Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Summer Ponds—New Work by Betsy DeFusco" at the Ohio State Faculty Club

How lovely to have a backyard pond like Betsy Furlong DeFusco does, with time to contemplate its inspiration on canvas, in color. "It's very relaxing to sit and watch the fish swimming around endlessly in a swirl of color, and I soon became engaged in seeing a whole world of activity in a tiny body of water. I am constantly inspired by the different worlds in nature and by the act of painting itself as I explore the edge between abstraction and representation," she tells us in the statement she prepared for her large exhibition, which hangs at the Ohio State University Faculty Club through October 28.

Betsy DeFusco, Seasnake Sushi 2. Oil on wood panel, 9 x 12."
(Leafy vines decorate the fish shapes like strings of festive lights draped from a balcony at an oceanside resort.)

While DeFusco's work begins with observation, her interest in invented color moves the paintings toward abstraction, as do her simplification of forms and her evident interest in the decorative. This show is genuinely delicious. It is restful, peaceful, alluring. The floating forms of water lily pads with goldfish idling among them soothe as much painted in intense pastels as would their real—and less vivid—originals. Her strong colors, softened by applied layers of transparent glazes, read at a distance as water color rather than oil because they are sheer and give the illusion of translucent overlap. Seasnake Sushi 2 is such a work, an expression of exuberance created by color, shape, line, and the artist's ability to use them as she will.

Betsy DeFusco, Floating Colors 2. Oil on wood
panel, 16-3/4 x 21-3/4."
Any painter who chooses water lilies  and a pastel palette to work in is bound to be compared to Monet; DeFusco is wide open to this comparison, with her luscious colors and dreamy, floating forms. It's wise to remember, though, that Monet's mission was entirely different: He was a student of light, intent on rendering reality in a new way, working to represent. 

I'm not so sure that this is DeFusco's mission, however beguiling her palette. While in Floating Colors we can imagine blue water giving over to green, or the play of shadows on water having this color effect, the lack of detail in the lily pads tells us that the artist is not out to convince us about the nature of what she saw. What she "captured" was a vision, in which a scene of lily pads on water was an inspiration for a foray into color, her emotional and imaginative center. Another basic thing to notice is DeFusco's evenhanded brushwork. In Floating Colors, as in many of the pieces in this show, the strong strokes back and forth show no impulse to mimic nature. They shuttle across the scene to form a scrim and to create an impossible simultaneous motion suggested by the cuts in the leaves: Some move to the left, others to the right, all on the same current. (If you inspect images on her Facebook page, linked above, you can get a better sense of these surfaces.)

In DeFusco's series of small-scale lily pad paintings, a favorite of mine is Near the Shore.

Betsy DeFusco, Near the Shore. Oil on wood panel,
16-3/4 x 21-3/4."

The forms in this work fill the picture plane in sizes and more complicated relation than in some, suggesting a possible reality for the leaves. At the same time, the edges of the forms are indistinct and, compared to most of the work in the show, the colors are very muted; I feel that I have to rub something from my eyes to get close enough to the picture. 

I think that DeFusco has hit a particular sweet spot here, between painting a scene and painting a dream. The strong horizontal brush strokes that span the surface of the painting once again lend a quiet dynamic to what appears to be a cool and settled scene.

Betsy DeFusco, Swimming Through. Oil on wood
panel. 12 x 12."
Two more small paintings won my heart, two that read as realistic. Swimming Through features a sturdy gold fish, not abstract at all, swimming in clear water just below a few small lily pads. The water is gray-blue. The plants are green. The fish is gold. All the elements are painted with sufficient detail to convey a sense of their reality.

I like the point of view. I like it that we are situated so that we are looking absolutely straight down at this fish. I can't quite imagine how I got here—so close and so directly above—without disturbing the quiet calm of the scene. I feel like I'm in a privileged place. It's special, but it's not abstract. What's even more special is that it is obviously fleeting. While there is a lot of implied movement in DeFusco's work, this is both a fish and the fish. It's not one of a mass of moving forms. We know which way it's going, and that it will soon be gone. There's a drama in this fleeting scene that the more lively and crwded paintings cannot have. 

