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by Elisabeth Kley
The New Year opened with something of a costume festival, as several exhibitions of decked-out mannequins turned galleries into runways for motionless fashion shows. Exemplary in this regard is "Rock on Mars," a retrospective of the colorful in-your-face clothing, sketches, Polaroids and paintings by the late Stephen Sprouse (1953-2004) at Deitch Projects on Wooster Street, Jan. 9-Feb. 28, 2009.

Sprouse began his fashion career in the early 1970s as Halston’s assistant, and then moved downtown to shared quarters on the Bowery with Debbie Harry. He found inspiration in punk rock and graffiti and dabbled in heroin, but by the mid-'80s he had joined AA and cigarettes were his only vice.

As Sprouse hung out with artists and pop stars (Warhol traded two portraits for his entire May 1984 collection and Madonna requested designs), his businesses crashed, burned and were reborn. His label went bankrupt in 1985, due to his taste for luxurious materials, and the large SoHo store he founded in 1987 also failed. Sprouse went on to be fashion consultant for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and died of lung cancer at age 50.

In a way, the show is an exercise in nostalgia for nostalgia, as Sprouse’s most notable works were the '60s-inspired lines he created in the '80s, including fluorescently colored mini-skirts and psychedelic pajama suits. A 1997 collection featured iconic Warhol images (also from the '60s) transferred to clothing.

At Deitch, a bevy of mannequins wear rainbows of boldly colored outfits, from a man’s orange boa coat over a skull t-shirt to a black sleeveless dress covered with quivering iridescent feathers attached to wires. A male and female couple is respectively dressed in pants and a chemise printed with Warhol’s 1967 image of a Lincoln Center ticket.

A wall of dashed-off neon fashion drawings pops under black light in the basement gallery. Everyone’s hair is spiky, shoulders are padded and the clothing is hot pink, yellow and lime. A trio of silkscreens made from photos of Mick Jagger’s chest hangs on the opposite wall over camouflage wallpaper.

Paintings on view include silkscreen photos of a crucified Iggy Pop on cross-shaped silver canvases, and portraits of Sid Vicious kneeling, pants down. The opening was a genuine fashion-and-art event, packed with celebrants resplendent in vintage Sprouse, and the show is too quiet without them. The cavernous gallery needs flashing lights, revolving disco balls, and louder music.

Liz Renay: How to Attract Men
Sprouse’s fashion muses were androgynous sylphs of either sex, with broad shoulders and slender hips. A curvier body ideal can be seen in "Liz Renay: How to Attract Men" at Deitch’s Grand Street space around the corner. The exhibition was curated by New York artist Scott Ewalt in collaboration with the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

A legendary actress and burlesque star who died in 2007 at 80 years of age, Renay taught herself to paint while serving a three-year perjury term for refusing to rat on her Mafia boyfriend. Paintings made during 1961-73 are on view, along with skimpy costumes, collages, mementos and copies of some of her published books, which included My Face for the World to See and My First 2,000 Men (Joe DiMaggio, Regis Philbin, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster. . .).

Jail’s brutal reality made no impression on Renay’s resolutely optimistic paintings, mostly self-portraits in various guises. Blonde, blue-eyed women with Doris Day faces and very large breasts emphasize the breeding potential of the ideal Girl Next Door. Among the several reclining nudes is a 1961 Eve worthy of Henri Rousseau, handing a bright red apple to a laughably handsome Adam, as a goofy snake looks on.

Garden of Earthly Delights (1964) is another bucolic scene that could be described as Renay's version of Matisse's Luxe, calme, et volupte, with four horned satyrs chasing some voluptuous blonde nymphs in a classical arcadia. And in The Genie (1962), a turbaned Arabic siren rises out of a glittering lamp, holding an all-American boy and girl in the palm of her hand. A long sequined dress on a Renay-clone mannequin stands in front of the painting.

