Entirely by accident, while looking for some images by artist John Baldessari, I found the make-up work of Inge Grognard, captured by her photographer husband, Ronald Stoops.
Her website features a slide show of models posing for the camera, including a handful of face-painted young boys, who alternately smile or stare into the lens with proto-machismo while bearing a primitive form of brightly colored camouflage from forehead to neck. Other images depict models whose features are scotch-taped, even wired into unsettling configurations. A few bear strange polypropylene disks containing what looks like stuffed toy fur. Almost every one of the adult females is deadly serious, often bluntly regarding the camera as if it were an adversary.
The website’s music, a driving and repetitive classic blues riff, starts out with a rasping bass and a digitally manipulated harmonica that, together sound like gravel caught inside hubcaps—it is all smoky dives, hard liquor, and men in red-dusted denim with dirty cowboy boots creased so deeply they might be cracked cleanly through. And then the singing begins. It is half Tom Waits, half Nick Cave: “Man with gun running…man take off in the dark…I peel out after…Sally yell out” etc. The music seems so serious about its rough tone and gritty intention that I begin to suspect it is not entirely sincere, that it might be some gun-toting poser’s personal (and internal) soundtrack, which starts as soon as he gets out of his car. Now, the first image after the music starts? A thin woman who covers her mouth with a hand bound by shiny black electrical tape.
Okay. You have my attention.
Now, the effect of this auditory and visual synergy is unexpected, and whether the response I describe was Grognard’s intention or not, I can’t be sure. The music, together with the images of models bearing feature-distorting prosthetics and implacable gazes appears to question the seriousness of fashion. It also seems to point out our conventional notions of beauty, but neither of these concepts is new. What I was floored by went slightly deeper--beyond the skin and into the psyche: Grognard made me realize how self-aware, how seriously we take ourselves, how we expect to be tough, to look uncompromising. It was a painful recognition, this intense gravity tinged with a nearly imperceptible uncertainty. But it’s there, especially in the protruding clavicles and atrophied musculature of many of the women. Oh, they might look hard, but underneath all this is a decaying spirit, caused by a terminal form of insecurity.
And even though Grognard is not using Americans or speaking specifically to Americans, it should resonate through every urban subway stop, every community college hallway, every turkey shoot at the local Grange Hall in the heartland of America. It is our popular expectation as Americans: we want to be perceived as tough and uncompromising—we absorb this from film stills of John Wayne, of the Marlboro Man, of Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio (the bold stare, the stark look of fearlessness that conditions us to believe a ruthless gaze is stunning, that this is what defines worth and beauty). And here, Grognard—maybe unwittingly-- reveals us to be fatally self-aware. Like the masks and Scotch tape over her models faces, we are bound by a painful awareness, we are hemmed in by a sense of absurdity and our desire to escape it—and this armor we wear does not defend us, does not bring us long-term protection from a further sense of foolishness. It becomes ridiculous itself. Yet we put it on each day. We fail to smile. We sometimes neglect to be civil. We turn up our woofers and press our accelerators. And all of this is a kind of armor that becomes senseless.
So, in this rotating slide show, I see us: humanity as we are now, as we have been taught to behave. By popular culture? Yes, probably. We act strong, even dangerous, trying every façade, painting ourselves into a false sense of belonging to something…anything, even if that something is the ever more crowded 'periphery' of so-called rebels (rebels without causes, rebels that consume rather than produce). But this behavior makes us no more sure of ourselves, does it? And, still, we put on this same armor every day, repeating the same behavior again and again. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?
Click here to find Inge Grognard and Ronald Stoops' new collaborative book here.
Ronald Stoops/Inge Grognard
190 pages; 170 illustrations