 I also enjoy the muted colors of the painting, especially in contrast to those around it. DeFusco loves the pinks and bright tropical colors, so her show is quite a brilliant experience. That Swimming Through feels like something self-sufficient and happy in its calm literal expression is especially refreshing in context.

Autumn Pond shares with Swimming Through this nod toward literal reality. Both paintings move into a contemplative space as a result, a space that the more colorfully abstract paintings don't occupy. The distance between this and Seasnake Sushi 2 is vast.
Betsy DeFusco, Autumn Pond. Oil on wood panel,
12 x 12."


The focus of this painting is very clear; the subject is the yellow lilly pad trailing a tendril that disappears out of the bottom left corner. There is a distinctly dynamic aspect to the composition. Even though it is not a swift or driving picture, there is a sense of something to come that adds purpose and story. The yellow form crosses a background line, moving from gray-blue water into water clear enough to reflect foliage in all its true, deep and brooding green color. A flat, stucco pink leaf intrudes at the top margin from DeFusco's abstract and artificial world. 

I'm happy to accept this embassy from the other side. It's beautiful and it reminds me of the edge that DeFusco works. But it doesn't undo this lovely moment of reality, when a resting leaf floats between two worlds, becalmed between the aesthetic of color combinations and the truth of incipient decay. 

If DeFusco's show has any major flaw, it's that there is too much work in it. She has produced a prodigious body of paintings on a few subjects in a special, tight pallet. I think she would be better served by withholding some and piquing the appetite for more. But beautiful it is. For the art lover who watches the leaves change with a sense of regret, this is the show to see to cling to the sweetness of warm days and long, slow, contemplative days of ripe beauty.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Group Improvisation by the Tone Road Ramblers

This is a long-awaited opportunity for me to write about the Tone Road Ramblers when readers can experience one of their improvisations without its being through the abstraction of prose only. The video comes to us with thanks to Eric Mandat. It can also be viewed on YouTube.

Morgan Powell
As it’s currently constituted, the personnel of the Tone Road Ramblers are: Morgan Powell and James Staley, trombones, and Ray Sasaki, trumpet. These three are original members who have been playing together since founding the collective in 1981. Eric Mandat, the clarinetist and percussionist of odd hand instruments, came in 1989, and though Howie Smith, with his bouquet of saxophone voices (ranging from soprano through contra-bass) has been with the group in one way or another for years, he officially replaced flutist John
Ray Sasaki
Fonville a couple of years ago. Only recently have they been without a formal percussionist, and they find that it’s okay. By nature, the best improvisers are firmly grounded realists, requiring no magic to spin gold from straw. For them, there’s no important difference between them anyway. If you listen, you’ll understand where and how such distinctions dissolve.

I have written about this organization and its members many times before, in Starr Review, New Music Box, and in my book, Sounding OurDepths: The Music of Morgan Powell (2014). Yet, thanks to Eric Mandat’s filming, this is the first time I’ve had video footage from a concert that I could use to show what it is so difficult to tell without the experience. How does the writer translate what is literally inarticulate into words? (See the post before this, in which Ray Sasaki’s helpfully asserts that playing the trumpet is speech for him).

James Staley
The Ramblers generously answer questions during breaks during their concerts because their unique music leaves many with more questions than vocabulary. Let me share a precis of responses to their FAQs:

Everything you hear is spontaneous. It is unrehearsed; there is no initial plan or “setup.” There isn’t a plan about who will play first: Someone will, and there is no discomfort with silence until someone stirs.

