Artist to Know: Vanessa Beecroft

Liz Catalano
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Installation Sculptures from Performance Artist Available in Upcoming Van Ham Event

Perhaps best known for the controversies she has courted, Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft has rarely failed to push the boundaries. Her conceptual performances have used women’s bodies to explore themes of gender, eating disorders, and race. Routinely crossing the line between the art and commercial worlds, Beecroft’s work has stirred conversation around the contradictions present in modern culture. 

“It’s the perfect product of a time when we claim to despise reality TV but secretly watch it; fear globalisation but cherish that Starbucks latte,” Nick Johnstone wrote for The Guardian in 2005. “… like all great art, Vanessa Beecroft’s performances beam that uncomfortable truth right back at us.” 

Three paraffin wax sculptures from Beecroft’s 2008 VB64 performance art piece will come to auction with Van Ham on September 26th, 2020. Find out more about Beecroft before placing a bid. 

Vanessa Beecroft at a performance. Image from Widewalls.
Vanessa Beecroft at a performance. Image from Widewalls.

The daughter of a British classic car dealer and an Italian teacher, Beecroft grew up in the small town of Malcesine, Italy. After her parents separated, the artist lived with her mother in an environment with “no cars, no men, no meat.” Her early experiences planted the seeds for her later development and artistic vision, especially after she developed an eating disorder at the age of 12. Beecroft began chronicling the food she ate and the exercise she compulsively completed. She started pursuing art in earnest during college by putting her food logs on display with live performance models. Early on, she was discovered by New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch and debuted on the global stage. 

Beecroft has spent the rest of her career experimenting with the bodies of women in performance art. Her models, typically numbering between 15 and 50 in a single performance, are described as the medium of her tableaux vivants “a material in an almost pure state.” Beecroft views her art as autobiographical as she projects her own insecurities and struggles on the models. Though she rarely involves herself in the performances, each show is named after her initials. 

By 2008, Beecroft had established herself in Brooklyn and was supported by both luxury fashion brands and popular celebrities. The VB64 performance that year was held publicly in New York and featured 20 models alongside life-size wax sculptures. Each model was covered from head to toe in white paint to be nearly indistinguishable from their sculpted counterparts. The performance was heavily inspired by Renaissance funerary practices and touched on the nature of performance art. Three plaster and wax accent sculptures from VB64 are featured in the upcoming Van Ham auction (EUR 40,000 – 60,000 / USD 47,000 – 70,500). 

Vanessa Beecroft, untitled sculpture from Performance VB64. Image from Van Ham.
Vanessa Beecroft, untitled sculpture from Performance VB64. Image from Van Ham.

Beecroft’s work has come under fire repeatedly since she started. Some declare her projects “Hooters for intellectuals,” while others say they are explicitly anti-feminist. Her refusal to label the art has only intensified the debates. Around the time of VB64’s production, Beecroft began collaborating with Kanye West. She also began considering the impact of race on her work, employing more women of color for her performances. Her ties to the high fashion industry have raised debate about exploitation and consumption, themes that remain conspicuously absent

Despite the ongoing discussions surrounding Beecroft’s art, she continues to draw crowds at her live performances. In the auction industry, photographs and props serve as collectible reminders of the real events. A chromogenic print of VB52, Castello di Rivoli, Turin achieved USD 21,250 at a recent Phillips auction. Mounted on plexiglass, the print shows 30 partially-nude models dining at a glass table. Each model ate color-coded food for three days straight, consistent with the artist’s own diet. 

Sculptures used in Beecroft performances tend to achieve the highest prices at auction. A 2004 polished bronze sculpture sold for USD 57,000 at Sotheby’s in March of 2018. That hammer price was nearly twice the high estimate of USD 30,000. Beecroft’s ongoing brand collaborations have helped elevate her art into the public eye as well. 

Vanessa Beecroft, VB52, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2003. Image from Phillips.
Vanessa Beecroft, VB52, Castello di Rivoli, Turin, 2003. Image from Phillips.

Beecroft’s newest work includes designs for Kanye West’s opera series and a full performance at Art Basel Miami Beach in December of 2019. She now turns to painting after a flurry of shows and activities. “I want to stay in my studio as much as I can,” Beecroft told Forbes last year. “The art world distracts me, I want to stay concentrated.”

Bidding for the VB64 sculptures will be held live online and over the phone on September 26th, 2020. Visit Van Ham for more information and to place a bid. 

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