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11 May 2009

Costume colors & a patterning that defiles the mind with loveliness (aka Bedazzle me now baby)

How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies) (2006)

How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies) (2006)

Generally when I dress I cut a rather shabby shape — old clothes, sometimes ill-fit. At best I’ve been complimented on my uniformity of dress. (In college, I wore white t-shirts and jeans with a ritualistic rigor; more recently I’ve become fond of black denim and button up shirts topped by a Filson vest that looks like it was cut from a single piece of thick, Beuys-like felt.)

No matter my personal style I can’t fight the allure of beautiful clothes; nor the sense that the last twenty odd years have seen a repeated incursion of art makers who use them as their medium of choice; nor the observation that, no matter what subculture these artists emerge from, my favorites seem to tropism toward the same aesthetic: psychedelic colors explode the eyes’ capacity to order what they see, a patchwork aesthetic that baffles even the thrift-store trained mind.

I’m speaking here of the gay Australian-British icon Leigh Bowery; the proto-indie, American collective Forcefield; the African-British, institutionally-approved Yinka Shonibare MBE (MBE!); and, most recently anointed, the Midwestern dancer and professor Nick Cave. (Visualizations, which I’ll try to prioritize over explication, come after the jump.)

This art world meme I’d like to delineate draws an odd narrative. The crossing of geographical and sociological boundaries makes no sense. However, the psychographic implications — to borrow my favorite term from the advertising & branding trades — are another thing, entirely. I’m hoping this short jaunt will draw some conclusions about that shared mentalities of the practitioners, tying this all together with a neat little bow. (Like a drawstring on the back of a dress, like a particularly eccentric cravat.)

1980s: Leigh Bowery

My story starts with Leigh Bowery, a gay caucassion, an Aussie expat slumming in the world of British club culture and acting out in a space just adjacent to the New Romantic pop stars of the day. His collaborations were spread across the world of fashion (designer Rifat Ozbek), dance (Stephen Petronio), music (The Fall’s Mark E. Smith), and fine art (painter Lucian Freud made his shaved, naked body a subject). His dilemma in making a career outside of one-off collaborations is better understood by discussing his most well-known, posthumous representation.

Boy George, a huge fan and peer, recounted Bowery’s life story in the early 00s in the Broadway play Taboo. Though a reasonable success in London it closed in New York after 100 shows, a financial disaster for lead investor Rosie O’Donnell. No wonder. It was and is impossible to paper over Bowery’s fetish-heavy style, one which illustrates his polysexual enthusiasms with gender bent looks that included frequent use of mouth hooks and ball gags, and usually involved latex and frill as a basic ingredient. A look that cannot brook moderation, it’s not the best way to appeal to, say, the midwestern tourist crowd that fuels American Broadway shows, nor for that matter the art world which likes sexual perversity but prefers its manifestations to be self-conscious not flat out kinky. Bowery’s love of weird sex was not the insincere gesture of a provocateur or a researcher; rather he was just desperate for more weird sex. The ornamentation of his own body was his way of getting his fuck on.

1990s: Forcefield / Fort Thunder
To my mind, the visual aesthetic Bowery was going for (if not the philosophical one) was next picked up by a stridently underground cadre of art students in Rhode Island, our smallest, and one of our most inscrutable American states. These are the kids who literally invented the Midwestern-teenage-wreckroom-on-LSD aesthetic which emerged in earnest in the post-grunge mid-1990s. It’s a look that was replicated endlessly in the indie rock-slash-art market boom of the aughts.

By the time the art world noticed these kids — curating Fort Thunder refugees Forcefield into the 2002 Whitney Bienniel — the artists had moved on. Forcefield broke up that same year. (And yes, “Broke up” is the right way to put it: They were more a band in the indie rock sense than the kind of art world brand the gallery system likes so much.)

2000s: Yinka Shonibare, MBE
I’m not one for judging artists based on their business relationships, but it’s funny that the indie rock breakthrough leads naturally into the major label sellout. My next example in the eye essploding costume trend is a certified Young British Artist. The art world likes to drive a given look & feel into the ground, and two years after Forcefield had dissolved, an artist from an entirely unfamiliar direction, Yinka Shonibare — a British citizen of Nigerian descent — was selected as finalist for the Tate Britain’s 2004 Turner Prize. Notable is the fact that he was very much a chronological contemporary to Bowery (born a year later). Rhetorically speaking, he could not be farther away.

