For full disclosure, I am a fan of NotEqual, the brainy, drapy, androgynous brand conceptualized by Fabio Costa and Rebecca Diele. The pair creates garments that may appear a bit too conceptual on first glance, and yet, in real life, elegantly fit a variety of body shapes and sizes. Simultaneously methodological and innovative, NotEqual has developed ruler-like tools based on the golden mean--a formula historically used to create art, architecture and objects of aesthetically pleasing proportions--that serve as a mathematical basis for fundamental shapes that in turn become NotEqual's wearable pieces of art.
NotEqual is one of 13 designers featured in Folk Couture: Fashion and Art at the American Folk Art Museum. Each of the selected designers in the exhibition picked objects from the museum's collection to serve as inspirational source material for a new garment. While the displayed garments appeared to be mixed in quality, the relationships between the newly created work and the source material are all visually and thematically strong.
John Bartlett (b. 1963)'s whimsical creation is the result of one of the more interesting relationships between new garment and source material. Very sculptural--and perhaps because of this, entirely unpractical as a garment--Bartlett created a two-dimensional shirt-and-trouser ensemble for a disembodied, elongated figure. Known for his masculine, tight-fitting and often sexually charged designs for men, Bartlett apparently let his inner whimsy take over, playing with scale and proportion for his creation. A skinny male figurine, dressed in a green shirt, white suspenders and black trousers (ca. 19th century~20th century), served as Bartlett's inspiration.
The most successful pieces in the exhibition, however, are the garments that stand out on their own, show technical mastery and creative ingenuity, and also posit an interesting dialogue between themselves and their source material. Focusing on repetitive motifs and interpreting patterns, the garments by ThreeASFOUR and NotEqual appear to have succeeded in achieving these goals.
ThreeASFOUR's garment takes a Quaker friendship quilt created in the 19th century that features a repetition of six-pointed stars as its source material. While the Quaker quilt clearly did not associate the six-pointed star with Judaism, ThreeASFOUR has played with the iconography of stars and their religious connotations. In their garment, perhaps aptly titled Amity Dress, ThreeASFOUR has used patent leather in a multi-colored flower pattern. By piercing the leather in four-pointed, five-pointed, and six-pointed star configurations, and overlaying these stars, ThreeASFOUR newly creates an abstract, filigreed pattern that is used to shape the garment. In doing so, ThreeASFOUR has succeeded in harmonizing Christian, Islamic and Jewish stars into a singular whole.
ThreeASFOUR constantly invokes cross-cultural hybridity. Recently, the collective showed MER KA BA at the Jewish Museum, an installation that featured some of their 2014 spring/summer collection (many of which resonated with the garment shown at the American Folk Art Museum). The title of the installation comes from various spiritual and religious origins, all invoking the ability of the soul to achieve transcendence. ThreeASFOUR's laser-cut sculptural garments were installed in an installation space that featured two conjoined pyramids covered in mirrors. From the outside, the reflection of the pyramids created a six-pointed star. Within the cavernous mirrored space, reflections multiplied onto themselves in explosive star bursts.
NotEqual's garment also succeeds in being a combination of artistry, labor-intensive craftsmanship, reflection on source material, and originality. Taking as their source material, Tree of Life Whitework Quilt, a cotton and linen quilt (1796), and Sacred Heart of Jesus, a painted wood sculpture (ca. 1900), NotEqual created a garment titled Agnus Dame. Similar to the quilt, NotEqual has utilized the highly sculptural technique of stuffwork, where a coarsely woven fabric is first basted onto a surface layer, and motifs are then stitched through both layers, creating pillows which are finally stuffed through the back with small bits of cotton. The religious wood sculpture provides inspiration for NotEqual to add clerical elements to the androgynous garment: a capelet, a monastic tunic-like skirt, and a wide-brim head covering.
Folk Couture is a small exhibition with a narrowly focused thesis, perfect for those who are interested in the artistry of fashion, and hopefully, it will also help to expand the museum's audience. The exhibition is on until April 23, 2014.
Sebastian Masuda is a tastemaker and leader of Harajuku culture. Originating from its namesake neighborhood in Tokyo, Harajuku culture cannot be easily defined, as it is a conglomeration of youth cultures that each expresses their ideas, in-group attitude, and what members of the group consider to be important by their mode of dress, and that co-exist within the Harajuku ecosystem. These groups at various points in time included: the Take-no-ko-zoku (late 1970s/early 1980s) where youth were seen dancing to disco sounds emanating from their boom boxes; Gothic Lolita (1990s~), where girls dressed in frilly silk and lacy fashions reminiscent of European rococo attire with a hint of Addams-Family-goth; and Cyber (late 1990s), where ravers dressed in futuristic science-fiction styles. The sensational kawaii subculture (kawaii is the Japanese word for "cute") and its various incarnations is perhaps now most recognized as representing Harajuku culture throughout the world. Known for its explosive bursts of color, and its appropriation and interpretation of a first world conspicuous consumption attitude, it has become mainstream to the point of being adapted (not without its own sets of essentializing problems, of course) by the likes of Gwen Stefani in Harajuku Girls and Nicki Minaj with her idea of Harajuku Barbie.
Masuda has seen almost all that is Harajuku, and most certainly lives to tell. Having worked in avant-garde theater and art, he has been based in Harajuku since the 1990s, first opening his wildly popular 6%DOKIDOKI store in 1995. Since then, he has continued to serve as an original ambassador for Harajuku culture (for example, acting as concept and artistic director to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), and has now finally made his debut in New York with his first solo art installation, presenting his own interpretation of the Seven Deadly Sins.
In Colorful Rebellion~Seventh Nightmare (2014), Masuda's installation takes up almost the entirety of the project space. Upon entering the room, the visitor notices a vintage bed. Surrounding the bed are the various zones of sin: desire; the future; delusion; fate; wound; and reality. Each zone features wall panels of protruding objects of visual material culture layered, glued, taken apart, and re-mixed. While this might appear to be visually chaotic, the experience of the work is strangely calming, as the viewer feels cocooned by the tonal layers of color and texture. The work is apparently a self-portrait of sorts, as Masuda has interpreted six mortal sins he has committed or experienced. Masuda also mentions that the work is meant to be experienced by one person at a time, lying down on the bed and letting the visual explosion of color flood the viewer's senses. In this way, the seventh sin is left for to the viewer to interpret, requiring the viewer to complete the experience of the work.
Art is created with imagination and skill and...expresses important ideas or feelings. Here, Masuda has attempted to make evident the process by which people are "attracted to, and become dependent on, kawaii things." However, through the title of the installation, Colorful Rebellion, Masuda also appears to hint at the revolutionary possibility of positive action through this very process of developing dependence. In this way, Masuda--using an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Mike Kelley's stuffed animal installations and Yayoi Kusama's colorful infinity patterns--represents a uniquely Japanese vision of culture-as-revolution. But in doing so, he provides his viewers with the courage to celebrate and interpret culture as a fantastical, but very real, form of free expression…which is universally applicable and extremely powerful.
Does this all sound too theoretical for you? If so, I would encourage you to read this Tumblr post (with 2,405 comments and counting) from someone reacting to Masuda's installation.
Sebastian Masuda's Colorful Rebellion~Seventh Nightmare is at Kianga Ellis Projects until March 29, 2014. The installation will be activated at specific times with performances during Armory Arts Week--details are available here.
© Sebastian Masuda. Images courtesy of Kianga Ellis Projects; photography by GION.