Unwell Rockwell

Heather, as a Looker

I like masks. You can see that very evidently in my work. I like the wearer pretending that the viewer does not notice it is a mask. To purposefully confront magical realism and then ignore the fact that it is magical forces the otherworldly into the ordinary, the accepted.

For example, in my series  Heather, not as a Hippo, Heather visually narrates to her viewer, “Yes, I have the head of a hippo and the body of a human. Let’s move on from that impossibility. We have so much ground to cover together to waste time discussing silly details.” It’s the leap over absurdity to land into bizarre narrative that strikes me. 

So, I found a new mask. It reminded me of an exaggeration of Rockwell’s work. It harkens back to youthful, chubby, rosy cheeks like Rockwell depicts. It evokes innocence and health. It also reminds me of the Mad Magazine kid, Alfred E. Neuman, who, in turn, I’ve always associated with Rockwell. Of unknown origin, what has developed through the hands of artist Norman Mingo is the cartoon icon Mad Magazine has plugged into each new comedy mocking current events. To me, the exaggerated ode to Rockwell’s idealized style is unmistakable.

I will investigate Rockwell and Neuman and they way they affect the culture of this mask further in the article. 


(Click the image below to move on to the next frame)

For now, let me say I intend to use the mask, as seen above, to investigate the world of fashion models.* There are countless arenas in which idealized portrayals of models harm women: objectification, the sexualization of young girls, and unrealistic body and beauty standards. The list is much more extensive. Models restrict their bodies to fit these roles of thin, waifish, youthful examples of women.** Their bodies starve, and yet they pinken their cheeks with blush, redden their lips with lipstick, highlight the corner of their eyes to brighten and shine, all to imitate the health and vivacity that you cannot also possess with thigh gaps and concave stomachs. On top of that, they way in which they are lit, posed, and photoshopped heighten the sense of the unrealistic, the impossible, and yet, most disturbingly, the desired.  

Model Irina Shayk

A mere google search of “popular models” illustrates the harm this barrage of images can perpetuate. An overwhelming majority of women in this coveted industry are unwell, and yet presented as what culture expects women to appear like. We look past the falsity in these values in deference to a harmful industry. Models are our advertisements, our idealized formats. Models wear a disguise--a mask--begging the consumer to pretend that this way that we see them is real. And very often, we do ignore that they wear a mask. I’m fascinated that this problem is, quite honestly, widely discussed and criticized; however, unattainable standards still continue. 
I want to show this Rockwellian mask, representing the imposing ideals of fashion models, as a  physical object. The viewer will experience the impossibility of pretending  to ignore it. To see both the beauty and the absurdity as one. I intend to mimic fashion editorials. While I will not be working with professional models in the industry, I will chose young women who encapsulate similar standards of beauty: essentially, thin, shiny-haired, doe-eyed lovelies who come from our natural world. I want the association to editorials to fit with approved standards so the mask alone strikes as contrast .    

Now, a bit of background on why masks have come to interest me. One main artist that propelled me into masks and disguise is Cindy Sherman. The way she presents the obviously unreal in her self portraits (makeup and masks, latex and paint) encourages the viewer to pretend Sherman is presenting something real. She knows the viewer is aware of the falsity of what she is showing. Essentially, Sherman looks the viewer in the eyes and says, “Now that we’ve acknowledged I’m lying to you and you’re pretending to believe me, I’ll tell you a story.”

(Click the image below to move on to the next frame. Photographs come from Cindy Sherman's series Hollywood Hampton Types and Society Portraits)

Illustration, on the other hand, bares the weight of artistic license. The artist illustrates people to look however the artist chooses. People are real according to the standards of their created universe. Presentation of unreal as real doesn’t exist. The relationship with the viewer is much different than what Sherman shares with her audience. Painters depicting human figures face the inevitability of altering the image into idealized forms, whether or not they intend to.

Short of photorealism, artists involuntarily allow the culture they are saturated in to affect, to a degree,  the way they portray their subjects, while I would argue that photographers have the option to more purposefully play with the nuances of disguise and idealism. Really, all art, however inadvertently, perpetuates ideals. And ideals are masks to be recognized, and to be taken on and off.

Let’s investigate Rockwell, an American legend. A beloved illustrator, Rockwell’s images branched into the height of idealism: advertisement, in The Saturday Evening Post. As an artist in the 1950’s, his work reflected the culture of his time. When I first started investigating his oeuvre, particularly his portrayal of women, I thought that his rough stylistic connection to my mask would support a theme of suppression.

(Click the image above to move to the next frame. Illustrations by Normal Rockwell from The Saturday Evening Post)

Contrarily, I discovered an enlightening article (Beyond Objectification: Norman Rockwell’s Depictions of Women for the Saturday Evening Post by Haley M. Palmore) that outlined Rockwell’s involvement in turning The Evening Post from a magazine that wrote articles for men to read and to coerce their wives into buying products (by enticing advertisements of beauty and expectation) to a magazine with columns written for women about women’s issues.

