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"Beauty" vs. "Prettiness" 

It's a longstanding confusion: beauty and prettiness. We often tend to use the terms interchangeably, but in art, as in life, they don't really mean the same thing at all. What's the difference? The distinction is subtle but profound. Beauty, for instance, has long been associated with truth, whereas prettiness almost never is. It is prettiness, not beauty that is skin deep: a pleasing appearance, a notable absence of flaws. True beauty is always elusive and resistant to definition.

Francis Bacon said, "There is no perfect beauty without some strangeness in the proportion." But prettiness is notable for its absence of anything strange, odd or "off." As Dostoyevsky put it, "The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious ... ." Beauty alludes to something deeper or higher, darker or more luminous, while prettiness is merely visually pleasing on the surface, hence beauty is rooted in nature, while prettiness is rooted in culture.

Today, thanks to cosmetic surgery, we have an epidemic of prettiness, while true beauty is harder and harder to find. In the art world, it's a sleeper issue that is rarely discussed, yet casts a long shadow over everyone and everything, including Ellen Frances Tuchman's The Four Seasons show at Sylvia Schmidt.

Tuchman uses bits of fabric, jewelry, exotic postage stamps, beads, buttons, ribbons, embroidery and acrylic paints to create mixed media works of startling delicacy, works so feminine you can almost smell the perfume. Resurrection or Praise (Spring), is emblematic, a pastiche of buttons, broaches and beaded filigree, a nature stamp with a bird on it, painted leaves and violets and a tiny print of a peony, all set on a field of pale salmon/rose pink vellum. And, like all the others, it's all very intricate, exquisite and precious. These works might almost be considered meditations on femininity. Yet they are also perplexing because, while they resonate a sense of wonder that extends beyond mere prettiness, and while their titles refer to nature's cycles with their inevitable overtones of mortality, the works themselves never quite extend to the ineffable regions of beauty -- at least, not in the sense of "mystery." Au contraire, their appeal is as artfully domesticated as buttons and bows, sugar and spice and those things little girls are supposedly made of. Or, then again, maybe this the visual equivalent of "girl talk," and maybe a guy shouldn't even be trying to discuss this stuff.

The mixed-media assemblages of German artist Eva Kiss in the back gallery return us to the (sur)reality of life, death and history. Her "letters" -- sketchy, expressionistic drawings and paintings on smallish wooden rectangles -- can be both enigmatic and visceral. Letter No. 17 employs drawings of a room with a bed, a chair and a curious tubular duct connected from the wall to the floor. They are superimposed over the face of a young woman with full lips and large, wary eyes. A subtle chain link fence pattern is imposed over all that, and we don't know what's going on here, but it's eerily interesting.

Much the same goes for Letter No. 29, a vaguely Egyptoid nude painted in profile, holding an apple. Around her are the forms of a boat, a jug, hieroglyphs, runes and vertebrae, and who knows what it means? But, because it works visually, it also resonates at a deeper psychic level. Such expressionism may come naturally to Kiss, whose father was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp and who returned to his native Hungary after the war because he could no longer stand to live in Germany. He communicated with Kiss, who remained behind, mainly by letters, which she says were "like poetry." As an adult artist, she has continued to communicate over the years through letters which now assume a visual form. Composed of materials such as acrylic paint, charcoal, glass, wax oil and ashes, among other things, they are addressed to the viewer, whoever that may be. Like all such things, each represents ongoing impressions, pieces of a continuum, and while not always obviously "beautiful" in the obvious sense, they evoke puzzles or paradoxes that recall the words of Buckminster Fuller, who said, "When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I'm finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

click to enlarge Ellen Francis Tuchman's Resurrection or Praise - (Spring), shows a work so feminine you can - almost smell the perfume.
  • Ellen Francis Tuchman's Resurrection or Praise (Spring), shows a work so feminine you can almost smell the perfume.
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