Text by Zofia Krawiec, Afterbeauty, Biala Gallery, Lublin, Poland, February 2019

What is left after beauty?

What is left when the beauty is gone? This is one of the questions posed by Marta Zgierska in her work Afterbeauty. The series of photographs depicts various facial masks. Captured in a photographic frame, just right after being used, they look like abstract sculptures or splashes of paint on canvas, in soft and delicate colors evoking a little girl’s room. However, this palette of amicable colors is broken by the disturbing form, triggering associations with some autonomous structure, which has been snatched from the body in sterile (medical) conditions. On the other hand, these disintegrating shapes appear as some vague, separate beings, autonomous organisms.

Today, a facial mask is one of the most popular, lifestyle accessories – an indispensable element of a cosmetic bag, commonly used by women who take care of their skin. Furthermore, there is something appealing in it, which makes many young women take selfies while wearing the mask and publish such self-portraits on social media sites, for example on Instagram. The artist herself admits that she usually neglects beauty treatments and on a daily basis has no time either for cosmetic rituals or for herself. Therefore, she reaches for facial masks from the position of a researcher rather than a regular user.

Masks used by Zgierska one by one have lost their relaxing and nurturing qualities. Their application has become an unpleasant process – a ritual, which is not only strenuous in its repetitiveness, but also excessive to the extent that the effects the mask is meant to have are more harmful than beneficial to the skin.

The series by Zgierska paints an unusual, intimate self-portrait. Each sheet features the artist’s face imprinted on it moments earlier. However, traces of her image remain concealed, blurred, and obliterated in the photographed forms. The concept of “taking off the mask” is a cultural archetype. This is an important, symbolic, almost performative gesture, which corresponds with exposing oneself, revealing the naked truth about the self. Zgierska, however, deceives her audience. Here, taking off the mask, in fact, diverts attention away from her. It is the transition from corporeality to immateriality. Hence, one can use the detective skills and investigate the photographs searching for traces of the artist’s skin imprints or remnants of her personality. In this context, the series Afterbeauty may be easily read as the opposition to the culture of omnipresent selfie images; to the modern trend of exposing oneself and creating one’s image on the Internet; to the excessive presence; to the conviction that “if you’re not on social media, you don’t exist.”

Additionally, Zgierska’s non-canonical selfportraits enter the realm of abstract art. The effect that she achieves is based on a certain contrast. On the one hand, her photographs are pastel and girlie-like, and they refer to everyday experience of a young woman, but on the other hand, they confront the tradition of modernists art. Thus they form a loop, which combines high art with something that evokes associations with banality, infantility, girlishness, in other words – with everything that has been superseded from the modernist art discourse for a very long time. What is also important here is the fact that Zgierska notices the relation between beauty products and skin care, which are connected with making oneself more attractive, and painting. Both are used for creation, for making an impact on the viewers, and often – for seduction.

Here, the beauty of modernism, traditionally associated with „cleansing of art” by removing the excess, also applies to the cleansing of skin. Zgierska draws from both everyday experience and modernism. However, the presence of modernist tradition is not overwhelming and it does not remove anything. It only provides the context.

The importance of the series Afterbeauty lies in the tension between abstraction and representation. It is the relation between photography and painting that plays significant role here. It is the dialog between representing reality, which is done by photography, and creating a painterly representation focused on color. However, this series is also the battle for beauty, which not only has been thoroughly discussed for centuries, but also has been the basic category of aesthetics. This battle has gone beyond the world of art, and today it is part of reality focused on the struggle for the image.

The wellness culture is in fact a permanent performance of caring for oneself and presenting its results on social media sites. Modernity revolves around unceasing processes of self-development aimed at becoming the best version of oneself. Stylizing one’s own life, which used to be present mostly in art, has become fundamental part of everyday existence. And that is mainly due to the development of technology and the pervasiveness of cameras, smart phones and the Internet. The avant-garde utopia has come true. The movement postulated the need to aestheticize everyday life, and not to create art separately from it. In her work, Zgierska shows us that today it is no longer the utopia, but the dystopia.

The artist launches a number of interesting intertextual relations between high art and everyday life, between painting and photography, without clearly defining their affiliations. Afterbeauty oscillates between such tensions.

Zofia Krawiec, independent curator and artist