I realized that my original confusion of Rockwell’s standing on women’s ideals was due to his subtlety--to the incumbent pleasantness of his era--as well as The Post’s slow acceptance of his direction.

Many of his images are of housewives doing wifely things. Most of them are pretty, thin, delicate, and youthful. Only in looking at the voluptuous bombshells of The Post’s past do you see Rockwell’s contrast. Artists today working with women’s issues shock you with menstrual blood, mastectomy scars, fat--the whole concept of the abject, glaring the viewer in the face ushers in a new physicality. Though an inappropriate parallel, I mean to say Rockwell was not shockingly revolutionary with his work on women’s issues, especially as seen through the veil of our modern eyes.

Rosy the Riveter

(Click the image in the top right to move on to the next frame. Illustrations are from Rockwell's contemporaries. Artists from first to last: John Lagatta, Guy Hoff, J.C. Leyendecker, and William Randall)

Though not exemplary of 1950’s beauty, Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter is cherubic (her facial features are debatably childish); she has strong, skilled arms. She’s calm, clearly on break from her job of physical labor, and seems to pose, accepting our approval in advance of her (then) strikingly masculine role.  However, even at Rockwell’s most bold, his images are still nice and non-confrontational. Rosie does not want or need our approval; she experiences success and fulfillment without. We’re never given the opportunity to debate what we see, so we’re put in the position to keep any judgmental thoughts of Rosie’s appearance to ourselves. She’s not defying the viewer, she’s eating a sandwich.

Through investigating Rockwell’s work, I now want to borrow his subtlety with a throwback to a non-confrontational era. I don’t want to defy the viewer outright. I want to suggest the absurdity of modern desire with a connection to the evolution of images of women that brought our culture to where we are now.

Next, let’s briefly re-examine Mingo’s creation of the wacky Nueman, whose modest stylistic connection to Rockwell can be noted in the images to the right. The red, warm tones of the skin, the reference to youthful traits like over-sized ears ready to be grown into, the missing tooth, the pinched, chubby cheeks and and tousled hair all point to Rockwell’s representation of children, little rascals to nurture and adore.

(Image above left Mad Magazine cover by Norman Mingo. Above right Kellogg's ad by Norman Rockwell. Image left Mad Magazine cover by Mark Fredrickson)

Mingo’s Neuman channels the sweetness of these idealized youth of Rockwell’s times and then shocks viewers with his knowledge and mockery of sensitive political subjects and the ever changing ties to pop culture, the participation of which is clearly inappropriate for a child. Neuman is made a mask for innocence corrupted by the events of our world. He is at once clever to the general public consuming the material he appears in and yet also made a fool for engaging in trivial banter mocking larger issues.

By the same token, to be relevant or noteworthy, models in the industry must also be youthful. Furthermore, youth denotes innocence, yet the lifestyle the industry promotes corrupts. This transformation, and youthful features themselves, are fetishized. Like Nueman, the message becomes: appear as a child, yet engage in an adult world. And when you act like the child you are, you become a comedy, a court fool to be devoured by our culture then, in the case of models, forgotten when you age.

Thus, guided by Rockwell’s configuration of women’s roles and their slow evolution from stigmatism, and Nueman equating to the double standards of youthfulness, I delve, albeit comically, into ways women continue to be formatted into ideals by fashion models. We allow beauty in our culture to be dictated by consumerism. These standards? To be simple, they’re silly. They’re absurd. They create a fissure in our real world. They makes us unwell, and we should stop conceding.


*I don’t think fashion industries of themselves are bad. I don’t think models themselves are to blame or that all models harm or restrict their bodies to attain certain measurements. I don’t think regular women (such as the models I use in this series) who share physical attributes to models are harmfully affecting beauty standards. I’m merely investigating the maturation of ideals and landing on what I consider to be the most current factor in which consumerist culture preys on women in and out of the spotlight.

**By its evolutionary nature, the laws of sexual attraction seek signs of health in a mate for producing viable offspring. Health is marked by a thin, athletic body, shiny hair, bright eyes, clear skin, rosy cheeks and lips, and youth--these signs mean our diet and lifestyle maximize our bodies’ potential to conceive, bare, and protect a child. Beauty, in its simplest form, comes from practicality--we are attracted to mates who best suit our reproductive needs. Obviously, breeding is no longer our primary concern, but those basic instincts remain. The problem is, these attracters of health transcend past what really is healthy. Now, superlatives are expected when it comes to beauty: not just thin, thinnest, not just rosy, red, not just shiny, glittering. Check out the documentary The Science of Sex Appeal if you’re interested in this topic. The irony is, these new beauty markers no longer produce the original goal. Women that are too thin cannot conceive, and lack the vitamins to have clear, rosy skin, and shiny hair (which products can trick and tease to regain this appearance).