As luck would have it, my epiphany about "Art on the Edge of Fashion," a show of some 30 works by eight artists at ASU's Nelson Fine Arts Center, came last Saturday night in the museum's men's room. I was taking care of some personal business when a woman's voice erupted from a speaker concealed inside the towel dispenser: "Just how healthy is this trail mix you get in health-food stores?" she boomed. "I mean, if you eat enough of it, it'll make you just as fat as anything else. So how healthy could it really be?"
I took a towel and marveled at how our sense of fashion has developed since Benjamin Franklin advised, "Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others."
She covered the range of talk-show neuroses. She blathered about her weight and the burden of maintaining appearances.
The voice belonged to a woman who was spending much of the evening eating powdered doughnuts and ranting into a walkie-talkie from a perch on a toilet of babble, as it were, in a locked stall of the women's loo. There, in the name of performance art, self-expression, self-identity, self-loathing, and the burdensome expectations of art and fashion, she could be watched through a periscope, and heard via radio, by boys and girls alike.
She and a half-dozen or so other performers were invited to kick off the "Art on the Edge of Fashion" opening because, as the show's curator, Heather Sealy Lineberry, put it, "performance art lends itself to the connections between the body and identity that the works in this show are about."
As it turned out, it also lent itself to putting the show in a nutshell: the triumph of intellectual posing and styling over any sort of genuine examination or insight about fashion or style.
This was hardly the show's intent.
Lineberry had been planning the exhibit for about three years. The idea for it stemmed, she said, from "the realization that a growing number of artists were using clothes or clothing forms to explore the nature of identity." Both their own identity and the one society attaches to the way people dress, walk and act.
Featuring artists who sew, knit and practice other traditional fiber techniques, the show's general theme, Lineberry said, is that just about everything reflects fashion: "You can't get away from that. From the time you get up in the morning and start thinking about what you're going to wear, you can't avoid thinking that you're expressing yourself at the same time you're expressed upon by society. All of these artists deal with that."
Yet they do so in fairly predictable ways. There are a couple of guys who sew and/or dress up, to challenge prevailing assumptions about manly--and womanly, for that matter--customs and attire. And there are a half-dozen women who sprinkle their work with what Lineberry characterizes as a dose of "new feminism," which "recognizes that a woman can be both--to be cliched--strong and independent, and yet really enjoy shopping and looking nice."
There's a visual charm in the simplicity of Christine LoFaso's delicate dresses and shirts, Kerrie Peterson's humorous dresses sewn to fit sculpture by Alberto Giacometti and Gaston LaChaise, and Charles LeDray's assemblages of miniature apparel. Unfortunately, it is quickly eroded by the whiny accompanying subtext about the crummy lot of women, homosexuals and other fashionable outcasts.
There are hints of that in some of the writing on the wall. But the catalogue offers the full dose. The pins and tea-stained paper of LoFaso's "Maternity," wrote Lineberry, "reveal the underside of constructions of femininity, [and] that women do not easily make the sacrifices to be mothers and nurturers."
We're told that Peterson's hilarious dresses capture "succinctly the fetishizing of the female body" by manipulative male artists. And that LeDray uses "processes and materials traditionally related to women's work . . . once considered off limits, in order to dismantle and broaden masculinity."
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Quilting such pieties and easy meanings onto this relatively slim work gives it proper academic bulk, arguably fitting for a university art museum. Yet it also helps to reveal the far more interesting subject of this show: the intellectual fashions at play in some sectors of academia and the art world. You can begin with the title "Art on the Edge of Fashion," which suggests that art needs to be on the edge--cutting, avant or other--of something to be valued, cherished, desired.
Then there is the show's neurotic preoccupation with self-expression and self-identity. It's a popular preoccupation these days, offering plenty of bad work the hope of a new life as social therapy. Yet in holding up that harsh mirror of social reflection, this exhibit reveals not just art on the edge of fashion, but a full frontal view of the emperor on the verge of new clothes.
"Art on the Edge of Fashion" continues through Sunday, April 27, at Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe.