ISABEL MAGOWAN was born and raised in Manhattan and currently lives in Brooklyn. She received a BA in History from Wesleyan University in 2011 and an MFA in Photography from Yale School of Art in 2015. Through photography and video, she attempts to unlock the impact that codified social norms have on forming the belief systems that underlie our personal interactions. Her work often addresses concepts of beauty, expectation, and being in the public eye—issues that stem from her formative experience as a child performer. She is interested in the ways in which performance and ritual mask nightmare. Her images seek to probe rather than dismiss the artificial constructs of our lives, creating ambiguities that defy easy resolution. She is a 2017 winner of the Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward competition. Her work has been featured in numerous digital and print publications, including New York magazine, The New Yorker, and the Los Angeles Times. Among her clients are A+E Networks and Lifetime Television. Magowan’s work has been exhibited at Green Gallery (Yale School of Art), Regen Projects (Los Angeles), and Danziger Gallery (New York). Her first solo exhibition, Dress Rehearsal, is co-presented by Jane Stubbs and Emily Eerdmans at Eerdmans Fine Art, 14 East 10th Street, New York.
For some children, youth is just a dress rehearsal for something greater: artistic accolades, professional excellence, an advantageous marriage. Isabel Magowan’s first solo show, Dress Rehearsal, depicts people—mostly girls on the cusp of adulthood—whose lives and identities have been buoyed by pageantry and anticipation, but who are arriving at the moment of realizing that their expectations are structurally unsound.
Magowan’s pictures of young people are claustrophobic. The subjects either rehearse an adulthood they don’t seem to want, or they seize a sinister power whose cost they cannot yet assess. A girl gazes uncertainly into a mirror, ignoring the coquettish collar ru es that swat at her cheeks, while another stares dead-eyed at the camera in the midst of a perfect split, her mouth unyielding in spite of the childish flower perched on her chest. Most of the girls in Magowan’s images seem both practiced and eerily possessed—they’re in costume, they’re aware of the camera, and their body language is prescribed. In the only picture that appears unpoised, two girls drag their limp friend across a carpet that resembles broken glass. They could be playing a game, or dumping a body; Magowan seems to imply that one could lead to the other.
As they stare into the future, the young subjects of Dress Rehearsal would likely not see themselves in the adults that populate Magowan’s work; their vision of adulthood—the future for which these young hopefuls have rehearsed—has degraded beyond recognition. A bare-breasted woman and mannequin, both at a loss, sit side by side in abrasive morning light; a man surrounded by a rainbow of phallus-shaped lightbulbs gives the camera a sinister and seductive glance. These are adults who want to be seen as much as the children in Magowan’s images want to be seen, but it’s as though a life of inhabiting the fantasies of adolescence has left them bereft, marooned into confusion, despair, or dangerous eccentricity.
It’s fitting, then, that what all of Magowan’s subjects have in common is the risk of being devoured by their surroundings. The three girls in picnic-checker dresses, lips painted the same scarlet as the walls, seem to emanate from the room, rather than inhabit it. The bare skin of the prepubescent boy slumped in a lawn chair matches the face of the airbrushed woman on the magazine laid across his chest. To see objects and environments blending with people is menacing on its face, but each encroaching room or garment in Magowan’s work also represents a narrative into which her subjects have grown. At heart, Dress Rehearsal is about the stories we’re told—ones about success, gender, wealth, or poise—that constrict ambition, agency, and self-knowledge with catastrophic results.
SYLVIE MCNAMARA and BENNET BERGMAN, June 2017