You, Only Better by Kim Kennedy Austin
BAF Gallery, November 2nd to December 16th
By Adi Berardini
As a teenager, I remember reading glossy magazines with tips on how to live a better life, often too riddled with tips like “10 ways to get perfect skin” or “How to lose ten pounds in ten days.” Kim Kennedy Austin’s series of work done throughout her residency at the Burrard Arts Foundation (BAF), uses humour to critique the narrative of self-improvement ubiquitously found in magazines. By using a collage method and referencing Western Homes and Living magazines and an early fitness manual, Austin analyzes the consumerist construction of the ideal livelihood and body. Austin points out the tropes of self-improvement by critiquing its absurdity. You, Only Better consists of drawings constructed on paper using a velvety blue flocking, like the material found at the bottom of jewelry boxes, framed in wooden frames creating a black and white cartoon feel reminiscent of Saturday morning comics.
Austin critiques how consumers buy into the ideals of a perfect lifestyle and self-improvement methods that are often heteronormative. The setting is the post-WWII economic boom where the conditions seemed carefree, including a family relaxing on the beach and a dapper large-nosed gentleman indulging in a glass of wine. The time period of the 1960s seemed romantic and hopeful. However, Austin questions the idea of striving for perfection through capitalism when perfection is an impossible construction.
Austin cleverly uses gendered activities as a basis of her work, as seen in Dad Does the Dishes and Plumb Line. The typical gendered labour roles are reversed, the man does the dishes with a smile on his face, dressed in a TV-worthy suit instead of grumpily completing the task. In Plumb Line, a woman is seen fixing a household plumbing issue. Similarly, in Mrs. Chippy, a woman is seen with a hammer seemingly on the way to fix a broken fence. The work questions the problematic, yet all too normalized, ways that women have been placed into certain roles.
Austin’s drawings are successful in showing how absurd the desire for self-improvement can be. In Eleventh Day: Good Carriage, a woman is balancing a book on her head, demonstrating the desire for poise as well as intelligence and book smarts. The act of carrying a book on one’s head seems silly but the woman is smiling at the camera, modeling as usual. The drawings have a sense of kitsch without the immediate sense of gimmick. Although seemingly naive at first, their humour is subtle and cunning.
The second series of images reference self-betterment exercises with slim and cheerfully posed women rolling their ankles or lifting their legs. Their bodies become deconstructed until the work solely focuses on a body part, like the legs or arms. Austin reflects on the labour behind self-improvement. While experiencing the display of work, the question of who we are bettering ourselves for is introduced. Is this self-improvement for our own enjoyment or merely to fit into a society with specific ideals? The striving for self-betterment is mindlessly entrenched in the Western lifestyle, often without being properly acknowledged. Immediately, I’m reminded of the part in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman explains his rigid self-care regime of exfoliating his skin in the shower.
Analyzing these retro references shows how absurd the desire for a perfect self in a capitalist society is. Unfortunately, there can be a misconception between what’s perceived as “high art” and illustration, which is often seen as commercial. Austin’s work proves that art which draws upon illustrative concepts and techniques can be critical. Illustration is not necessarily decorative or commercial but can be a basis for creativity and criticality.
The exhibition is on November 2nd to December 16th, 2017
BAF is located at 108 East Broadway and is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to five.
For more information burrardarts.org/project/kim-kennedy-austin
Photos by Dennis Ha