Basenote Bitch * Elizabeth Renstrom * Fragrant Photos + Image Descriptions

Hello, it’s Leona, Aromatica Poetica’s founding editor here. I was delighted to lead a verbal description tour and conversation with the artist Elizabeth Renstrom at Olfactory Art Keller last weekend. I wanted to share some of that fragrant, nostalgic fun with you! For the image descriptions, I chose four of the eight fragrant works and organized them chronologically: Fahrenheit (1988); Dream (1995); Country Apple (1997); and Love Spell (1999).

For NYC friends, you can check out the Basenote Bitch exhibition in person through March 30, 2024.

 

About the Exhibition

Elizabeth and Leona flanking Fahrenheit during their Basenote Bitch presentation in Olfactory Art Keller with its bubblegum pink walls. L has her iPhone notes and E her paper notes. They are smiling.

Olfactory Art Keller presents Basenote Bitch, a solo exhibition of new fragrant works by Elizabeth Renstrom.

Like a first love or a first shame, it’s hard to forget your first scent. Each tends to occur during those heady, hormone-filled teenage years when everything’s at once fresh, exciting, awkward and unbearable. In Basenote Bitch, Renstrom synthesizes the ecstasy and agony of naive self-image, using photography and installation to reflect on all the ways we use fragrance to project and amplify who we once may have wished to be — and perhaps still secretly do.

The photographs showcase iconic retro scents —particularly ones beloved by teens across generations — satirized alongside, and contextualized within, still-life homages to the bedroom scenes where they would have been showcased or hidden away in rebellion.

A second and related component of the exhibition will be an interactive installation of objects featured in the photographs and scented with the featured perfumes. An essential extension of the work, this opportunity to spray, sniff and recall anchors attendees in sentimentality and memory in a way that only scent can.

Though the images, objects and scents are clearly fixed in the 80s, 90s and early aughts, the nature of the nostalgia they evoke varies as widely as fragrance does on individual skin. For those who lived through the years: a pang of remembrance. For those younger who may long for idealized days of landlines, dELiA*s and Jonathan Taylor Thomas: a yearning for a type of innocence they never knew and never will.

 

About the Image Descriptions

Be My AI is a new app that harnesses the power of GPT4 for blind people! I simply point my iPhone in the direction of what I want to learn about, or share a digital photo with the app, et voila! It delivers robust image descriptions in seconds. That’s really cool, but what’s even cooler is that I can ask it questions, or push it on things that it maybe got wrong. Unlike a lot of sighted people I know, it is pretty gracious at admitting its mistakes, and never gets tired of my questions!

I edited the below image descriptions from conversations I had with Be My AI. Sometimes I pushed for more detail, sometimes I nagged them about things I thought they had wrong. Be My AI suffers from occasional LSD flashbacks. Just kidding. Who knows where the hallucinations come from? The fact remains that, just like the humans that created it, AI makes mistakes, often based on what it thinks is the most logical thing. Not always. I put some little * notes  below to indicate discrepancies.

It is my belief that image descriptions can add to the experience of Elizabeth’s fragrant photo installations for both blind and sighted people. As I discuss in my NYPL photography project, image descriptions are a kind of slow seeing that expands our appreciation of images in an image-saturated world.

The below Be My AI image descriptions are not meant to be taken as truth, but as part of a living dynamic conversation. They are paired with Elizabeth’s funny and naughty “unhinged” reviews that give glimpses into the inner workings of the wearers of these fragrances…

 

Fahrenheit by Dior (1988)

"Fahrenheit" fragrant photo installation by Elizabeth Renstrom.

Be My AI:

The photograph features a collection of masculine-themed items arranged on a surface. In the background, there is a movie poster featuring a black and white photo of AL PACINO in “SCARFACE.”

I asked Be My AI what Al looked like…

Serious intense expression with eyes slightly narrowed and lips pressed together that is both pensive and tough. His hair is apparently slicked back, and the overall image captures a classic Al Pacino intensity!

In the foreground, there is a bottle of “Fahrenheit” cologne by Dior with a gradient of orange to clear liquid. Below the cologne, there are three CD cases stacked with the “Dave Matthews Band” albums: Crash; Under the Table and Dreaming; and Before These Crowded Streets.

To the left, there is a can of Bud Light beer, with its iconic red, white, and blue color scheme, featuring the Bud Light logo and the term “Genuine.”

In the bottom right corner, there are sunglasses* with blue reflective lenses. The style has a vintage or retro feel, likely suggesting the 1980s to 1990s era. Evokes a sense of nostalgia for the era represented by the items.

*Actually this turns out to be a little bowl with some weed ashes!

