A.) ___Humble Cosmetic B.) ___ War paint ___C.) Deviant Oral Fix
D.) ___ Accessory to a Crime E.) ___ All of the Above
“There’s many a slip between the cup and the lip” – Aristotle
Advertisers have a field day describing the erotic power of this sensual cosmetic. Consider, for instance, colors that “make statements”, formulas that are “near perfect” and ingredients that soften “like shea butter”. One is not remiss to mention “packaging with cherry red lacquer cases that are super glam, with…magnetic click-in closures”. (“36 Reasons to Try Armani’s New Rouge Ecstasy cc Lipstick” September 14, 2013)
Lipsticks carry textural appeal; The Metallic Metal line of bullet hues liquefy and “melt with the heat of ones’ skin and blend into a shimmering shade as easily as melted ice cream”. (“Too Faced’s Melted Metals Are Here for Summer” May 23, 2015)
As an ode to my current show “Of Women” at the Rockaway Artists Alliance, I turn my attention to lipstick in the context of fine art. Not to my surprise, I find a taste for the practical, the market savvy and the licentious. Our lipstick connoisseurs/artists are Julie Houts, Angel Rose, Man Ray, James Rosenquist and Tom Wesselman.
Lipsticks that liquefy and “melt with the heat of ones’ skin and blend into a shimmering shade as easily as melted ice cream”
“I’m just always lying, basically. If I say I’m in a cab it means that I’m getting ready. If I say I’m five minutes away it means I just got in a cab!”
Julie Houts, a J. Crew illustrator, delivers a hilarious sketchbook send up in a self-deprecating and relatable manner. The woman in “I’m in a Cab” applies red lipstick – her only redeeming quality amid a disheveled appearance of Velcro rollers, an unclasped bra and knee-high socks. She assesses her appearance in front of a mirror after a long night. Confessional and unconventional at the same time, the portrait is illustrated in a simple line and soft palette. The added rodent on her back and the bunny slippers makes the viewer pause and perform a double-take.
“Take your bottom lip and pull it over your head” – Bill Cosby
Left: Angel Rose ”I’m not a slut. I read books”, (2016) Carbon Copy 32.28 x 23.23 in
In “I’m not a slut. I read books” (2016) Carbon Copy Angel Rose, our second female aritst in the line-up, proposes a different kind of lip service. Worded in a consise ten word text, her straegem uses lipstick as part marketing tool. Eschewing the more conventional artist materials such as canvas, she prefers “carbon copy”. Roses’s approach is both lean and straightworward; The artist selects an ever-decreasing font size as if to give the viewer the impact of reading an eye exam.
“I’m Not a Slut…” appeals to a decidely male audience. Her naked appeal – ooops! Who said that? – speaks of desperate financial collage age angst.
Man Ray’s Red Badge of Courage proposed the ”Application of lipstick as a woman’s
gesture of Courage in moments of stress.”
Man Ray’s iconic (right) “Red Badge of Courage” (1937) Photograph speaks of an avante garde sensibility. He proposes the act of applying lipstick as a stabilizing force in a world run amok. Man Ray, part of the Surrealists and Dada circle of the 1930’s, carried a high regard for the female form and portrayed women as femme-fatales. The figure in Red Badge flawlessly applies her lipstick in a stoic manner reminiscent of native warriors of old. Like a peacock in full plume, the figure staves off imminent chaos and repels hostile forces with a façade of perfectly shaped eyebrows, perfectly applied eyeliner and now a flawless lip. Lipstick as arsenal. New York Times journalist Woody Hochswender in “Illuminating Man Ray as Fashion Photographer” (September 14, 1990) testifies that Man Ray wished for ”something different, not like the stuff turned out by the usual photographers.”
Pop artist James Rosenquist’s “House of Fire”, (1981) Oil on Canvas 78 x 16 x 6 in. presents lipsticks as a barrel of guns amidst a fiery background; Day glow reds, magentas and fiery hues assault the eyes. The most sensually painted grocery bag hangs upside-down while a fire bucket draped in a halo descends from an open window. The slick and polished painting of cocked lipstick guns hints at violence. Rosenquist, who trained as a billboard artist, presents a work monumental in size. A viewer is forced to walk across the length of the gallery to capture the full scale of its impact. Typical of pop art themes, “House of Fire” reflects the cultural obsession with consumerism so rife in the 1960’s arts discourse.
“Find a man who will ruin your lipstick, not your mascara”
Things heat up in blatant eroticism with pop artist Tom Wesselmann, an artist, clearly fascinated with lipstick in a different “boudoir” sense. He makes simple statements in “Bedroom Painting #2” 1968 Oil on Canvas and “Smoker #8,” 1973, Oil on Shaped Canvas. His figures, reduced to disembodied body parts, have become the artists’ signature. His reductive style simplifies the figures even more to hues of cherry red, black, white and orange. Curves circle all around in the licentious shapes of an orange, the waft of smoke and the line of the mouth. The artists’ fetish comes off as remote and unsettling. Even the titles of the paintings, done in a series, are labeled by number.
New York Times critic Kevin Conley asserts “Feminists made Wesselmann the whipping boy for the male gaze, and American museum curators treated his nudes as if they were an ad for unprotected sex. (“The Most Famous Pop Artist You Don’t Know”, August 22, 2016)
The depiction of lipstick as a humble cosmetic, war paint, marketing tool to accessory in the bedroom swings widely in the hands of both female and male artists. It is curious to see how a cosmetic made for women would propel Rosenquist and Wessellman to fetishistic heights. That such a tiny tube of three-inch erotica should elicit so much power and imagination leaves this artist exhausted and in the end, desperate and in need of a cigarette.