First it should be noted, there is his conspicuous use of the title MBE — Member of the British Empire in the kingdom’s code of chivalry. Many Britons are given this title; a far smaller number actually use it in their day-to-day life.

I’d argue that his work doesn’t so much represent an out-and-out aesthetic breakthrough, as it does a well-timed move onto a stage that had been set — and a re-positioning of the meme to appeal to the art world’s demand for theoretical underpinnings and status — the basics for investment grade creativity. Shonibare’s work takes the form of costumes which are bi-culturalism made flesh — Victorian dresses made of “African” fabrics which are actually Dutch wax-printed cotton purchased in London’s Brixton market. The art world loves this kind of gesture. Vague political provocation + a culturally expansive worldview = a way of poking fun at art history’s Great White Male lineage in a way that doesn’t freak anyone out too much.

What really draws me to these images, however, is still the sex, violence, the sense of a maker not quite in control of his own vision. There’s a physicality to these outfits which can’t be denied. Shonibare, half of whose body was paralyzed after a rare viral infection, creates an odd tension in his outfits by contrasting aggressive physicality (in terms of pose and visual charge), with a sense of severe constraint (the outfits’ overly-architected shapes and surfeit of frill and ornament).

There’s as much fetish here as there is in Bowery’s work and as much freedom as in Forcefield’s DIY universe, but a historical narrative is carefully employed to sugar coat the musky taste and civilize the savage impulse.

Today: Nick Cave
My fourth example of this meme is an artist who is new to me, and whose underground propers may be a bit more suspect. I first read about Cave and his sound suits in the New York Times. I’m not sure if the venue I discovered him in says more about the artist himself; the fact that I am less connected to underground culture than I once was; or, in an odd but real way, can be credited to his name. I’m guessing his recognition in underground circles has been hampered, somewhat, by his sharing a name with a musician two years his elder, but eons ahead in pop cultural relevance, and subcultural influence.

Anyway, one of seven brothers born to a family in Jefferson City, Missouri, Cave was trained as a dancer under the tutelage of Alvin Ailey and resides in the resolutely off-the-art-world radar city of Chicago. He seems an unlikely candidate for art world success — yet it sounds, also, like he’s done better than the aforementioned meme-sharers. (The Times article mentions his suits selling for upwards of $45,000 a pop.) I’d gather this has less to do with the relative quality, beauty, or theoretical/rhetorical strength of Cave’s work and more to do with the art world’s current directionlessness, its comfort at accepting contributions to art’s history from any old direction.


Though I’ve been drawing connections between these artists, I’d make no precise claims that they draw from a similar well of inputs, appeal to a similar audience, or that they’re headed in the same general direction where the canons of the art world are concerned. Bowery died of AIDS in 1994, and his influence has proven far more pervasive in the worlds of performative culture than it has in capital “a” Art — be it among club kids or in the gender bent cabaret of Antony & the Johnsons. Fort Thunder’s denizens and offshoots have stumbled into unspectacular gallery careers. I don’t know if I’ll hear about Cave again, and if I do I suspect it may be via a collaboration in the world of theater or dance. Shonibare is a genuine art star, for sure, but I suspect he defends his position not thanks to the kindness of curators or critics but because he can please a crowd. e.g. He didn’t win the Turner Prize the year he was nominated but he was the most popular entrant by a long shot. When an informal poll about who should win appeared on a BBC website, he got 64% of the votes in a field of four.

Essentially, what I would argue is that these artists draw their power draws from the fact that it is vividly visual and deeply populist, an expression of marginal pleasures and subcultural enthusiasms made visible and real for a wide audience whether that audience wants to engage those enthusiasms or not. I’d argue that these folks express a human desire for ornament that defies the idea of art movements; one which is multi-cultural in a profound way, in a way that unites white and black, straight and gay, hipster and dancer rather than makes some stupid case that each of these cultures are separate things. What I would argue is that this kind of boundaryless expression is what art should aspire to. What I would argue is that art that appeals to theory should take a back seat to art which comes out of a sometimes obsessive practice connected not to books or ideas but to experience, to lifestyle, to pure pleasure.

Sure you can explain all four artists I’ve been talking about in a critical fashion; you may theorize about their work like a post-game quarterback or a forensic analyst. But, to put it bluntly, these outfits — this art — work more like fashion or pop culture does. It makes the world a more mysterious, more intriguing, more noticeable, more fabulous, more fuckable place than it would otherwise be. In short — and I acknowledge this has not been short — they make the world more open and free.

I’ll leave you with a video of Cave’s sound suits in action.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

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