 

Elizabeth:

If you’ve had a one night stand with a guy who had a framed Scarface poster in his bedroom then you may have seen this iconic 1988 cologne on his dresser. He may or may not have learned how to play Dave Matthews Band “Crash Into Me” on acoustic guitar in college so he could “come into you.” All these details aside, he cares enough to smell baseline masculine and not like a malt liquor-soaked sponge after a rager. He works on his body and drinks Bud Light when not drinking Muscle Milk, and sometimes that can be constipating but that’s okay. The smell of petrol intrigues him because it reminds him of working in his dad’s garage growing up. It is also a key part of the original formulation of this masterpiece and why it may have ended up in his fragrance wardrobe.

Other notes include lavender, mandarin orange, hawthorn, nutmeg flower, cedar, bergamot, chamomile and lemon; middle notes are nutmeg, honeysuckle, carnation, sandalwood, violet leaf, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley and cedar; base notes are leather, tonka bean, amber, patchouli, musk and vetiver.

The noses behind the myth that has endured for more than thirty years are Maurice Roger and Jean-Louis Sieuzac.

In real life you will smell like an ad exec in the late 90s before he got his hands on Le Labo 33. Interesting for the time but ultimately overpowering.

 

Dream by GAP (1995)

"Dream" fragrant photo installation by Elizabeth Renstrom.

Be My AI:

The image is vibrant and colorful, with a pink and pastel theme.

Central to the image is a magazine with a cover showing a young man with red hair and a young woman with blonde hair, both with a grunge aesthetic, leaning in close as if about to kiss.

The magazine headline reads “ain’t love grand?” and mentions Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Surrounding the magazine are various objects including: A clear bottle with pink liquid labeled “dream”; A pink hairbrush; A yellow smiley face sponge; A blue hair clip with a footprint design; A pink shell-shaped dish with a colorful beaded bracelet featuring a smiley face charm; A white earbud case; Several colorful hair ties; And a small, round mirror reflecting some of the items.

The background is a mix of pink shades with abstract shapes, and there’s a playful, youthful vibe to the composition.

I pushed Be my AI for more text…

The visible text on the magazine cover includes: “ain’t love grand?”; “KURT & COURTNEY”; “A DAY IN THE LIFE OF MISS AMERICA”; “TAKE OUR SEX SURVEY”; and “INDENTURED SERVANT.”

Kurt is wearing a striped shirt with a red and dark color scheme, while Courtney is wearing a light-colored top. Their style, along with the mention of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, suggests this image is referencing the early 1990s grunge era.

The bottle of Dream has additional text that is partially obscured, but visible portions include “eau de toilette” and “Victoria’s Secret*.”

*That Victoria’s Secret bit is an AI hallucination!

 

Elizabeth:

The year is 1995 and you’re about to let Manic Panic in “Vampire Red” get to your head. The inspiration for this mane transformation is one of your most sacred objects, ie, Sassy Magazine’s April 1992 issue.

Each time you fear you’re selling out (which is a constant worry of every Gen Xer with a pulse,) you pull this cover of Kurt and Courtney out. You run your fingers over the grunge icons carefully and move forward applying your authenticity with a hair paste. While the dye is absorbing, you grab your GAP Dream body mist and spray it all over your exposed, and recently pierced belly button. The infection will TOTALLY go away soon.

You begin to smell as periwinkle as the cropped sweater you ripped off from Liv Tyler. Clouds start to appear from behind your vanity, and you realize the blend of Dream and Basic Red 51 was probably overkill. In your haze, you really became something by the age of 23, all while looking like Angela Chase to boot. When you come to, the smell of Dream is still in the air, but all that’s left is your cognitive dissonance.

The top notes are osmanthus and tangerine;

the middle notes are freesia, orange blossom, osmanthus, jasmine, Lily-of-the-valley, and violet;

base notes are carnation and musk.

In real life, you’ll smell like the dream of the 90s.

 

Country Apple by Bath and Body Works (1997)

"Country Apple" fragrant photo installation by Elizabeth Renstrom.

Be My AI:

The image is a collage of items and photographs, predominantly featuring actor Leonardo DiCaprio. There are several cut-out images of DiCaprio from his younger years, with different expressions and hairstyles.

In the center, there’s a transparent bottle of “Country Apple Body Splash” from Bath & Body Works. Below, partially visible, is a magazine or scrapbook with the title “LOVIN’ LEO” and a picture of DiCaprio.

The background includes a corkboard with two ribbons pinned to it, one blue with “HONORABLE MENTION” and another with “TITAN” partially visible. There’s also a glimpse of a pink, fluffy material and a small blue object that resembles a lip balm or a roll-on deodorant.

The overall theme suggests a fan’s personal collection from the 90s.

I asked Be My AI if this was a digital collage*…

The image appears to be a physical setup rather than a digital collage, as the items have shadows and depth that suggest they are real objects arranged together.

I asked Be My AI what Country Apple smelled like…

The “Country Apple” scent from Bath & Body Works is typically described as having a sweet, crisp apple fragrance with a hint of spice, reminiscent of fresh country apples.

