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Beyond Fashion 

Fashion has long had an uneasy relationship with art. Art movements (cubism, surrealism, postmodernism), begin as the outré expressions of marginal weirdos yet, as the establishment sniffs and frowns, the freaks eventually take over and become the new establishment. It's the same in fashion, as hippies, rappers and goths flaunt their stuff on the fringes only to eventually become trendy and co-opted by corporate America.

Art and fashion flirted in the haute monde heyday of Paris and New York as once radical figures such as Man Ray and Jasper Johns worked as fashion photographers, or clothing-store window dressers, respectively. Although women's fashions have sometimes skirted the fringes of fine art, attire rarely serves as a foil for artists despite being fraught with psychic and fetishistic intrigue. Perhaps it takes artists with a special perspective, in which case Jacqueline Bishop, Les Christensen and Pam Longobardi seem to fit the bill quite neatly.

Les Christensen takes the most direct approach in sculptural assemblages that explore women's fashions as dualisms -- adornment as ornament/armament -- in her Shield series of mandala-shaped constructions of high heels severed from ladies' shoes. In 100 Widows (Death Shield), black is the color as overlapping heels radiate like high fashion spikes from a deadly discus. But the mood turns a lighter shade of pale in 100 Maidens (Nuptial Shield) which features white overlapping high heels. Both suggest bizarre mutations, maybe kinky, genetically altered cacti or sadomasochistic sea urchins. Here the mixed signals of feminine allure and the threat of impalement are enough to give anyone cause to pause for a moment of wary reflection on the nature of beastly beauty and deadly seduction. Christensen heightens the irony with World View, a vast, wall-size Mercator map of a globe made up of broken-mirror fragments, a silvery mosaic of the world spread out before us, reflecting our images like a gigantic disco ball rendering of the "We Are the World" theme. Yikes! If high-heeled mutations and disco-globalism sound a tad unsettling, man's best friend comes to the rescue in Pam Longobardi's adjacent Permanent Cuteness series.

Infanta is a silky, ruffled child's dress, but the child within is a dog -- literally. Instead of a Shirley Temple stand-in, the head of a Boston terrier protrudes from that lacy collar. Actually, it does have big, imploring eyes, and that may be the point as Longobardi hints in Surrogates, a series of small dog sculptures, realistic except that all wear lacy collars, bonnets or petticoats as if they were the pampered little princesses of Victorian socialites. In fact, the Boston terrier has been bred for its large head to body ratio and big eyes, characteristics that elicit sentiments not unlike what humans feel for babies. There's even a word for it: Neotony, which is also the title of her oil on copper painting of a Boston terrier head emerging from a chrysanthemum-like flower suggesting a vast floral collar from which appears a mythic dog-god, a hirsute celestial child substitute from the heavens.

Another odd melding of fashion, nature and hormones appears in Jacqueline Bishop's series of baby shoes elaborately painted with tropical flora and fauna. At first glance, these may require yet another mental pirouette to resolve our domestic associations with children's shoes and the images of wild birds, orchids and jungle animals so delicately painted on them. In fact, Bishop has been collecting such shoes for years after finding them in such unlikely places as remote rain forests. Lady's Slipper is a pair of toddler's shoes depicting a Max Ernstian snarl of jungle creepers surrounding an elaborately and finely painted Lady's slipper orchid up front, an illusionistic device that has us look at the shoe as an object, yet also into the apparent depths of the flower and surrounding foliage. It makes for a surreal juxtaposition, yet the implications are logical when we consider that global commercial interests are literally snatching the wild world out from under the feet of future generations. The symbolism here is predominantly female: The baby shoes epitomize fecundity while nature, of course, is a "mother," and here Bishop seems to suggest that innocence is what is really at stake as insatiable development threatens to turn what's left of the wild world into a vast, globalized mall.

click to enlarge Les Christensen's 100 Maidens (Nuptial Shield) forces the viewer to reflect on the nature of beastly beauty and deadly seduction.
  • Les Christensen's 100 Maidens (Nuptial Shield) forces the viewer to reflect on the nature of beastly beauty and deadly seduction.
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