Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Dressing room

50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
101 Dresses
May 9—June 23, 2007
Fashion show: Sat., June 16, 2:45 p.m. on the New Haven Green
Talk by Helena Estes: Sat. June 16, at Artspace at 3 p.m.

Clothing is a surface that hides a surface. And in contemporary art, there is a lot of interest in both surface and hidden, or obscure, meaning. 101 Dresses, the present show at Artspace, was inspired by The Hundred Dresses, a children's book that wore its meaning on its sleeve. But this wide-ranging show is stitched together from a variety of media and often takes the concept of deconstruction literally.

Connecticut native Eleanor Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses in 1944. It tells the story of Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant girl in the post-World War I who suffers the cruelty of her teasing schoolmates. Poor, withdrawn and always wearing the same clean blue dress, she becomes the target of jibes from popular girl Peggy after claiming to have "a hundred dresses home." Eventually, the taunting prompts her father to leave the town and move the family to the city where "No more holler Polack. No more ask why funny name. Plenty of funny names in the big city." But before they move, Wanda leaves behind drawings—beautiful drawings—of 100 dresses that win a class contest in her absence. Their beauty stuns her classmates, particularly the sensitive Maddie, into reflection.

The Hundred Dresses is a story about tolerance and difference but also about the deceptive meaning of surface appearances. Linda Lindroth, co-curator of the show with Artspace curator Denise Markonish, began mulling the idea for the show while doing research on Estes' book. Learning that Estes was a Connecticut, author, Lindroth initially hoped to time the show to coincide with the 2006 centennial of Estes' birth. When that couldn't be arranged, the plan became 101 years and 101 dresses.

Fashion in contemporary art is the loose theme. And in speaking fashion here, we are talking almost wholly women's fashion. While there are male artists represented in the show, almost all the garments and figurative imagery relate to women and women's clothing.

Lindroth says the show is a mix of invitees and artists who responded to an open call. Among the invited or solicited works are an R. Crumb drawing that originally ran in The New York Times Magazine, Yoko Ono's Cut Piece video from 1965 and an Andy Warhol silk-screened paper "Campbell's Souper Dress" circa 1968. The Warhol dress, which now sells for a pretty penny on Ebay, was originally available from the soup company for $1.25 plus two soup labels. Underground comix artist Crumb's drawing depicts his wife Aline, also a cartoonist, commenting on the fashionable dress and designer shoes she is modeling. In the Ono video, shot be the Maysles Brothers at Carnegie Hall, she sits with zen-like impassiveness while audience members cut at cut away her dress until she is left dressed only in bra and underpants. It is shown side by side with a much lower quality video of a 40th anniversary repeat performance in Paris.

Like the performative deconstruction of Yoko Ono's dress, several of the other works in the show tug on the loose thread. Karen Shaw's "Base-Ballgown" drapes an unraveled Derek Jeter Yankees' t-shirt over a mannequin, its disassembled netting of fiber twisting elegantly to the floor. With "Seams (Green Dress)," Jean Shin displays just the seams and zipper of a green dress, the garment as a harness. One hundred and sixty-six nylon zippers and thread make up Jemma Williams' "Zipper Dress."

There are several recurring motifs in the show. One is of the dress made of unconventional materials. Referencing a Paco Rabanne designer's dress from the 1960's that used small aluminum plates, the Studio 5050 collaborative team created "Day-For-Night," a dress composed of circuit boards, solar cells, RGB leds and jumper connectors, just the thing to light up the nightlife. Artist Ari Tabei is represented by "Dress for Today #1." The "dress" is made up of cast latex bubbles and is accompanied by a video of Tabei modeling the cumbersome outfit. Using the same material, artist Rachel Vaters-Carr created latex castings of her torso, the dress as an almost literal "Second Skin." And in this case, it can be scrunched up and stored in a diaphragm case. And, in the "does this garment breathe?" department, there is Zoe Brookes' "Bag Lady Ballgown #2," a layered piece of stylish formal wear composed of layered Target plastic shopping bags and other discarded materials. According to Lindroth, some of the bags "have air in them to give it some 'poof.'" So I guess the answer would be "yes," this garment does breathe!

While those dresses could all be worn—if not comfortably—the same cannot be said of "Dress Undone," an installation by Aicha Woods. She used wood veneer to create a swirling dress-like form that is suspended from the ceiling. Lindroth notes that Woods' approach to the material is similar to that of "a fashion designer falling in love with a piece of fabric and thinking 'What am I going to do with this?'" The answer was to arrange it in swirls of ruffles and layering that hangs gracefully and skirts the floor.

Other references between works include recurring paper doll motifs, feminist-inflected works and commentary on women's roles. For example, Bob Taplin's tongue-in-cheek "Staircase Monument to the Working Woman" features four small bronze statues of women on a staircase-like wooden base. On the bottom step, an exotic dancer is bent over at the waist and peers back through her legs. At the top stands a woman in corporate dress hailing a cab. Carey McDougall's "Nobody's Wife, Nobody's Mother" pairs digital audio with an embroidered cotton dress. The stitching in this contemplative work ponders the issues of women's fears about life and love.

"We didn't set out to say 'we need a doll motif, etc.,'" says Lindroth. "They just came. We were able to include all these different themes because artists are tackling all these broad themes."

As with most Artspace shows, 101 Dresses is notable for the way it tarts up conceptual and intellectual depth in an approachable and engaging fashion.

"The most exciting part is that people are relating to it. When we had the opening, everybody was smiling. It was like a Happening from the 1960's and 70's where there was all this energy from making things and creating environments," says Lindroth. Dresses, she notes, are something that everybody knows and understands. "There's something about this show that is universal. You don't get a lot of shows that just anybody can walk in off the street and figure out and this show did that."

This Saturday, June 16, in conjunction with 101 Dresses and as part of the Village of Villages and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, there will be a fashion show by Artspace Teen Docents at 2:40 p.m. on the New Haven Green. It will be followed at 3 p.m. by a talk at Artspace by Helena Estes, daughter of The Hundred Dresses author Eleanor Estes. Curators Lindroth and Markonish worked with Helena Estes from the beginning, Linda Lindroth says, "to make sure this show was inspired by her mother's book but not about the book."


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