Artist Melissa Huddleston Examines The Relationship of Art To Beauty (Products)

As a Conservation Assistant at the Getty Research Institute, artist Melissa Huddleston is privy to the depth’s of the institution’s massive holdings. Among these, nestled deep in the Getty Archives, is curator Harald Szeemann’s entire collection of correspondence with artists, scholars and other curators. But that’s not all! There’s also his library of rare monographs, artists’ books and publications, collected from the 1950s until his death in 2005.

Szeemann also founded the Museum of Obsessions in 1973, except it did not exist in real-life. Like the nature of an obsession, it only existed in his mind, and he says that its function was to “give direction to the Agentur fur Geistige Gastarbeit” (translation: Agency for Spiritual Guest Work). He used the Museum of Obsessions as an incubator of sorts for his broader curatorial practice, much of which was focused around two types of obsessions. He labeled the first type a “primary obsession,” being more of a compulsion toward the making of stuff or environments. Such obsessions are usually associated with the mentally ill, folk artist, or outsider artists like Henry Darger. The second type of obsession is artwork created by artists, whose obsessions become viewed as art rather than pure neurosis.

One could say that Melissa Huddleston’s show The Beautician at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA) is an instance of the secondary obsession, combined with a little bit of the former, uncontrollable type of obsession. The subject matter that she paints is inspired by a more personal area of Szeemann’s life: his grandfather, Etienne Szeemann, a Hungarian-born Swiss hairdresser and beautician (1873-1971) who actually created “the perm” and a patented hair curler. In this exhibition, Huddleston makes paintings like Szeemannn’s grandfather cut hair.

Installation view of The Beautician

Installation view of The Beautician.

The watercolor renderings of objects from the archive are straightforward. The paintings are worth looking at in-person, just gazing at their artistry. The paintings of antique hair-products offer a look into the history of the beauty industry. In the painting “Iron,” Huddleston paints the iron used for hair straightening. It looks like an antique sled, wooden and unsure, yet ready to hit the slopes. Except here the slopes are someone’s head.

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In “Shears”, Huddleston paints a pair of them upside down.“Custom Housing” renders the object used for more complex hairstyles that needed to be “housed” for a period of time before they could become properly firm. That same “ship” is placed atop a woman’s head in “Self-Portrait with Ship”; the woman in the painting looks coincidentally like Huddleston herself.

In “Tinted Fingernails,” we see a left hand reaching into the frame from somewhere beyond. Its wrist is adorned with a golden womans’ watch, and a red cloth floating in the air wipes one of her fingernails. A replication of the body appears in “Redheaded Bust,” which is just a mannequin head covered with hair, its part in the middle, its eyes empty except for long flowing eyelashes. Huddleston captures a sense of preciousness and fragility to every object she paints.

Melissa Huddleston, "Self Portrait with Ship" (2016). 35 x 27 in. Watercolor on paper

Melissa Huddleston, “Self Portrait with Ship” (2016).

This show is a somewhat academic interpretation of an archive — essentially a re-rendering of something that is preserved, of a man that most people will have never heard of. Luckily, Huddleston’s watercolors stand on their own. Her interpretation of the objects of Szeemann’s archive bring a delicate edge to a rather esoteric history of lives and ideas, simultaneously complicating and illuminating an archive that otherwise lives silently, opaquely within the museum’s coffers.

Melissa Huddleston’s “The Beautician” closed May 7; it was on view at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (2245 E Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, 90021).
Images courtesy of the artist and Los Angeles Contemporary Archive (LACA).