Clothes Call

People in the art world--artists, dealers and collectors alike--generally eschew dressing up. As renowned writer and art collector Gertrude Stein observed in the 1930s, if you don't have much money, you either buy clothes, or you buy art. Stein kept her own counsel in this regard, collecting a world-class assortment of modern art by the likes of Picasso while wearing the same heavy and shapeless brown wool dress--a monk's habit, actually--nearly every day.

Over the intervening decades, fashion and art have remained not quite antithetical, but practically so. That's why it's surprising to find an art exhibit titled Fashion Show: Art of and About Fashion. But rather than posit an alternative to the all-black outfit (accessorized by bad haircut) boho uniform that's long been an art-world standard, the current show at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery takes the idea of "fashion"--or, more accurately, clothing--and uses it as a loose organizing theme.

"Fashion Show" was put together by Rule gallery assistant Sean Hughes, who brought a postmodern outlook to the task. "This is a colorful, textural look at the topic without the expected negative connotations," says Hughes. "It's not political; it's not about Chinese women binding their feet. It's about reformatting the notion of fashion." Although Hughes himself is a respected contemporary artist who often includes images of men's underwear in his essentially abstract paintings, he did not include his own work here. Instead, he assembled a diverse group of artists--some nationally known out-of-towners, others established local figures, still others emerging area artists--working in a wide array of art forms, all of which make some reference to adorning the body.

Even before they enter the gallery, viewers realize there's no haute couture presentation in store. The giveaway is a pair of recent installations by art upstart Bryan Boettiger that adorn the two windows facing Broadway. On one side is "Heads," in which three mannequin heads have been bolted onto a steel stand, behind which three silver print "portraits" of the heads are suspended from the ceiling. "Meat Market," on the other side, features a silhouette of a nude woman done in ink-jet on Mylar film hanging in front of a color photo mural of meat scraps. "The body is not there, but in a way it is because of the reference to meat," Hughes explains. The disturbing Boettiger installations, which mark a considerable advancement in this young artist's work, create just the right edgy mood for the show that unfolds behind them.

One of the most famous artists included in "Fashion Show" is New York photographer Christopher Makos, longtime protege and companion of the late Andy Warhol. Makos is represented by three pieces in the entry gallery, photographs from his famous "Altered Image Series" of portraits of Warhol in partial drag that were taken in 1981 and have been widely exhibited internationally. In "Separated at Birth," a diptych of silver gelatin prints, Makos pairs a portrait of Warhol with one of a Chinese crested; both Warhol and the dog share the same hairstyle, and the juxtaposition of the two remarkably similar photographs creates a successful sight gag. The other Makos portraits of his mentor are more touching, revealing that even in big-hair wigs and glamorous makeup, Warhol looks frail and vulnerable.

Also in the entry gallery, opposite the Makos portraits, are three nearly identical works by rising Denver artist Christina Snouffer. Each simple piece is made up of six small, acrylic-painted panels that have been adorned with a grid of tacks; the heads of the tacks are painted in different colors, mostly blues and greens. These new pieces are "the most esoteric in the context of the show," says Hughes--and not just because Snouffer used nail polish in lieu of paint. Not only do the tiny minimalist compositions seem to have little to do with fashion, but they hardly qualify as postmodern, since the grid is a modernist signature. Even so, they're among the show's standouts.

Inside the main exhibition space, "Fashion Show" really takes off. Since Hughes included wall-hung installations and wall-hung sculptures, two forms that are notoriously difficult to integrate with other kinds of art, he really had his work cut out for him in laying out this exhibit cogently. Given the disparate nature of the things he's brought together, a sparse presentation was a virtual necessity; as a result, each piece has been given its own discrete space where it can be viewed on its own merits.

Although the show features many nontraditional pieces, Hughes also put in a number of very fine paintings, including several that refer back to pop art. The most obviously referential is "Famous Barbara," Boulder artist Jim Ringley's 1997 oil and enamel on canvas that looks a lot like a paint-by-numbers. The painting, which includes the title in fancy cursive script emblazoned across the middle, has been carried out in colors with almost the exact value, and similarly pale shades make the images, a repeated face and a clutch of daisies that appear to be barely there.

Another pop-related piece is "Catalogue Shopping (Like New)" by local luminary John Fudge. In this somewhat uncharacteristic 1995 painting, Fudge has stacked a group of images in a hieratic and symmetrical arrangement. The images he has chosen--high-heeled shoes, corsets and bras (both filled and unfilled)--are pointedly politically incorrect and seem to speak unapologetically about the sexual exploitation of women. (This has been Fudge's summer: In addition to the painting at Rule, two Fudge paintings are on display in two shows at the Denver Art Museum. But as a Denver pioneer in rejecting abstraction, Fudge is only getting his due; his example influenced a generation of contemporary painters around here.)

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