Pictura Gallery

Rachel Papo & Evgenia Arbugaeva

Rachel Papo | Desperately Perfect 

Evgenia Arbugaeva | Forever Beautiful

What does it mean to live a life dedicated to achieving the unachievable? To embody an almost impossible excellence? To live forever beautiful?

Does the desire for distinction make someone admirable? Brave? Heroic? Might such pursuits also be a sign of delusion? Disorientation? Dysmorphia? And how should we engage with the stories of such determination for both physical ability and cosmetic beauty? Do we look on these images as voyeurs, fascinated by commitment but aghast at the extremes people will go through – can go through – in the pursuit of perfection? Do we watch in judgment or jealousy, dismissing their fastidious fortitude as vain or unrealistic, or perhaps envying the graceful body or the beautiful face that can sometimes be the outcome of study, practice, and plastic surgery. Or might we even view these images with empathy, recognizing that the “delusional” pursuit of beauty, the “desperation” for perfection, might well be a characterization of our own lives? And does this make us crazy or merely human?

Gaze on Rachel Papo’s dancers and you see more than children learning the ballet. Exposed are the vulnerable spaces of waiting, the anxieties and desires of children-soon-to-be-adults, desperate they will disappoint a future waiting to happen.

Papo’s work is as meticulous and detailed as the dancers she depicts. Creating the illusion of grace requires discipline in the dancer; exposing the ambivalence of the desire for perfection demands mastery in the photographer. These images fuse both perspectives: through the camera’s vantage point, we feel the child’s point of view. Ten years of punishing preparation might yield unimaginable consequences in fame and glory – to be another Baryshnikov!

Yet, tomorrow might be the day where you are too tall, too short, too fat, too clumsy, too imperfect for this prestigious ballet academy. You might be expelled at any moment; failure haunts the edges of the dream – to become a has-been at age eleven. And just whose dreams are being fulfilled? The child-soon-to-be adult? The mother or father waiting in the wings? Teachers and coaches wishing they themselves had worked harder? A larger world that praises the graceful movement etched into the form and sinew of each of these dancer’s bodies, yet fails to make sufficient spaces for artists?

While we might admire the ballet dancer’s determination, the desire to be forever young creates far more ambivalence. The fleeting nature of physical beauty announces itself in the disjunctions captured in Eugenia Arbugaeva’s work. The female figure lying on the bed in a golden diaphanous gown, her body displayed in sinuous satin curves, the steep dip of hip into waste – each detail knowingly calls the viewer through the tropes of sexualized display. Yet, coming closer we are caught off guard by the aged body prone before us. The switch from sexualized to septuagenarian is breath-taking, leaving us somewhat repulsed, somewhat captivated, certainly surprised. Can we gaze on the tragic wrinkled face of an aged woman desperate to be pretty and offer that woman our respect and even desire? Or can these figures only be mocked and pitied?

– Dr. Brenda Weber, Professor of Gender Studies

Rachel Papo is an Israeli photographer who was born in 1970 in Columbus, Ohio, and was raised in Israel. She began photographing as a teenager and attended a renowned fine-arts high-school in Haifa, Israel. At age eighteen she served in the Israeli Air Force as a photographer. She earned a BFA in Fine Arts from The Ohio State University, and an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Rachel’s photographs are included in several public and private collections, and have been exhibited and published worldwide. She currently lives in Woodstock, New York, pursuing fine art photography. Rachel is represented by ClampArt Gallery in New York City. She has been awarded a NYFA Fellowship and a Lucie Award.

Desperately Perfect | Artist Statement

Fifteen-year-old Katya is devastated. This week is the big international conference, in which dance professionals from around the world visit the renowned Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. They will be allowed to get a glimpse of the young students during several of their daily ballet lessons. The demonstration for her class was about to start, when Katya was ordered by the teacher to leave the room. Why did she have to get injured the day before the conference? This was her chance to be seen by an international crowd, and she has worked so hard to reach this point. Her shoulder hurts, but she doesn’t care. She is used to this pain. If it didn’t hurt how would she get better?

In these times of reality TV and instant stardom, in a country that is constantly evolving towards western culture, there exists an institution in which the old ways are still practiced. From the age of ten until eighteen; twelve hours a day; six days a week; on the barre or in a classroom—for the students of this school there are no shortcuts.

This project is a look into the lives of a group of adolescents who, in their hope for a better, wider life, spend the majority of their youth in fierce competition. Based on my own memories of being a ballet student for nine years of my childhood, never being the best in class, these images emphasize the emotional side of these children’s uncompromising reality. They stretch their bodies further every day, desperate to stand out, while constantly being encouraged by their instructors to be uniform—identical to one another. Engaged in endless repetition of physical phrases, these students obsessively strive for a level of perfection that is always out of reach.

Evgenia Arbugaeva was born in the town of Tiksi, located on the shore the Laptev Sea in the Republic of Yakutia in Russia. In her personal work she often looks into her homeland - the Arctic, discovering and capturing the remote worlds and people who inhabit them. Evgenia is a National Geographic Society Storytelling Fellow, a recipient of the ICP Infinity Award, Leica Oskar Barnack Award and the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Grant. Her work has been exhibited internationally and appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Time, Le Monde and The New Yorker magazines among others. She lives in London, UK.

Forever Beautiful | Artist Statement

In Forever Beautiful, Evgenia captures images of aged divas, former beauty queens now fixated on preserving an appearance of flawlessness that has long since passed. The fleeting nature of physical beauty, and these women’s determination to look forever young, prompt viewers to answer the question: What does it mean to live a life dedicated to achieving the impossible?

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