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.)

Another painter capturing sensual views of women is New Yorker Eric Blum. Unlike Fudge's piece, though, these lyrical paintings are in no way fetishistic or erotic. Collectively entitled "21 Girl Portraits," these are tiny portraits of women's faces, all done on separate wood panels in oil and beeswax.

Denver artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy is the only abstract painter included in the show. In her mixed-media "Sugar," Murphy assembles a grid of nine paintings. The center panel is adorned with powder puffs--the only connection "Sugar" has to the exhibit's theme.

Though Hughes says "Fashion Show" is not meant to be political, many of the pieces here have clearly expressed political content. A few of the nation's most famous proponents of feminist art--notably Linda Herritt and Rachel Lachowicz, both of whom hail from New York City--set the tone. Herritt's "Battle Panties (set of three)" is a wall-hung installation from 1995 in which large cotton women's panties have been embroidered with maps of battlefields; the illustrated panties are hung in a row low on the wall. Above each is a vinyl label identifying the battle: Waterloo, Yorktown and Normandy. Although "Battle Panties" is funny, Herritt, who's created feminist installations for the last decade, has a more serious point. Using both humor and irony, she's obviously comparing sexual conquest of women with success on the battlefield.

Lachowicz's "One Month Late Installation (one tie)" is less ambitious: A man's tie coated with wax and red lipstick is mounted on a stand. "The tie without the man implies that the body was once there," Hughes says. He makes the same point about Minnesotan Jess Larson's "Flora Bunda," a wall-hung satin girdle with a hidden panel that's embroidered with an anatomical drawing. "People have gotten very excited by this piece," says gallery director Robin Rule, who raises an eyebrow as she lifts the flap to reveal the embroidered anatomy lesson. Rebecca Vaughan, a Denver artist who recently left for Pittsburgh, also looks to garments as a way to convey the otherwise missing body. In three wall-hung sculptures, she creates crocheted "cozies"--decorative covers--for unnamed human glands.

Another feminist artist included here, Mary Yaeger of Boulder, addresses not the body but women's traditional social role. For her 1995 "Hairstyling," Yaeger embroiders three steps in hair grooming on commercial patches. Like Larson, she uses embroidery because it's traditionally associated with women's work; by putting the cartoonish images of a woman doing her hair on patches, Yaeger makes it appear as though hairstyling is worthy of multiple Girl Scout merit badges.

Denver photographer Mark Sink takes an entirely different approach with his "Famous Face Series," done between 1982 and the present. This wall installation consists of scores of Polaroids of the New York fashionable as well as a few people right here in town, propped on rows of wall-mounted moldings. Sink manages to imbue these minimally posed photos with the character of his chosen subjects. For example, Fred Hughes, the famous Warhol promoter, looks elegant if a little self-important; writer Bob Colacello, another Warhol associate (and one of the few subjects whose picture is not autographed), looks haggard and pretty scary. Airport art administrator Mimi Moore, late photographer Wes Kennedy and gallery director Rule are some of the locals honored by Sink's lens.

"Fashion Show" is a strangely compelling exhibit. It isn't haute couture, but the current display at Rule proves Hughes knows how to dress for success.

Fashion Show: Art of and About Fashion, through September 12, Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

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