TRR has no leader. Ensemble members play (or refrain from playing) in response to what they hear their colleagues playing. No one is waiting their turn. As Ray Sasaki explains it, they are having a conversation that has a life of its own. If we accept the idea that each musician has been speaking with his instrument for most of his life, we are listening in on conversation that takes the many tones conversations do: quiet, calm, argumentative, silly, reminiscent, irritable, celebratory and all the rest. In conversation, sometimes one has nothing to add, or recognizes that he would only interrupt the flow. Sometimes his contribution will deepen it, and sometimes he has  a lot to say. This model may help guide your listening.
Howie Smith

The conversational model also helps listeners organize the experience that is distinctive for having none of the traditional markers we normally depend on to direct us in music: no beat (necessarily), no measured sections, no dependence on Western scales, nothing to guide a listener’s expectations. The music is made of sound, incident, and the ever-occurring present that asks you neither to linger nor to jump ahead. Just listen with the concentration of an eavesdropper: You are all attention, never knowing what surprising gem will come your way, and your heart will race.

Many anticipate chaos at the very idea of group improvisation but listening—and watching—will quickly dispel this notion. This is not a free-for-all, but the production of highly refined musicianship as execution and listening both. Chaos would result from simultaneous exertion of ego, each performer closed to what is going on around him and determined to make his own point. 

Clearly, these musicians aren't in competition with one another but in cooperation. They respond to the sound environment rhythmically and tonally, and they participate in the creation of atmospheres and impulses that will create a whole. They trade places in the composition, moving as the music develops between foreground and background, sometimes supporting with underlying chords or rhythmic punctuations, at other times asserting themselves with outbursts or long lyric lines. All this is executed so fluently that it is often difficult to distinguish voices so protean that they are often unrecognizable from their orchestral exemplars. 
Eric Mandat (courtesy of Rex Gaskins)

The point is not the individual voices, but the experience of a developing composition. Consider the breadth of sounds lavished on the ear and their disposition vis-a-vis one another. These combinations of sound, new to listeners, are new to the performers creating them in the moment. This music occurs because the musicians have made it a practice for over thirty-five years to override deeply-rooted Western musical rules and to free instincts about how to use their instruments—their voices—and what music is in the first place. The Ramblers' conclusion that freedom disconcerts audiences trained to believe that constraints—structure, form and fixed relationships—define music.

But works of art, however they are created, must have limits and feel whole. Performances and compositions, once begun, convince listeners that they've not only stopped but concluded. Ramblers performances will never end with the resolutions of nineteenth-century symphonies, our beloved standard for The End. The frequently-asked question to the Ramblers, "How do you know when it's over?" is not only legitimate, but of great concern to audience members asked to suspend most of their musical information to listen in the first place. 

As with making the music, the decision to conclude a piece is a group decision. Like all their decisions at every point, it could go any number of ways and it depends on what they are collectively and individually hearing. When they hear the possibility of completion, there is no necessity of doing so. If some one or two have more to say, the music will continue, refreshed. But when it ends, it ends with a conclusion—but it's one of countless possibilities in the continuum of sound and silence from which improvised music is made.

Monday, August 22, 2016

I Reconsider the Necessity of Criticism

Ray Sasaki speaks trumpet

The work entailed by running a young publishing company has been so all-consuming that I concluded a few months ago that I could no longer devote time to writing Starr Review: that I was overwhelmed and responsible to my authors were sufficient reasons to give it up. I didn’t mention my growing skepticism that it made much of a difference one way or the other whether I wrote or not.

Silly me! I shall pick up my pixels once again on whatever irregular basis I can. My lapse from reviewing has allowed me to conclude that readers or none, I feel compelled to write criticism to reflect and expand the impact of artists I'm moved by—what they think and make. Who can grow without discussion? How can I enjoy art without the time that writing makes me take to consider it deeply, in proportion to the generosity and magnitude of labor that brings art to us?

This weekend past I heard and talked with the brilliant musician and musical thinker, Ray Sasaki who is, among many other things, trumpeter with the Tone Road Ramblers. Ray spoke about the fact that he’s been playing his instrument since he was eight years old. How simply he told his audience that to play his horn is to speak. In essence, he is bilingual and it’s not clear that English is the more fluent language.

