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|Art Under Covers
by Suzaan Boettger
|With Halloween in the air, who can forget that every day we're in costume? In the art world, fashion has become essential, as artists no longer think it's a contradiction to be both well dressed and taken seriously. Which brings us to several recent books pertaining to fashion, beauty and the visual representation of men -- as gorgeous and otherwise.
Armani, material man
The Guggenheim Museum's exhibition program, which back in 1939 focused on non-objective painting, has stretched like lycra to encompass the high fashion of one of the royals of the rag trade, Giorgio Armani. The accompanying exhibition catalogue, Giorgio Armani, is a hefty 10 by 12 inch, 400-page tome ($75, co-published with Abrams).
As is typical of museum publications, the format suggests pure hagiography, a sort of entombment with glorifications, the great man's "life and work" as recorded by Germano Celant, Karole Vail, Harold Koda; an interview by Ingrid Sischy; Armani and Film, and Theater, and Celebrity; Armani's Homes and Offices, etc. The 350 photos dramatically display the Armani design's spare composure.
A few analytical nuggets are on display. Caroline Rennold Milbank's discussion of "Historicism and Orientalism in Armani's Designs for Women" notes the designer's "use of men's clothes from the golden age of male elegance -- the period between the two world wars -- to inspire women's dress." The venerable Suzy Menkes, of the Paris Herald Tribune, mentions that his pared-down, unpadded jackets and neutral hues promote a unisex emphasis on the body's own angles and muscles.
The book stops short at including the kind of cultural critique that might point out Armani's sleek androgyny as a manifestation of overlapping gender identities not only in clothing, but in behavior.
Indeed, "masculinity studies" is a new discipline drawing great interest. One new collection devoted to this "crisis of the male" is Material Man: Masculinity, Sexuality, Style, edited by the Italian writer and curator Giannino Malossi (Abrams, $39.95). This large soft-cover book's glossy photographs almost defensively celebrate masculinity in action -- from the nude hairy chest of Telly Savalas, seen while shaving, to New York's own Mayor Rudolph Giuliani performing in hyper-glamorous drag and the intense grimaces of "warrior" athletes in Kyrgyzstan. This appears to be a picture book for those turned on by testosterone.
It is that, definitely. But the illustrations are linked to about two dozen essays offering sophisticated discussions of masculinity, present and past. Topics range from Mickey Rooney and the problem American men have growing up to Odysseus and the role of cunning and self-knowledge in the Western model of virility.
Material Man was commissioned by an Italian trade fair organization for men's fashion, Pitti Immagine, which apparently thought it would be a good idea to seek a cultural analysis of fashion and textiles. In the foreword, PI's president, Mario Boselli describes fashion as that "which emphasizes the present while conceiving of it as the future." The shrewd assessment of the union of innovation and marketing suggests that that's where the avant-garde went -- into clothes design.
Beauty and the feminine
The intersection of art, fashion and photography is also the theme of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime, (Allworth $18.95). This is the latest of several books to take up the radical reintroduction of this classical ideal. Gilbert-Rolfe, a Los Angeles-based painter, critic and professor at the Art Center of Design, takes as a starting point the historic esthetic contrast between the Beautiful (graceful, emotionally contained) and the Sublime (exaggerated, overwhelming).
Through arguments with philosophers from Longinus to Lyotard, he maps this opposition into several others -- feminine/masculine, fashion/art, photography/painting. Over seven loosely related essays, Gilbert-Rolfe links beauty to "the feminine" and both of those to fashion. He compares these to painting, which, like dressing, used to be an "art of layering."
Now, Gilbert-Rolfe says, painting "reaches out to photography, an object of minimal substantiality in which one cannot readily separate the surface from the support, and where the image is not apprehended as a construction but, rather, as one which comes into being all at once instead of being assembled stroke by stroke."
In the era of the digitalized photograph, as layered and manipulated as a Salon painting, these dualisms don't work any more. Nor do those restrictive descriptions of gender: Madonna has obvious muscles as well as a new baby, men attend to skin care, seek to be beautiful and admit to feeling as powerless as women. Old archetypes have merged.
The subtext of these outdated oppositions turn out to be Gilbert-Rolfe's way of articulating his quandary as an abstract painter in a world continually seduced by the pictorial immediacy of the photographic, the fashionable and the "beautiful."
In an analysis at once fascinating and stymied by his need to commune with theorists in serpentine sentences, Gilbert-Rolfe in the end advocates embracing the enemy. "Whatever the fate of discourse might be, the implications for art ... are that it has the choice of either seeking to possess the vitality of the fashion video or submitting itself to the dead hand of critique."
Up with sensuous surface over disembodied conceptualism! When his ideas unfold in this directness and clarity, Gilbert-Rolfe is persuasive. And if not, provocative, as in "Beauty's… relevance lies in its capacity to be irrelevant and yet remain indispensable ... because of beauty's association with pleasure."
Men, in suits and out
For an irreverent view of fashion, art and masculinity, Suits: The Clothes Make the Man documents the performance work of a Houston duo known as the Art Guys (Abrams, $34.95). The Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) got Todd Oldham to design close-fitting gray suits embroidered all over with bright commercial logos. The Art Guys send-up of casual wear is documented in drawings, correspondence and many photographs showing them modeling the suits in relation to Joseph Beuys' felt suit, talking to Lauren Hutton during Fashion Week in New York, with a Boy Scout troop in Tampa, etc. Essays by Southwest critics Dave Hickey and Shaila Dewan round out the exercise in label love.
Much more important is art historian James M. Saslow's first survey of gay and lesbian visual representation, Pictures and Passions, A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts (Viking, $39.95). The Queens College/CUNY professor surveys same-sex bonding in the West, Asia and Islam as well as in pre-modern cultures, several of which didn't have the social designation "homosexual."
We all know that the Greeks preferred men as sex objects, and thus viewed idealized masculinity as beautiful. "From the classical era onward," Saslow writes, "women of the citizen class were segregated from men in most Greek cities, denied a written education and secluded at home." As sexual partners, women were relegated to satisfying base physical and procreative functions.
Sex was a matter of power relations."The Greeks and Romans did not rank erotic acts by the sex of the partners, but according to who played the active [adult men] and passive [boys; females] parts." With a man, a Greek male could not only get it on but also talk philosophy afterward.
Saslow's account is a kind of parallel history of art, one that addresses homosexual themes. In China's Qing dynasty, for instance, young Beijing Opera performers were transvestites who served male opera patrons more than their music, pleasures that were depicted on silk scrolls. Gustave Courbet's frank social realism is illustrated in his 1866 Sleep showing "two fleshy nudes nestling in the exhausted aftermath of a passionate abandon hinted at by the cast-off hairpin and broken strand of pearls scattered across the rumpled sheets." Francis Bacon's Two Men on a Bed (1953) transfers Eadweard Muybridge's photographic analysis of wrestlers into lovers where "their coupling is more savage than tender, the grimace of bared teeth suggesting a sadomasochistic encounter trapped in the symbolic bars of a wiry cage."
The vivid description of such telling details generates a journalistic heat that makes for an engrossing account of more than 150 works of art, Stone Age to post-Stonewall.
SUZAAN BOETTGER can be reached by email at .