I usually go to art shows to look at fashion, but last week I went to a fashion show to look at art.
The actress Chloë Sevigny held her first runway show for Opening Ceremony in a SoHo church rec hall, and she brought in pieces by the artist Charlie Wing.
It was his first show, too, and he set the stage with thick sod on which a nun in orange camouflage held a crossbow next to choirboys shearing a lamb whose horns were lit with LED. Though the figures, rather than chiseled marble, are plastic mannequins dressed in nylon, they have a baroque Pietà’s calm mystery–a sense of eternity replaced by a whiff of the absurd. The composition is strong. There is movement in the static and beauty in the horror. It is a sculpture. It doesn’t merely take up room, it makes space.
The next day, I went to the museum to see some fashion.
The Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a beautiful and very popular show. It’s a pity that the curators felt the need to justify it with an abundance of wall text stressing the dresses’ “ideational and ideological aspect.” They tell us the collections “offer a commentary on the politics of appearance” and their unveilings were not mere runway shows but “presentations suggestive of avant-garde installation and performance art.”
So it is: Performance wants to be art, art wants to be performance, fashion wants to be fiction, or sculpture or architecture, and everyone wants to be philosophy–who only wants to be popular, so she squeezes herself into the constraining corset of catchphrases.
Out of these petty jealousies beauty sometimes emerges: Painting aspired to be like music, totally abstract but still stirring, and it got there. At least Rothko did. When objects aspire to the status of literature, however, the results are less convincing. Narrative is by necessity imposed on images and everything must “tell a story.” But stories are bound to time and must unfold, while objects are borne in space and can be apprehended instantly.
It seems rather perverse to put yourself under the whip of time when you were free from its lashings. Like McQueen’s accessories, it shows our tendency toward the masochistic—a tendency that has become a style. Fifteen years later it is still prettily trickling down the runway, simplified for mass production and streetwear in the Chloë Sevigny show’s torturing shoes and laser-cut leather.
Actually, it’s more like a hundred and fifty years later—McQueen certainly didn’t start the flow. Baudelaire and Poe may have, with their carrion and their prostitutes and their nevermore and their n’importe où hors du monde (“anywhere outside the world”).
To be happy you have to be somewhere or someone else; that was romanticism’s great breakthrough. And according to The New York Times, to be good you have to be something else. That’s the greatest compliment they could find for McQueen—that his clothes are “poised on a line where fashion turns into something else.”
It’s all right for a dress to be romantic, but critics by now should know better. The n’importe ou loin d’ici is really too old-fashioned, and even in the nineteenth century it wasn’t a philosophy so much as a pathology. The dresses are not good because they are something other than dresses or something more than dresses. They are neither more powerful nor more political than Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent. And the show is neither more nor less “avant-garde” for being shown in cramped galleries with distressed walls than the Balenciaga exhibit was last fall in a Park Avenue building with wall-to-wall carpet and regular old glass cases.
McQueen “expanded the understanding of fashion beyond utility to a conceptual expression of culture, politics, and identity,” The New York Times continues, displaying a rather limited understanding of both art and utility.
They tell us McQueen was an artist because he was making things that were not immediately useful—and he was an artist, the walls insist, because he was expressing himself.
Juicers and oil wells are expressive. Children and mediocre memoir writers are self-expressive. Artists, however, do not squeeze out some raw substance that exists fully formed on the inside; they spend their time making things, bringing things into existence through the act. What issues is not an idea, but an object—only an object and nothing more. Amid the profusion of wall text is this quote by McQueen: “Everything I do is based on tailoring.” The organizers should have left it at that. He had a strong imagination and his clothes were extremely well-tailored. The dresses are not stories or sculptures; they are dresses, beautiful dresses.
In the next gallery however, at the Richard Serra show, transubstantiation is achieved and drawings become sculptures.
The halls were empty, and the white walls almost bare, too, save for expanses of Belgian linen covered in black paint stick—flat and untailored and stuck to the wall, but somehow three-dimensional. They are monochromatic but somehow not monotonous.
Being rather primitively suspicious of the mono—from mononucleosis to monotheism and monogamy—I’d never given much thought to monochrome’s potential, but I felt it there for the first time. The effect comes from friction: It is actually not monochromatic since the wall is part of the piece and the wall is white. It’s the contrast that strikes.
A man whose path crossed mine several times in the gallery kept muttering, “I could have done that.” Then, trying to get me to agree, “We could have done that.”
“I don’t think so,” I answered. We didn’t do it. So we can’t have. But it has been done, and I shudder with the pleasure of it.
Serra’s drawings seem easy to fabricate so we don’t think about their creation. McQueen’s skill was in tailoring, so rather than unwrap those complex patterns, we obsess over the simple stories behind them and stuff them to the seams full of concept. Are we really still stuck at knocking matter in favor of spirit and spitting on spirit for not being crafty enough? That is so last season.
Mostly all these little notions get along just fine, rubbing against each other to thrilling effect in the body—as in bodies of work.
Charlie Wing has his plastic mannequins and taxidermied sheep; Alexander McQueen—RIP—used leather, balsa, feathers, shells, or silk; and Richard Serra’s art, for me, culminates in his use of white linen and black charcoal. With the many or the minimal, with fabric or plastic or plaster, mass-produced or made to measure, matter in the right hands is made to matter.
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