Despite the relative obscurity of the original text, it’s a phrase that’s overused, frequently misquoted, and even appropriated for cosmetic brands’ commercial campaigns—only confirming, it seems, our collective fascination with physical beauty, and of our constant attempts to define what it is and what it is not. This was the central theme of “Skin Deep,” which featured the works of a dozen artists.
Each of the exhibition’s 12 contributors, of course, have a different idea of beauty. In the lush, Caravaggio-like male nudes by the painter Thomas Wharton, beauty is in the details of a youthful human form: the curve of a spine, a protrusion of abdominal muscles, the smoothness of flesh. If Wharton presents a male ideal, the painter Drew Ernst presents his female counterpart, the lithe blonde of Decisions Ghost (2015), as does Sherry Wolf with her ’60s-style bombshell in Modern Mondrian.
But many of the other artists featured in the show offer expressions of beauty that are decidedly less conventional. There are Frank Oriti’s portraits of young men, tattooed and rough around the edges, and Adrienne Stein’s flower-bedecked girls, seeming to gaze back at the viewer—dreamy visions with technicolor hair and gothic lipstick. Pamela Wilson’s dark figures look like they were pulled from the masses at Burning Man; Teresa Elliott’s hyperrealistic oils seem to capture both the spectacular beauty and the inevitable flaws, the joy and the anguish of being a woman.
The contrast in Elliott’s works is particularly apropos for this show. After all, Overbury’s original poem, “A Wife,” is about the imperfection of humans, the endless cycle of lust, and the passing of physical beauty. In their varying interpretations of this perennially intriguing theme, the artists of “Skin Deep” prove the truth in another old phrase with little-known origins: the idea that beauty is impossible to define because it lies, indeed, in the eye of the beholder.
“Skin Deep” is on view at RJD Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY, May 30–Jun. 22, 2015.