Shary Boyle: Re-Imagining Beauty

Shary Boyle’s solo show, Flesh and Blood, on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario until December 5, presents critical contemporary art and innovative curatorial practices. Boyle’s work plays with visual and mental perceptions of beauty, terror, gender and sexuality. The paintings, sculptures and projection-installations employ a complex concurrence of meticulous craftsmanship and jarring subject matter. Additionally, Flesh and Blood, responds to the museum’s adjacent exhibitions, creating unexpected and exciting dialogues with the AGO’s permanent collection.

Boyle knows that beauty is not dead, but recognizes that it requires critical investigation. Her art distorts the distinctions of what is attractive and what is abject. For Julia Kristeva, abjection is caused by the loss of distinction between the self and the body’s physicality (vomit, faeces, fingernails, etc). Kristeva writes about the “sacred power of horror” which reveals society’s unconscious desires.[1] Boyle’s art is a site for exploring the abject. Her painting Vanity (2009) depicts a greyscale female portrait against a flat, yellow background (fig 1). As the subject gazes downwards, her extremely long and thin eyelashes droop below her collarbones. A feature that would ordinarily connote beauty becomes unpleasant. The Letter (2009) reverses this formula (fig 2). This delicate sculpture portrays a peach male figure kneeling over a pink female form. From their tiny mouths spew strings of colourful glass beads that fall over their bodies and over the edge of the pedestal. Though the beads signify vomit, the sculpture is not disgusting. The Letter is the anti-abject – the repulsive becomes beautiful again. As artist Martin Kippenberger says about contemporary art-making, “You can’t simply be provocative, but you can’t simply do pretty stuff either.”[2] Boyle awakens us to the malleability of beauty.

(Fig. 1) Vanity, 2009.                                             (Fig. 2) The Letter, 2009.

The exhibition title Flesh and Blood connotes womanhood. The female body is both an absence and an excess of flesh, and a site of perpetual bleeding. Laura Mulvey explains that these physical attributes create male anxiety. She applies psychoanalysis to film theory in order to describe the male gaze. Phallocentrism “depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.”[3] The woman “symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis” and by her possession of “the bleeding wound.”[4] Shary Boyle’s artworks disrupt gender roles and deny the viewer’s comfortable male gaze. No body part (male or female) is censored or glamorized. The convention of the woman as the “bearer of meaning, not [the] maker of meaning,” is interrupted.[5] The sculpture-installation White Light (2010) is both intensely horrifying and tremendously beautiful. The form of this almost-human creature disorients the viewer with its subtlety-elongated features. It is impossible to tell if this jet-black figure is caught in or in command of her surrounding web. Her back is arched seductively and her facial features glow softly. With her gaze focused into the gallery, is she guarding the exhibition, anticipating a lover, or waiting for the predator to return? She is also the subject of a peep show. In the opposing wall there is a discreet porthole from which unsuspecting AGO visitors in the Dutch still-lifes gallery can peep at the figure. The female figure in White Light is both the receiver and initiator of the gaze.


Flesh and Blood does not sit quietly in the massive rooms of the AGO’s contemporary galleries. Instead, it invades the main floor Thompson Collection of European Art. The resulting connections are surprising and not at all contrived. Boyle’s work is bookended on one side with a more archaeological display (dimly lit, encased in glass) of small religious items. On the other side, her art mingles with Dutch oil paintings that depict, among other things, a pale children with rose lips, a devilish sprite seducing a woman, and a couple butchering wild game. The juxtaposition suggests Boyle’s artworks fitting into a great continuation and critiquing of art history. The artworks are alive and wish to create dialogue.

Flesh and Blood demonstrates how a museum’s tired permanent collection can be revitalized through contemporary art. In this case, both exhibits benefit from the unexpected union because they are prompted to discuss the changing and continuous depictions of beauty and femininity. Shary Boyle re-examines beauty and the female body by reclaiming the gaze and by mixing power dynamics. Her work demonstrates the re-emerging discourse on beauty as a “valid exercise.”[6] She smashes the pre-modernist view of “the beautiful as the sole, undisputed, and universal bearer of a better society” and shows us how beauty can be manipulated and re-imagined.[7]




[1] Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1138.

[2] Kippenberger, Marin. “B: interview with Jutta Koether” in in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1103.

[3] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 983.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alberro, Alexander. “Beauty Knows No Pain” in Art Journal (Summer 2004). 37.

[7] Ibid, 39.


Alberro, Alexander. “Beauty Knows No Pain.” In Art Journal, 37-43. Summer 2004.

Kippenberger, Marin. “B: interview with Jutta Koether.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1102-1105. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Kristeva, Julia. “Powers of Horror.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 1137-1139. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Art in Theory 1900-2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 982-989. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.


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