2018 SMAC Gallery Johannesburg, South Africa
SMAC Gallery is proud to present offstage, a solo exhibition of new work by multidisciplinary artist, Frances Goodman. By employing the materials of the beauty industry and interrogating the portrayal of women’s bodies, Goodman’s work draws attention to popular culture definitions that narrow the possibilities of female identity to extremes of consumption, obsession, desire, and anxiety. Though her work reflects a society in which these images and objects can define and burden us, it also celebrates the use of these materials and embraces the female body as a tool of empowerment.
The dictionary defines offstage as the part of the stage not visible to the audience, but it also refers to one’s private life. Whilst we immediately think of actors waiting in the wings – nervously anticipating their performance – we also imagine what happens behind closed doors, hidden from the public eye. It’s this duality of meaning that interests Goodman and formed the starting point for the body of work that she produced for offstage. “I’ve been questioning whether dancing, dressing up, and performing can be a liberating act,” explains Goodman, “when it’s something women do for themselves rather than for an audience.”
In the traditional sense of the word ‘performance,’ there are few more polarising images than that of a scantily clad woman, dangling seductively from a pole. For many, this image epitomises the exploitation of the female body for male pleasure, but it has more recently come to symbolise ownership of one’s sexuality, the power of choice, and a form of self-empowerment. “Not only does this image raise questions and fuel arguments, it also exemplifies the voyeuristic, social media- saturated world in which we live, where we are constantly looking, judging, and enjoying,” says Goodman of her Siren and Hoop Dancer series – large-scale steel silhouettes of exotic dancers.
While the exhibition title alludes to women as private performers, it also speaks to the broader idea of life being a stage and women continually needing to assume a role. In Goodman’s Sequin Painting series, women in various stages of undress either pose provocatively for the camera, or seem to be unaware that the lens is trained on them. As the source material for these images, Goodman photographs women she knows personally or are known to her through social media, in order to examine the way in which women are framed, stereotyped, and idealised through digital media.
Using sequins in a painterly way, Goodman creates shifts in colour that range from dramatic to subtle, resulting in a slick, seductive finish when laid side by side. These glittering bits of plastic become the epitome of surface and our obsession therewith; not only do the Sequin Paintings reflect light, they reflect our own image. “I decided to work with sequins as they allow me to create intricate detail with their beautiful array of colours,” says the artist. “However, their reflective and refractory nature makes it difficult to view the images as a whole. They’re like a mirage – constantly unattainable.” We’ve created our own mirror in social media; an intoxicating, glossy surface from which we can’t seem to escape. If all the world’s a stage – as per Shakespeare – then social media has become the raised platform on which we perform, our screens the fourth wall.
Privacy and anonymity have become important terms when considering our online (or ‘on stage’) presence. Privacy refers to that which we keep to ourselves, for no reason other than to keep it from others. Anonymity, on the other hand, is the ability to hide our true identity from others in order to remain unknown, yet without suppressing or censoring our activities. Anonymity, an imitation of privacy, can give a voice to some of the more vulnerable groups in society, including women.
This kind of intimation of privacy is reflected in Goodman’s embroidered vignettes, in which women dance in front of the mirror, in their underwear, by and for themselves. Their faces – and thus their identities – hidden from view, these women appear to embrace their silken curves, turning this way and that in their delicately stitched panties and bras.
The use of embroidery in offstage extends to a series of disembodied eyes, embellished in brightly coloured makeup. A lot of rhetoric focuses on the idea that women are pressured into wearing makeup, that there’s a higher bar of physical attractiveness expected of us; but, as the veritable overabundance of ‘makeup Vloggers’ on Youtube will attest, makeup’s primary contribution is its ability to alter perception. It gives the wearer the power of choice over how they wish to present themselves, the power to embrace the expressive nature and self-care qualities of makeup on their own terms. Goodman’s sequinned lips echo this sentiment – gussied up and glossy by their very nature, plump pout and cheeky tongue exuding confidence.
Goodman’s images of women in offstage, simultaneously empowered and disadvantaged by their femininity, speak to the construction of identity in a world where one cannot escape critique – from others, or, more grievously, from ourselves.
Text by Fay Jackson