This stopped me in my tracks for being so simple, primary, and universally applicable. We often want to be relieved of the work of accepting gifts of art that we have to assemble with toolboxes limited to verbal language. “Artist: Just tell me what you mean! Be your own museum label!”

When Sasaki speaks music, does it matter if I make sense of it with words? Of course it does: that’s what most of us know. Art in all forms is sent out into a verbal world. It’s in the space between musical or visual or spatial language (literary language too!) and our attempts to understand it that meaning, discovery, and love happen. That's the space where criticism helps us appreciate, question, and discuss Sasaki’s sounds, where we can thank him directly or indirectly. In writing, I can lead others to his music and the world of ideas into which he invites us. These are the reasons to write—and to read—criticism. Or “reviews” as single-subject critical pieces are called. (see The Tone Road Ramblers: Always Some Surprises)

Democracy of Book Reviews

Being a publisher now has made me all the more poignantly aware of the dilution of reviewing. In visual art, one has long seen the decline of art reviews in local papers and the brevity of those that appear. Book reviewing, on the other hand, would seem to be undergoing a renaissance, thanks to customer reviews on Amazon’s commercial site and especially reader reviews on Goodreads’ social media network.

Book reviews are central to the literary world. They inform us about meritorious titles, and give us a chance to discuss them in our minds with informed interlocutors. It’s been sad to see book reviews fall away from the weekend sections of city newspapers, or to shrink under niggardly word limits where they do survive. There are fewer than there used to be. So I thought until these days of on-line, popular reviewing.

A book review is a signed essay that describes the work, raises and expatiates upon its themes and connects the work and writer to the wider world. The genre of review flourishing on websites simply summarizes the plot or argument of a work and rates it according to the reader’s feeling of like dislike—five stars or one, thumbs up or down. This isn’t a book review. It’s a book report or, if sufficiently succinct, advertising copy.

Goodreads serves the active and enthusiastic reader as wide-ranging, democratic book club. Readers have the satisfaction of keeping booklists that serve as reading diaries. They are motivated to read more by being in the virtual midst of readers who are always “talking” about books and comparing notes. Readers enjoy the companionship of overlapping communities with similar tastes and enthusiasms, which, in turn may nudge them into broadening their tastes in authors and genres. I think Goodreads has to be a plus for adult reading generally, a club with meetings on any schedule needed and no irresistible fattening noshes.

It’s unfortunate that the posts on Goodreads get called “reviews” since they almost never rise beyond plot summary and a rating based on a personal, eccentric factor. A book receives a “1” because the reader doesn’t like books with lots of characters. Another receives a “5” because the reviewer finds beautiful (for no illustrated reason) the writing that most book critics would deplore as ponderous. In short, analysis, specificity, comparison are hard to find in this world. Authority based on other than taste is rarely present.

Goodreads reviews do reflect the world of “legit” book reviewing in one discouraging way, that being that a few “hot” books are reviewed hundreds of times while books that are less publicized (and continue that way for all the attention lavished on the best-sellers) go relatively unnoticed. The connection between criticism and marketing is as embarrassing as the emperor’s new clothes. While the publishing world is replete with titles, the marketing budget or previous sales of an author’s books are what draw reviewers both popular and professional. No one wants to be seen making a call on an “unimportant” title: Most reviewers are very conservative, and are unlikely to introduce a new title by themselves. It's also hard to turn down a free book received through a well-oiled network.

I asked a NPR host who once spoke in Columbus why all of the many shows on the network reviewed the same one or two books at a time, when there are always so many to choose from. He dodged the question with a laugh.

Is criticism about passing judgment? Rating? Thumbs up or down? Take my word for it? You’ll love it?

