Reactor

Body Modifications of the Woman Born from the Young-Girl #NSFW

by Alicia Eler on May 8, 2013

Philip Toledano, "Monique" (2008) (via

Philip Toledano, “Monique” (2008) (via mrtoledano.com)

CHICAGO — Move over, John Currin. Your paintings of disproportionate, not symmetrical picture-perfect bodies pale in comparison to the photographs of Philip Toledano, whose images portray women, transgender women and men with extreme cosmetic surgery. As a matter of focus, I’ll only look at images of those who identify in a feminine gendered space.

John Currin, "The Cripple," 1997

John Currin, “The Cripple,” 1997

In our image-oriented consumer culture that places great emphasis on the body yet asks you to indulge every single one of your face-stuffing food fantasies, it’s curious to make a connection between the young-girl tattooing herself as a means of asserting autonomy, whereas the woman undergoes plastic surgery to in fact become “young” again — or at least, in the hopes of looking young again. The transgender woman poses another set of questions around gender; Toledano’s subject “Allanah” identifies as transgender, and has gone through multiple plastic surgeries. Her reasons for going under the knife are not motivated by an interest in recapturing her past as the young-girl, but rather to transform herself, physically. In this case, the term “girl” is used more fluidly, echoing a BuzzFeed interview with trans fashion model Arisce Wanzer who notes that coming out as transgender helped her to “start living as the girl I felt I was.”

Philip Toledano, "Allanah," 2008

Philip Toledano, “Allanah” (2008)

Toledano photographs his subjects in classic, art historical poses, borrowing poses from images by Renaissance German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein the Younger.

The idea of portraying the older woman modified by plastic surgery yet posing her classically is a curious departure from Dutch artist Hendrik Kerstens’ work, who takes his teenage daughter Paula, who is a ciswoman, as subject matter. She poses with contemporary consumer objects adorning her head and neck — a doilie replaces a ruff, toilet paper rolls replace what would normally be giant, curled white hair. Creating her in an elegant pose, he looks at her as a father and imbued with the light of Dutch master paintings.

Hendrik Kerstrens, "Paper Roll," color photography, 2008.

Hendrik Kerstrens, “Paper Roll,” color photography, 2008.

Toleando, on the other hand, is snapping images of the contemporary transgender female form as modified — never ‘pure’ like paintings of the ‘ideal child‘ found throughout art history, or in the work of Kerstens, who portrays the teenage girl moreso as a stately, formal young woman than image-obsessed tween or teen. And in fact, the modifications in Toleando’s work are far more drastic than a disproportionate John Currin body could ever be because they are not images born of the artist’s mind. They are photographs of transwomen plucked straight from real life — and their body modifications are entirely of their own making.

Toledano's "Allanah" and "Dina"

Toledano’s “Allanah” and “Dina”

In fact, these women are but one step away from the fantastically horrifying ‘Tan Mom,’ who makes fun of skin care and certainly doesn’t need anyone else to capture her body dysmorphia, shifting her likeness to one that is othered by the same consumer culture that offered her beckonings of beauty. In the case of Toledano’s “Allanah,” however, the modifications reflect a gendered transformation—a trans coming out that shifts away from both the cis-young-girl and the ciswoman all together, resulting in a body modification that presents as both performative and authentic to the woman’s vision of herself.

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  • josh porter

    So, why no mention of Lisa Yuskavage?

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      I was considering that . . . you must have read my mind.

  • josephburen

    Allanah, and others, are in fact transsexual porn stars– which discredits this whole argument. Do your homework.

    • http://www.aliciaeler.com Alicia Eler

      Cool, thanks. I have updated the article to reflect that they are transgender. This makes it a lot more interesting, actually. It’s curious to think about the performance of the woman and young-girl genders in the space of trans bodies–I do think the comparisons to Kerstens and Currin still stand, as they are also discussing the female form, and their work can easily be queered due to the performative nature of gender of the subjects. Transgender women are women in my book, and I wouldn’t other them by talking about them only in the context of other trans people.

  • thom thom

    These photographs don’t make me question anything any more than my search engine.

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