"Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly." That's what a popular spoken word song told me when I was in high school, and research backs up its claim. None of this has led me to actually stop reading beauty magazines, though, or to avert my eyes from fashion ads on the sides of buses, buildings or billboards. How could I, when they are such a tantalizing combination of glossy, slightly surreal aesthetics, high fashion and celebrity?
Artist Michael de Feo has similarly been drawn to fashion ads for years. After starting his career as a street artist painting graphic flowers on walls and other surfaces, he was given a key to open the ad panel on the side of bus stops, and soon started painting colorful florals onto the photographs.
"I think these images in the fashion industry are really finely fabricated," says De Feo. "The flowers that I put into those images, this sort of overgrowth, this sort of stuff taking over, aren't real either."
De Feo has created some of his most large-scale works for an installation in the Rice Gallery Summer Windows, on view through August 28 while the gallery is closed for the season. Crosstown Traffic features giant panels of ads from Balmain and Dior, featuring Rihanna, Kendall Jenner, actress Chloe Grace Moretz and model Jourdan Dunn taken out of context and softened by the addition of De Feo's hand-painted florals.
Normally I'm skeptical of an artist that makes a statement by inserting their own reality into an existing work—Richard Prince's exhibition at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery of other people's (mostly women's) Instagram photos, modified only by his fake comments underneath, is a particularly slimy example. However De Feo notes his fascination with the underlying medium, and his respect is tangible in the work. With paint strokes covering much of the bodies, pieces of clothing and accessories the ads are supposed to be selling, they become a meditation on beauty and artifice, and what we're really looking at when we look at fashion ads.
"I like to tamper with things," says De Feo." I like to get people's eyes to open in a fresh way with things that are perhaps very familiar to them, that they wouldn't give a second look to normally."