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Close Encounters

by Linda Yablonsky
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Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy, Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth, 2011, JRP|Ringier. $80

In the winter of 1997, when Chelsea was still a young art district, an exhibition called "When Zeitgeist Becomes Form: German Fashion Photography, 1945-1995" arrived at the neighboring Pat Hearn and Morris-Healy galleries. It had a number of striking images, but what I remember best is the sheepish expression on Hearn's face after I commented on what a departure the show was from her usual, stringently conceptual exhibitions. "It's paying the bills," she said, with an apologetic shrug. "And it came from a foundation."

Things have changed enormously since then. Hearn, as fashion-conscious a woman as one could be, died in 2000, and the Morris-Healy Gallery is long gone. Today, galleries rent their spaces out for fashion shows without apology. Fashion photographers like Juergen Teller and Terry Richardson exhibit their commercial pictures with more personal work in blue-chip galleries, as Richard Avedon did before them, and artists like Philip-Lorca DiCorcia and Jack Pierson frequently do fashion spreads. And artists -- even those with the integrity of a Cindy Sherman -- appear as models in photographs advertising the clothes of high-end designers like Marc Jacobs and Comme des Garcons.

Naturally, artists appreciate good design, and art and fashion share a notable history. Did Salvador Dali not collaborate with Elsa Schiapparelli as far back as 1937? Did Yves Saint Laurent not crib from Mondrian? Last year, for a show at MoMA PS1, Rob Pruitt made a video with Marc Jacobs that perfectly melded performance, installation and fashion, and succeeded both as entertainment and commentary. And the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum earlier this year was not just one of its most popular ever but also one of its finest.

I am among those who think of some designers as artists deserving of the name -- the late McQueen is one of them. And fashion has generated some of the most radical photographs in the history of the medium -- something that the International Center of Photography lately has celebrated.

But generally speaking, the more fashionable art becomes, the less challenging it gets. Its increasing coziness with the fashion world is only breeding new ways of branding, selling and presenting art, not making it.

Now, to coincide with the Fashion Week in New York, Kate Mulleavy and Laura Mulleavy, the California-based sisters who design kicky clothes under the name Rodarte, have produced an artwork in the form of a handsome book: Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth. Though their book appears to be a collaboration, the two designers are credited as the authors. Designed by Li, Inc., it has white-on-white covers on which the book's embossed white title and credits are barely legible. Like any self-respecting livre d'art, it comes in a limited edition of 2,000 and looks exactly like an artist's book is supposed to look, which is a disappointment from a design team that goes to some lengths to reinvent fashion.

Inside are photographs by Catherine Opie and Alec Soth, two photographers with well-established fine art credentials, and a text insert by John Kelsey, a critic who is also one of the partners in the Reena Spaulings Gallery.

Opie is a documentary photographer best known for her portraits of a sexual underground that favors bondage, piercing, tattooing and other means of scarring the flesh. She also makes stunning landscape and architectural photographs, and is a formalist of the first rank.

Soth is another anthropologically attuned documentarian, whose photographs tend to speak of place in terms of class. His palette is not as rich as Opie's when she works in color, though he can wrest a good deal of psychological detail from the appearance of a landscape or a figure native to it.

For the book, a monograph on the "world of Rodarte," as a press release puts it, Opie made portraits of some of her best models -- Jenny Shimizu, Idexa and Frankie Rayder, among others -- wearing knitted and macramaed Rodarte designs of leather, chiffon, wool and lace strips that bind, wrap, fall off or disappear on the body. All look difficult to put on without assistance and are definitely aimed at the connoisseur, not the shopaholic. Opie's images are no less captivating than the portraits she makes when not on commission, but they lose a little something from their printing on matte paper rather than her customary super-glossy stock.

Soth's pictures include pallid Polaroids and larger photographs of people and objects -- a torn rubber tire, a curving staircase, a depressing wooden cot with a cross on the pillow -- in unidentified California locations said to have inspired the Mulleavy's designs, places like Berkeley, Death Valley, Big Sur and Santa Cruz. They are pictures of an attitude or a lifestyle; fashion doesn't figure in them but they add a welcome measure of fresh air to this otherwise self-congratulatory tome.

Kelsey's text is more of a let-down. Though he writes art criticism in a fairly straightforward way, here he strains for poetry so strenuously that it ends up reading as gibberish. Using the book's design as a starting point, he overworks the idea of map in Braille that he equates to the supposedly uncharted territory that Rodarte navigates in fashion. "Rarely," he writes, "does fashion dream of. . . inventing bodies that go out into the desert of images to transform their blindness into fresh gestures."

In keeping with the rest of the book's pretense to artiness, and his own fragile desert-blindness metaphor, parts of his text have been obliterated by censoring white-out. Some artists have used this canceling technique to pull new meaning from the printed word. In this case, it serves only as an interruption of a rambling narrative that probably could have used more of it.

In the end, Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth is a hip picture book disguised as yet another branding opportunity begging art-world cachet.

LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.