I asked Be my AI if this looked like a teenager’s room…

The collection of items and the style give the impression of a teenager’s or young adult’s adoration for a celebrity, which could be part of a room’s decor, but the image does not provide enough context to confirm if it is indeed a teenager’s room.

*All Elizabeth’s images are staged in real space—no digital manipulation.

 

Elizabeth:

This is the scent I would wear to see and be seen at the Scholastic Book Fair in my elementary school auditorium circa 1998. The fair was not only my favorite time of year, but prime time for lurking on my crush behind the makeshift cardboard displays chocked full of the latest Animorphs release. Country Apple was the epitome of sophistication by my third grade standards which included projecting enough so everyone in a half mile radius of me would imagine a burning Yankee McIntosh Candle. That’s tween sexy, right? As I peeled through the bins of pens and pencils commanding no attention from my crush (my signature look at the time was an orange Old Navy fleece with carpenter pants from the junior’s section at Lord & Taylor) something else caught my eye. I had seen it in the catalog before, but there it was in front of me for the taking. It was none other than Lovin’ Leo: Your Leonardo Dicaprio Keepsake Scrapbook. I knew I had to get this with a holographic bookmark and take it home immediately to be torn apart and pasted on my walls for worship. Later that night I did just that in between Honorable Mention ribbons from failed athletic competitions past.

I prayed and wrote a letter to Leo in Hollywood begging for a meeting. Not only did I s.w.a.k. that letter—I sprayed it with my Country Apple Body splash. I knew it would make him think of me as a mature woman, ready to be taken. Who knows if he ever received it, but one blast of this juice brings all the unrequited feelings back with a headache.

Notes include McIntosh apple, apple blossom, fresh muguet, sheer sunlight, and orchard woods.

In real life you’re going to smell like a townie gnawing on a candy apple yet feel like Rose in Titanic. Eat your heart out, Dicaprio.

 

Love Spell by Victoria’s Secret (1999)

"Love Spell" fragrant photo installation by Elizabeth Renstrom.

Be My AI:

In the center, there is a bottle of Victoria’s Secret Love Spell fragrance mist with a purple gradient design and a gold cap. It is placed on top of two books. The book at the bottom is titled “The South Beach Diet” by Arthur Agatston, M.D., and it has a light blue cover. The book on top of it is not fully visible, but it appears to be related to a diet for women, with a pink spine.

Behind the bottle, there are two magazine covers* partially visible. The one on the left shows two men in casual clothing, with the word “rcromb” visible, suggesting it might be an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement. The magazine on the right features a shirtless male model with the text “Aber & Fit” visible, also indicating an Abercrombie & Fitch theme.

In the foreground, at the bottom of the image, there is a pink butterfly decoration and some fluffy pink material that could be part of a garment or a decorative item.

The overall setting seems to be a personal space with a collection of fashion and lifestyle items. The photo evokes a contemporary era, possibly from the late 1990s to early 2000s, given the popularity of the brands and items featured.

I asked Be My AI about the overall Design…

The design of the Love Spell bottle is simple and sleek with a clear body showcasing the purple liquid inside and a metallic gold cap.
– The magazines have a typical fashion advertisement aesthetic with models posing.

*The “magazines” turned out to be shopping bags—humans were also confused by these!

 

Elizabeth:

Ah, to go back to my preteen years where I thought spraying this all over my body and the outside of my panties (sometimes inside, sorry genitals!) would get boys to fingerbang me in middle school. This scent is like the word ‘panty’ incarnate, actually. You know what I’m talking about—it’s none other than Victoria’s Secret’s Love Spell Body mist.

Mist is an important distinction in silage. It evokes memories of Bonnie Bell lip gloss, Ugg boots with denim mini skirts, humping body pillows, and rampant tween sexuality.

Actual notes include cherry blossom and peach.

IRL, you will smell like the spit forming in your mouth when you’re sucking on a green apple Blow Pop. If you’re a tween you will feel like the sexiest person alive. You don’t have to tell him you’re a virgin, because you’re a cool girl.

 

—About the Artist—

Elizabeth Renstrom is a Brooklyn-based artist working across photography, video, and installation.

Her work creates safe yet critical spaces that use identity to examine the effects of nostalgia. Through these spaces, she investigates the way we use images and how we craft our identities in relation to pop culture. Often her work contrasts themes of feminism with the pitfalls of commercialism. Renstrom replicates the bright pop of editorial photography within her personal work, inspired by years working in magazines. This, combined with elaborate sets and a touch of humor, become a tool to interrogate the advice columns magazines sell to young women. Renstrom published her first book, Carnal Knowledge, in 2020 with Prestel UK. Her editorial work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, TIME, Instagram, and Vice, among others.

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