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Finally, Makeup Gets Its Close-up

Women and their relative levels of hotness have been dissected quite a bit in the media lately, whether they ask for it (ahem, Samantha Brick) or not (Ashley Judd, we remain your humble servants).   Whether we wear makeup or not, have plastic surgery or not, or have cleared forty or not, someone somewhere will have something to say about it. Cleveland-based artist Michelle Marie Murphy is concerned with the makeup bit. Riffing on the language of advertising, her ongoing photo and video series "Perceptual Beauty" (2011–) exults in the lush surfaces and patterns of lipsticks and packaged eyeshadows while also raising more pointed questions about contemporary women, self-expression, and the amount of control we may or may not have over how we are perceived.   Prints of Murphy's work are available on 20x200.com (which, if you've never checked it out, is a really affordable place to buy work by emerging artists). To set up her photographs, Murphy, 31, drips foundation like paint or zeroes in on packages of eyeshadow, which she then digitally repeats in post-production to create geometric patterns recalling the abstractions of optical art from the 1960s. She uses a macro lens to shoot extreme closeups of beauty-aisle staples like fake eyelashes and fake nails, or to capture the light passing through a puff of powder, as in The Origin of Pigment (pictured). "It kind of looks like an abstract Mars landscape," says Murphy, who by day works as a photographer for the NASA Glenn Research Center (a combination of careers that my inner seven-year-old is seriously envying right now!).   From her studio in Cleveland, where she also teaches photography at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Murphy spoke with DivineCaroline about the alluring design of beauty products, Lady Gaga, and the Gaze.
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The Origin of Pigment
Foundation: with less control
Untitled (After de Kooning’s Woman I.)
Natural and Clown Styled
Natural and Black-Eye Styled
Eye Shadow Overlap No. 3
Shadow: Out & Back Again
The Responsive Mouth
Eyelash Refraction

Shadow: Out & Back Again

MMM: I’m interested in the human investigation the viewer has with the product—maybe it’s just enjoying the simple beauty of the design. There’s a lot of time put into the designs. That’s not an oversight; there are design teams that make these products. I’m interested in how somebody might respond to that when it’s placed into a fine art context.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Foundation: with less control

MMM: I think it’s interesting to be a female artist and utilize what advertising says I should put on my face as an art material. And I’m prying into some of the history of abstract art by using makeup as a material, as opposed to using paint. I’m also interested in shifting what we call the gaze [from women] onto the products themselves.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Untitled (After de Kooning’s Woman I.)

DC: This photograph is named after de Kooning’s Woman I. And I see how the shadows can be read as the edges of a mouth, with the lipstick tubes as teeth. What was behind that choice?

MMM: This famous painting was a collision of abstraction and the representation of a woman as a clenched-teeth, voluptuous, opened-legged, bug-eyed monster-woman. I felt that de Kooning painted women as powerful, but not as a peer, a partner, or an equal to him. I see a parallel from his work to pop culture’s female as it is represented today. It is the same sort of female identity that Nicki Minaj, Gaga, Snooki, Peaches, etc. are utilizing to create a sexually overt made-up monster/clown/spectacle. This is an image of power, but not a realistic, intellectual, or professional power. My photograph is a simplified lipstick-vagina-dentata and a way for me to mark this cultural connection.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Natural and Clown Styled

DC: This image is about how you would perceive someone who’s not wearing makeup versus how you’d perceive them made up?

MMM: That’s part of it. There’s always going to be a collective ideal beauty, and how that shifts is interesting to me. Somebody may look at Lady Gaga’s makeup and think she looks over the top. Thirty years ago or fifty years ago, you might think that that was too much. But among the followers of Gaga, that might be normal and that might be what they choose to go to the concert as. But go with that same makeup for a job interview for a nine-to-five job, and the type of reaction you might get—I’m interested in how the makeup might make them feel free to express themselves, but at the same time, it doesn’t … you might not get the job.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Natural and Black-Eye Styled

MMM: I’m interested in seeing whether or not you can be rebelling when you use makeup. Can you be a powerful woman with clown eyes? I want the viewer to think about that; I don’t want to answer it for them. If you answered yes, you can be powerful with clown eyes: how is that interpreted by an audience, by somebody off the street, by your parents, by your friends, by a coworker? I’m interested in how you may express yourself and how it may be perceived, the same or different from how you do.

Take Natural and Black-Eye Styled, how the makeup matches a black eye. A style of makeup might intentionally make you look abused or sick, but it might be in fashion.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Eye Shadow Overlap No. 3

DC: Where do you buy your makeup?

MMM: I don’t want to be that specific. If you look closely at the work, there’s several brands represented. Maybelline has done an article about my work on their Tumblr. I don’t discern based on brand. I’m interested in what’s out on the market now, anything that you might find at your corner store. I am drawn to the products that look like abstract art. Because I come from an art background, I notice the package designs that look like abstract painting.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Shadow: Out & Back Again

MMM: I’m interested in the human investigation the viewer has with the product—maybe it’s just enjoying the simple beauty of the design. There’s a lot of time put into the designs. That’s not an oversight; there are design teams that make these products. I’m interested in how somebody might respond to that when it’s placed into a fine art context.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

The Responsive Mouth

MMM: This is more of a printmaking piece in a sense, because I’m printing my lips with the lipstick itself. The hard part was actually doing the work in [post-production] because I kissed—that’s one hundred original kisses, and it’s one color of lipstick—and then finding which kiss was a lighter kiss compared to harder kisses. It took five late nights of arranging them in a gradient.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

Eyelash Refraction

DC: Do you wear makeup?

MMM: I don’t think that’s important. I’m more interested in if the viewer wears makeup. I want to know if the DivineCaroline reader wears makeup, or what colors they might use, or what style or formation or painting they might do to their eye or to their face. If I could photograph every viewer, I would be interested in that.

Photo © Michelle Marie Murphy

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