A vitrine in the next room contains address books, an eyelash curler, garters, a whip and a paint box with instruction books. The wall above is covered with publicity shots, posters and a colorful to-do list. On the list, "baby steps" include "vocal lessons, music lessons, drama lessons, typing lessons and driving lessons," and "bigs" include "Wrack up Big Bank acc. $$$."

On the opposite wall, a row of collaged newspaper articles about Renay’s shows and appearances in Mafia trials attest to her enjoyment of notoriety. Prices for the paintings are $10,000-$20,000, while the collages are $8,000 each.

Nick Cave: Soundsuits
More elaborate costumes are on view on West 20th Street in Chelsea, in Chicago-based artist Nick Cave’s perfectly staged exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, Jan. 8-Feb. 7, 2009. Beginning his creative career as an Alvin Ailey dancer, Cave went on to design a clothing line he sold in his own shop for ten years.

Now chairman of the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cave has been showing his genre-blurring works blending sculpture and clothing in galleries for approximately ten years. Nearly eight feet tall, his "soundsuits" are modern versions of religious ceremonial costumes that rustle and jangle when worn. Many have enormous featureless heads rising from shoulders like giant blinding hoods.

Seventeen mannequins in soundsuits are posed on a U-shaped runway in the main gallery. Made from scraps of evening dresses, American Indian style beadwork, crocheted bags, buttons and doilies, these asymmetric conglomerations of eye-popping textures and colors resemble Haitian sequin paintings come to life. Newer suits are fitted with metal frameworks that rest on the mannequin’s shoulders, covered with vintage metal flowers and toys like elaborate walking centerpieces.

Six more figures wearing soundsuits made of electric-colored hair are lined up on a platform along one wall. Pink spots and red diamonds with lemon yellow borders shine against black backgrounds, and thick magenta, blue and lime green stripes bring paintings by Kenneth Noland to mind.

Additional sculptures feature antique racist decorations transformed into pointed political commentaries. The entrance gallery features a row of worn, black-skinned jockey figures holding up metal trees covered with more toys and artificial flowers. And in Penny Catcher (2009), a small black jacket and trousers dangle from a crude black head with an open red mouth. Soundsuits are $45,000 and sculptures are $22,000-$26,000.

Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool
After so many faceless mannequins, it’s a relief to see a representation of a real human being. "Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool," a retrospective of works by the Philadelphia born, Connecticut-based painter curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, is at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Nov. 12, 2008-Mar. 15, 2009.

The earliest work in the show, made when the 19-year-old Hendricks was still a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, is Black Nun (1964), an academically painted figure swaying her hips and staring at the viewer with all of the smarts and attitude found in later portraits.

After traveling to Europe and studying at Yale, Hendricks embarked upon a then-unprecedented journey of African-American self-representation, at the height of the Black Power movement and in the heyday of blaxploitation films.

In a series of impeccably rendered, mostly life-sized portraits of himself, his friends, and people he encountered in his neighborhood, Hendricks immortalized the street fashion of the time with the lavish care and formal power that European Old Masters devoted to representing their ruling classes. Stereotypical attitudes are heightened into confrontational images of utterly real individuals.

Some of the most fascinating works feature dark skin standing out from clothing that blends with the backgrounds. Seen against a flat field of peach paint, North Philly Niggah (William Corbett) (1975) wears a full-length pile-lined peach coat with nearly transparent shadows. The subject’s head and his magenta shirt are the painting’s only contrasting areas, emphasizing his knowingly severe expression.

What’s Going On (1974), one of several outstanding white-on-white paintings, includes two men and three women in white hats and clothing. Dark hands dancing across the painting’s lower section are balanced against deep brown faces enlivened by red lips, earrings, and sunglasses. One woman is seen twice, clothed and in the nude, her naked body forming a single vertical slash that bisects the mostly white canvas.

Bahsir (Robert Gowers) (1975) features three portraits of the same figure seen from different angles. With his blue army coat, pale checked pants, irregular features, and skeptical stare, Gowers is as striking as one of Van Gogh’s potato eaters, but considerably more elegant. His piercing reality is a testament to the meaning clothing takes on when worn by unforgettable people brought to uncanny life.

