My trip to New York this month was as always fast paced and stimulating. Meetings with academics, bloggers and curators were interspersed with visits to galleries, new retail outlets and people watching.
I had gone to New York primarily to see the Charles James exhibition at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art and it didn’t disappoint. It wasn’t just that exhibition this exhibition that I found thought provoking but its place in a series of exhibitions I visited during my trip. From the Multiple Exposures at the The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) that focused on jewelers that use photography to the retrospective of Sigmar Polke or the Lautrec prints at MoMA. What struck me was not just the variety but also how art, particularly contemporary art, is so much a part of the character of New York.
Now back in the UK the three shows I keep referring to are Charles James, Small, an exhibition at the Drawing Center and Here and Elsewhere at the Bowery New Museum.
The Charles James exhibition demonstrated what a significant couturier he was. All his clothes from the toiles, the day-wear to the spectacular ball gowns were wonderfully constructed and more architectural than almost any designer’s work that I’ve seen. His drawings were strikingly sculptural and the many quotes that were used throughout the exhibition, demonstrated his architectural and sculptural influences.
“In fashion even what seems most fragile must be built on cement.”
But it wasn’t just the Charles James exhibition that made me think about how structure, form and scale are such an integral part of creative practice.
The push these days, whether you are interested in fashion or art, always seems to be dramatic, large scale, and to a greater or lesser extent, shocking. But although James’ ball gowns were extraordinary in their size and construction there was a balance and symmetry based on careful and patient construction. What struck me wasn’t just their spectacle but their beauty.
“I spent my life making fashion an art form.” – Charles James
It was this quality that I found curiously resonant in ‘Small’ an exhibition by nine artists the premis of which was that small, instead of trivalising the subject, can achieve the reverse. Like James these artists understand the power of materials and scale. These, at times tiny drawings, were intimate, intense with a power that belied their scale. Like James these artists showed how an understanding of the relationship of an art form to the human body is a crucial part of artistic practice whatever your medium.
In ‘Here and Elsewhere’ an exhibition of 45 Arab artists, all about the body politic, this quality was overwhelming. It presented our humanity; whether physical as in the tales of migrants by Bouchra Khalili, or mental, as in The Purple Artifical Forest a film by Amal Kenawy. This was a challenging, relevant, poignant and at times angry and shaming exhibition.
The installation by Wafa Hourani, the works on paper by Mazen Keraj and Rokni Haerizadeh were particularly memorable for how they seemed to epitomise the purpose of the exhibition – that is:
“a complex reflection on the ethics of representation and the status of images as instruments of political consciousness”.
It was notable too for the number of female artists such as Kenaway and Anna Boghiguin, the directness of the materials and mediums used; photography, video, strong immediate drawings, the use of everyday objects as with the matchboxes of Mohamed Larbi Rahali, and the power of words and image together. ‘Here and Elsewhere’ alone was worth my trip to New York.