The French term “jolie-laide” could best be translated by quoting the actress Beatrice Dale[sp?], who in an interview stated that her beauty derived from the moment she “decided to be beautiful.” Anh Duong’s show of self-portraits at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery not only dispays a famous “beauty” but the fortifying layers of self-examination, determination, and character that create a beauty not borne of prettiness. These paintings are about neither self-reproach nor vulgar vanity. They are not portraits of “Beauty Myth” victims or hip third-gen-X feminists trying to prove that hotness is politically defiant. To a viewer accustomed to seeing contemporary images of naked women as either exploitative or retaliation against exploitation, Doung’s work almost seems anachronistic. With its hints of Freud, CafÈ Flore-like innocent perversion, intimacy and the profoundly beautiful use of paint her work is practically shocking.
The issues Duong’s work raises are not new but she addresses them with a totally original level of elegance, ease, and clarity. With gessoed slashes, she inserts forms in her paintings that emerge like specters of Rothko, Newman, and Motherwell. Over these forms she draws her own image with layers of thick or wet paint that either saturate or sit defiantly on the canvas much like in Francesco Clemente’s portraits. The result is that there is no harsh division between her image, the forms, and their background. This harmony between geometry and flesh brings to mind the anti-Abstract Expressionism work of ’70s feminist artists such as Eva Hess and Jackie Windsor, who used the masculine cube in traditionally feminine, tactile ways. By merging the ghosts of hard, masculine forms with her own sensually colored self-portraits Duong seems to be demystifying, hence claiming those forms as her own.

In “The Indian Servant,” Duong paints herself over a highly gessoed cube that makes up the background as it curves around the parameters of the canvas. In the cube’s center is a slightly darker tan patch of paint. Over this form Duong poses with one knee cocked and her weight resting on her left shoulder. On her head and around her waist she wears the pieces of a maid’s uniform, which bring to mind Bunuel’s masterpiece of bourgeois perversion [The Diary of a Chambermaid][ital]. Her fingernails are red and she has on one foot a designer stiletto sandal. The contrast between the uniform and the clearly expensive shoe implies erotic play more explicitly then the fact that, aside from the apron and cap, she is totally nude and exposed. What confuses the image is Doung’s expression. She wears no makeup and her hair is tightly pulled back so that her ears stick out comically. She looks bored, tired and restless, as if she were actually a maid her employer, some deranged artist, talked into posing. While at times Duong is clearly showing a woman in command of her own image, at other times she brings to mind an artist’s model who has been asked to hold some symbolically charged items that were lying around the great master’s studio. She becomes like an artist’s model in Anais Nin’s erotic fiction. She would be the very picture of the exploited female posing before the megalomaniac painter, if she herself were not also the artist.
“L’Envie” (“Longing”) is one in a series of smaller (14” x 12” versus 48” x 48”) images of Duong staring as if she were interrogating her face in the mirror. In this image, her hair is loose and her chin presses down on her wrist with such intensity that her mouth is forced open. Crimson straps and the flowery neckline of her camisole peer around the corners of the image. Her eyebrows press downward and she ferociously studies her own face. While all we see is the surface image of a woman examining her own surface, this image gives the sense that she is trying to peel back her reflection.

Duong, who gained fame initially not as a painter but as a classical ballet dancer and posh fashion model, represents her body as one would whose beauty has already been validated. In all of these images she does not show her body as perfect nor does she show it as grotesque, instead she shows it as a body that she lives in daily. The oddness as well as beauty of her features are on display in these self-portraits. Contrary to what women’s magazines would have us think, women do not only look at their bodies with self-loathing or arrogance. In fact, while all of the not so thin women I know talk constantly of thinking they look fat, all of the naturally thin women I know talk constantly of thinking they are dying. It’s the exchange of one set of self-doubts for another. So, it seems that thinness and beauty do not permit women freedom from self-reproach but instead permit them to have a set of self-loathing concerns that are private and intellectually sanctioned. Seeing one’s mortality in the mirror is philosophy, while seeing a fat girl in the mirror is either vanity or neurosis. Doung’s relationship to her body clearly is influenced by cultural and political theory, but is not a direct socio-aesthetic assessment. Her relationship with her body might reflect all women’s relationship with their bodies but her body is not every-woman’s body, nor does she claim it to be.

Ana Honigman
Washington, DC