Oil on linen
54 x 40 cm
A beautiful thing is something that would make us happy if it were ours, but remains beautiful even if it belongs to someone else.
Umberto Eco, On Beauty
Beautiful youth – it’s wasted on the young, or so the adage goes. Youth, by its very nature fleeting, is the embodiment of a kind of impossible, sometimes flawed, perfection. It is the notion of something unsullied, raw, budding and in transition and for time immemorial cultures have been in thrall to the beauty of youth, but arguably never more so than now.
Popular culture is both the prolific producer and voracious consumer of the beauty myth and its heroes and heroines, who provide creative fodder for Deidre But-Husaim. Her edgy painted portraits of insouciant youths offer a curious combination of knowing innocence. But-Husaim sources her subjects on modelling websites (a uniquely contemporary phenomenon where wannabes post portfolio shots to pitch their vital statistics to casting agents), appropriating the blurry imperfect Polaroid shots of hopeful fresh faces desperately seeking to be the next ‘It’ boy or girl. Affecting sultry disaffection, some hold our gaze, silently begging admiring attention while others demure and turn their heads.
Like a talent scout, she daily trawls through hundreds of images of aspiring models searching for that indescribable quality that sets one apart from the other: the smattering of freckles across a nose, a pair of piercing blue eyes, a birthmark or a ‘caught in the headlights’ expression. En masse these androgynous bright young things become ciphers upon which we may project our own ideals of beauty and youth. For But-Husaim they are a blank canvas onto which she superimposes elaborate ‘tattoos’ of her own design elevating her subjects in the process from the status of banal beauties, and rescuing them from obscurity.
Ironically, tattoos are now so common as to be pedestrian, no longer the predilection of stereotypical ‘outsiders’ - ex-jailbirds, bikers or rock stars - but sported by the mothers and grandmothers who people suburban malls. Teenagers ‘get ink done’ less as a rebellious rite of passage than as a fashion accessory, albeit a lasting one. The power of a tattoo to shock is diminished, replaced by distinctly uninspired imagery and the prevalence of the celebrity tattoo. Indeed, it is possible to buy a book of temporary copy tattoos such as Johnny Depp’s infamous “Winona Forever”.
Importantly, But-Husaim’s adornments are not the ubiquitous stock standard tattoos that currently abound in contemporary culture, but rather elaborate baroque and rococo embellishments of the artist’s creation, such as exquisite chintzy floral vines and delicate birds. The impossibly beautiful Dorian, made more so with the addition of a tattoo of blowsy flowers, could be the pop star embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s antihero Dorian Gray. Similarly Byron, whose name and visage conjures up both the poet and more contemporaneously the 1980s romantic lyrics of Morrissey and The Smiths, is all flowing locks and feminine features. Decorated with a spray of pretty flowers he is redolent of a new sexuality, not one thing or another, just beautiful.
The subject’s names, sometimes their own or bestowed upon them by the artist, lend them a gravity and metaphorical quality: Elvis (resplendent with a quaff and blooms), Dante (his neck tattooed with a heart tongued snake), Napoleon (appropriately decorated with a horse) and Guinevere (all gamin shyness). Geronimo (oh what a face!) may be a boy or could be a girl. It hardly matters. The bird at the tender flush of his/her neck might be symbolic of an illicit past or a free spirit. In tattooing them But-Husaim brands them as her own creation in the spirit of John Keats’ poem Endymion,
A thing of beauty, is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breath.
© Alison Kubler, Freelance writer and curator