"Gothic: Dark Glamour"
The living are endlessly fascinated by death, and often like to broadcast this obsession sartorially. The glamorization of mortality and decay is documented in "Gothic: Dark Glamour," curated by Valerie Steele at the Museum at FIT, Sept. 5, 2008-Feb. 21, 2009. More than 75 examples of nightmarish couture are appropriately displayed in a basement, with gloomy walls and spotlights providing an atmosphere of creepy drama.

For historical context, the entrance gallery contains "Mourning," a display of the black veiled costumes Victorian women customarily wore for one year after the death of a spouse. The evolution from 19th-century fashions in compulsive grief to present-day delight in the macabre is illustrated nearby with a contemporary black velvet Thierry Mugler dress in a coffin lined with white silk.

The larger portion of the exhibition is divided into more thematic displays. "Ruined Castle," for example, includes a 2007 evening dress by Alexander McQueen. Titled "In Memory of Elizabeth Howe," it commemorates one of the designer’s ancestors, who was burned alive in the 1692 Salem witch trials.

Several outfits from Kei Kagama’s rather sadistic anatomy-organism collection can be seen in the rubber-curtained "Laboratory," conjuring up dangerous cyborg monsters. One 2007 dress is topped with a framework of test tubes and a magnifying glass that turn it into an immobilizing metallic straitjacket.

An equally unwearable ensemble by Hussein Chalayan appears in "Cemetery," a circular pen imprisoning a gaggle of figures in veils and masks. The jacket made from a red and black carpet features an enormous hood that completely hides the shoulders, covering the mannequin’s head like a rampant bloody mold.

Subcultural gothic clothing that people have actually worn is on display in "The Bat Cave," a mystifying section featuring a row of labels that at times appear to be describing nothing but a mirrored wall, as the contents are only visible for several minutes at a time when interior lights go on.

Inside, Hirooka Naoko’s elaborate short dress combines lace, patent leather, chiffon, faux bone, chains and a stuffed skull-faced doll. The ensemble was made for a member of the Japanese youth movement called Elegant Gothic Lolitas, presumably enjoying ghoulish masquerades at the peak of her juvenile health.

Don Bacardy at Cheim & Read
Courageous proof that actual death is far from glamorous can be found in "Christopher Isherwood: Last Drawings," a searing exhibition by the 74-year-old California portraitist Don Bachardy at Cheim & Read, Jan. 6-Feb. 7, 2009.

The noted British author Christopher Isherwood, whose The Berlin Stories were the source for the movie Cabaret, was Bachardy’s lifelong partner, despite their 30-year age difference, and these works document Isherwood’s illness and death from prostate cancer in 1986. Bachardy captures the helplessness of old age in the face of mortal illness with great objectivity, using the act of drawing to process their shared experience.

The works were made with a Japanese brush and black acrylic over a period of approximately six months, with the grace and concision of traditional Asian ink painting. Isherwood is contemplative, but still alert in the earliest drawings, created in July and August 1985. He sits upright in Untitled 11 August 19, for example, wearing a jacket and gazing into the distance.

By November and December, Isherwood is mostly seen in bed, his head resting against a pillow. In Untitled VIII 12 December, the flesh has fallen from his face, turning him into a wraith. The drawings in the back room, created in the last week of his life, seem to represent his drift to a final coma. Untitled VII 29 December features two drips of paint falling from Isherwood’s mouth like blood.

The moment when Isherwood’s spirit disappears from the works is difficult to pin down. He died on Jan. 4, but Bachardy continued to draw his body for several hours, and the corpse’s open eyes still seem to look out at the viewer even after he was gone.

This extraordinary document of vision and spirit represents the diseased and aging body as the ultimate disguise. Gazing at the face of his disappearing lover, Bachardy continued to search for the identity hidden under frightening transformations. The entire group of drawings is for sale as a single piece of art, offered to museums and institutions.

ELISABETH KLEY is an artist who writes on art.