The Unibrow

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Frida at the Barbizon Hotel, Lucienne Bloch, 1931

I spent the first two years of high school mentally plucking the unibrow of Frida Kahlo. One of her famous self portraits was tacked at the back of our Spanish classroom near the only clock, ensuring that my eyes passed by it at least four times a day. Sometimes at the end of class I would pause by the poster and stand nose to nose with the mysterious woman. Anyone who would choose to depict her own fuzzy upper lip in such detail must have been crazy, right?

I see similar reactions to Kahlo nearly every time I introduce people to the 20th century Mexican painter’s work. Their eyes zero in on that curvy caterpillar and their faces scrunch up.

This response is not wrong, it’s human. Frida was like no one else, and acknowledging our urge to reject her is a good way to measure and temper our more divisive tribal impulses. Look into her eyes long enough, and the gulf (or lack thereof, in the case of her brow) will vanish. Frida is tightly tied to Mexican folk art traditions, but she’s also a cultural free floater on the swirling clouds of Surrealism, ready to align herself with anyone who can dream.

By the end of high school, I had become such a Frida fanboy that I’d read her diary. Creepy.

Woman posing in her living room, with Camillo Cienfuegos on the TV; Alex Harris; 2003

The day after my arrival in Santa Fe, I stumbled upon a poster for the Webster Collection’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera photography exhibition. I was thrilled.

Chris Webster splits his time between Santa Fe and Hawaii. His gallery is in the old office space for his local real estate company that’s now part of Sotheby’s. The space looks like a Southwestern themed version of the Clue Mansion, complete with a beautiful library that surely has a secret passage.

I marched through the Webster’s open door and bumped into “Woman posing in her living room…” For a moment, I thought it was Frida. The photograph is part of Guggenheim fellow Alex Harris‘ brilliant “The Idea of Cuba” series, shot from 1998 to 2003. It’s a postmodern addendum to the portraits of Kahlo and Rivera in the adjoining room, a way station on our journey back to a time when Kahlo was sheltering (and canoodling with) an exiled Leon Trotsky.

It seems likely that Harris studied portraits of Kahlo before shooting “Woman”; the effortless power of the woman’s gaze, the careful pose thrown off-kilt by a flip of the hair, and the old television showing a grainy image of Cuban revolutionary Camillo Cienfuegos, who died five years after Kahlo, seem like carefully planned references.

On the other hand, Harris’ series shows a country still clutching a promise made by Jose Marti that was strung along by Castro. Perhaps this woman’s resemblance to Frida is not Harris’ design, but a sign of a country caught in the flames of a slow burning sunset that Frida basked in 50 years before.

And bask she does. Diego (that cad) thankfully only makes cameos, leaving Kahlo to preen and pose next to a mirror ball and against sunny walls and gnarled trees. The photographs, which are by several different artists, seem like sketches next to the focused intent of Kahlo’s self portraits, but they give us an unfiltered, engrossing look at the woman’s magical presence.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve reformed since my high school days. Photograph or painting, I would never dream of plucking that unibrow.

MUST-SEE: Explore the gallery to find two Harris shots taken through the windshields of old American-made cars, one in Cuba and one in New Mexico. Compare.

BONUS: Here’s a picture of me at the height of my Frida Kahlo fervor, which will now be on the Internet forever. Oh, and I’m on Twitter!

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