consider that to be the Museum's official birthday. 

A little bit after the Makeup Museum was established, makeup artist René Koch opened his private collection of lipstick in Berlin to the public in 2009, naturally called the Lipstick Museum. This is still on my must-see list! Known as "Mr. Lipstick", Koch was the head makeup artist for YSL for over 20 years and has amassed a spectacular collection of lipsticks and related memorabilia.

Lipstick Museum, Berlin

René Koch of the Lipstick Museum
(images from lippenstiftmuseum.de)

Finally, we have the London Cosmetics Museum, founded by makeup artist Xabier Celaya in 2015.  Like the Makeup Museum, it's an online-only pursuit for now. However, Xabier exhibits his collection at local universities, stores and cosmetology schools, and I'd be very surprised if he doesn't have a public physical space shortly.

London Cosmetics Museum display
(image from @londoncosmeticsmuseum)

All of this goes to show there's been an interest for many years in exhibiting and preserving makeup history and beauty culture. I certainly was not the first one to have the idea of a cosmetics museum, nor will I be the last - I know of several makeup artists who are actively trying to open their own spaces.  However, if they follow in the footsteps of a certain other entity and claim to be the first, well, you know it's a lie. ;)

Thoughts?

 

*There was a museum started by the president of Merle Norman Cosmetics in 1972, but I believe it was just a private collection of his cars and other non-makeup objects.


Curator's Corner, October 2020

Curator's corner logoI was hoping to do a history of Day of the Dead makeup in addition to Curator's Corner, but as usual I wanted to tackle a very in-depth topic that I lacked the time to cover, so here are some links instead.

- Just gonna toot my own horn, again - I was interviewed for not one but two publications, both of which happened to be in German. I hope nothing was lost in translation!  Here's a link to an article on medieval makeup in the Swiss edition of Fokus magazine, and photos are below for the October 2020 issue of Madame magazine.  The journalist never made good on her promise to send a copy (as a matter of fact, never followed up at all) and it's not available online, so I had to enlist the help of a very kind Instagram follower in Germany to send it to me.

Madame Magazine featuring the Makeup Museum, October 2020

Madame Magazine featuring the Makeup Museum, October 2020

I got a whole big quote!

Madame Magazine featuring the Makeup Museum, October 2020

- Bobbi Brown in 1993, two years after starting her original brand: "I don't like women to look like they're wearing makeup."  Bobbi Brown on her new line, Jones Road: "I honestly think people look better with less makeup...[Jones Road] is the ultimate no-makeup makeup."  I mean, it's great she's sticking to her minimal aesthetic, I just find it funny that she's essentially starting the same line she did the first time around, despite her claims that it's completely different. (Also, everyone needs to stop with the "clean" jargon already!)

- Having said that, sustainable ingredients and beauty waste are real issues, as proved by some disappointing news on ecoglitter and sheet masks.

- We're all in the throes of Election Day anxiety (I guess Election Week at this point), so here's a timely article on how beauty brands were pushing voting more than ever.  

- Beauty Matter had an interesting piece on the rise of the anti-haul.  Believe it or not, there are some things I actively choose not to buy...would you like to see a Museum anti-haul?

- Why aren't more retailers doing this??

The random:

- In '90s nostalgia, here's a look back at 1994's Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Meanwhile, Oasis's What's the Story Morning Glory and Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness turned 25 on October 2 and October 23, respectively.

- Always hate to see a museum close, but I'm so curious to know how much a gun disguised as a lipstick would sell for.  Also, check out the world's most haunted museums.

- I need to watch the mermaid episode of Hulu's Monsterland ASAP.

Finally, here are some of the Museum's staff in their Halloween finery.  And candy, of course!

Halloween plushies

How are you?  Did you have a nice Halloween despite the pandemic?