On Beauty at CONTACT
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On Beauty at CONTACT

Left: Katia, 2008, by Marianne Newman; right: Iconic Beauty II, by Caitlin Cronenberg.

“Honey, any woman who counts on her face is a fool.” So says the mother figure of Kiki in Zadie Smith’s fierce, tender 2007 novel, On Beauty. Kiki’s right; better to count on the body.
At CONTACT—this month’s cross-Toronto photography fest—we’ve taken the female body count, and in turn, been taken with the work of women who find beauty in the lens of the beholder.
After the jump, gaze with us.

The starlet-powered exhibit drawing the most public gazes is probably “Iconic Beauty II” (RU Studio, 96 Avenue Road), take two of Yorkville style-maven Rosemarie Umetsu’s annual portraiture project-meets-celebration of Canadian talent. Shot by the quick-rising Caitlin Cronenberg, each of the twenty-four icons—a term employed rather generously, here; more accurate is the other press-release phrase, “women in the arts”—respond to the camera’s inquisition in caged poses that come off like the kind of fashion shoots called “edgy” in the early ’90s. Next to each photo, the subject—never the object, the exhibit aims to say—answers the question, “What does beauty mean to you?”
“I feel that beauty is completely subjective,” said Cronenberg, when we asked the same of her, “but [it] should evoke some sort of emotion. A beautiful piece of art will cause its audience to feel something towards it. What they feel is the subjective part.”

Image from Consuming Her, 2009, video installation by Teresa Ascencao.

Newer than a subjective feeling (really, is there any other kind?) is feeling the subject, literally: in
Consuming Her
(401 Richmond, Suite 122), a touch-screen video installation by Teresa Ascencao, the earliest cinematic nudes are revisited and recomposed in a shimmering, palpable mosaic of a female form. The form is that of Audrey Munson, a Manhattan model in the 1910s and belle of the Beaux Arts. The function, since we have to guess, is to fulfill the film-goer’s wishes by allowing one not only to look, but to touch; and thus, to see the real and sometimes dangerous power of looking.
The mannequins in the window of “The Beverly Owens Project” (1140 Queen Street West)—well, they’re in a painting of a photograph, part of a show called “All Presented and Accounted For”, and that painting is in the window—resemble Bettie Page fembots. Where most other representations of the female at CONTACT assert the female gaze through singularity, Owens achieves meaning by assimilation, erasing what she calls “binary tensions” of gender and sexuality.

Re:Pro, 2008, by Walter Segers and Michelle Crockett.

But for new artists Walter Segers and Michele Crockett, there’d be no show without that binary. Their joint effort, Re:Pro (The Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West), plays to man as machine, hard yet evolving, and so strong as to seem robotic; woman, beside him, is soft, naked, and given meaning by giving life. At first glance, it’s regressive. Luckily for Crockett, she’s a shooter who’s more sensitive than provocative, and her thoughtful takes invite more and more glances.
All photos courtesy of CONTACT.