Review: The Petal Project by Tal Shpantzer

Photographing women is fraught. Taking pictures of women immediately ventures success or failure in terms of the ability to retrieve the image of woman – any image of the woman, any woman, every woman, women... – from the coded manipulations of what stands for beauty and belonging, against the creation of singularity and individuation. In Shpantzer's Petal Project, each woman is marked by the presence of a flower's petal, bud or blossom covering the woman's mouth. This element provides the visual echo uniting the series without dictating any single question or prerogative.

Some of the portraits present an easy fit: as if the petal were a favorite flavor, a selected rouging or beguiling accessory. Other images poise on the edge of inescapable historicism: where the mouths of women are never neutral, single or simple, where covering invokes silencing or censorship, and the beauty of the flower-addition courses the continuum: conscious departure, frustrated coding, uneasy glorification, contentious complicity. In other words, not all of the images succeed, or succeed equally, at distancing us as viewers from seeing what we have mostly likely and most often 'seen' before – the staged and un-innocent serializing of women and the sexualizing of anything that involves us.

Fortunately and strategically, the variation of faces, features, styles, angles and personal elements keeps the series grounded in exploration and vibrancy. Different postures individuate – even as the flowered mouth of each portrait builds the theme of the project. The women of these images are not reduced to one version, style or statement. Beauty emerges in the variations of the more subtle, observable elements: eyes, bones, brows bangs, freckles..... It also appears in the stark willfulness of those 'sitting.' There are no wall flowers in this project, no shrinking violets, or ambivalent participants. The series plays the tension: female, floral, futurity... before capturing the irreducible certitude of women choosing to... and ultimately, the beauty of the gaze not just returned but active and attuned, self-aware and integrated.