Hooray for readers! Hooray for sharing opinions, for reading together, for swapping books, for keeping au courant. But let’s not mistake Goodreads and Amazon book reports and opinion-posting for criticism—that deeper, time-expanding conversation that takes us farther inside a book and into the widening spirals of space, time, and idea around it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Of Ugly Ducklings and Contemporary Art

The "swan song" brings to mind a silly image of feathered magnificence deflated into flaccid, supine tubing. Perhaps it's the logical end of a creature that begins life as a flinching ugly duckling. Still, the swan's song was originally believed to be surpassingly beautiful because swans were thought to be silent until the end. 
Matt Kish, Beavercreek, Ohio. © Feinknopf Photography

Starr Review has been loquacious for several years, so I wish all the more that I could guarantee some lyricism for my final post. I've delighted in seeing and thinking about all the shows I've written about. I've hoped that I may have inspired others to look again, to step up to contemporary art, or to know that "not getting it" at first glance is insufficient reason not to engage. Perhaps a few readers have looked with more patience and imagination and have found  their attention rewarded with new perspectives and wider horizons. To have had an effect on a viewer's outlook would mean more to me than would having persuaded anyone about what I've seen. Thank you for reading in the past. Thank you for reading my final post: This is an excellent show to go out on:

Currently installed at the Columbus Museum of Art is a show that exemplifies my wish for a relationship of curiosity and exuberance between "civilians" and contemporary art: Art 360º: Contemporary Art Hatching Across Ohio, conceived, curated, and organized by Columbus attorney, Charles Bluestone

Bluestone is neither trained in art nor connected to the art profession except by enthusiasm. But he likes to look; he is curious and stimulated by visual art. He's interested in the creative process and how ideas take concrete form in the hands of artists. 

Having collected Ohio artists since he came to Columbus in 1993, Bluestone put his personal network  to work to "hatch" a show to highlight the Ohio Art Leagueon whose board he previously served. The League has recently faced the financial challenges of an institution making a location change. The result is a show that is visiting five museums/art centers, raising funds through sales of catalogues and posters for the benefit of local arts organizations. The Columbus Museum of Art is the second stop.

Fred Fochtman, Columbus. © Feinknopf Photography
On the website, Bluestone tells an involved and funny backstory about the evolution of a show based on eggs: not only eggs, but ostrich eggs, originally ones that he had himself collected. Artistically, though, the interest for the artists involved and for viewers is great: How do artists who typically work in two-dimensional media react to the opportunity to work on a round surface? Although this challenge was in some way a lark, the great variety of results demonstrates how thoughtfully the artists considered the problem in terms of their usual practices.

Fred Fochtman is an observational landscape painter, who painted the snowscape viewed from his studio window. He didn't approach it, though, as just another landscape to curve around the egg, but he responded to the surface of the egg as well, which is shiny and smooth. He compared it to a glaze used by the famous Rookwood Pottery in southern Ohio and thought of the "ethereal subjects" that decorated their vases.

Matt Kish (above) is fascinated by Moby Dick and its world. He thought about the style of scrimshaw, the art practiced by seamen who carved intricate designs on the bones and teeth of whales during the long months at sea, and he painted the teeth of the White Whale as it attacks the Pequod.
Willard Reader, Portsmouth, Ohio, "The Artist in His Shell."
© Feinknopf Photography

Willard Reader testifies in his catalogue essay to having been rather unnerved by the task and by the egg's fragility (he never took it out of its box, but worked on it as it remained in the bubble wrap: The back is blank).

He made a leap, though, to forgo his usual practice of painting small-town landscapes and he decided to take the egg at face value. He uses its surface as a shell that functions both literally and metaphorically. The transformation is minimal and witty; he uses the support as the major element of both the composition and the message of his piece.

April Sunami, like Reader, uses the nature of her support in creating meaning in her work. Her approach is equally witty, but it comes with a different message and from a very different place. Reader's work is as closely controlled as Sunami's is elaborate, as withdrawn as Sunami's is effusive. The one didn't even remove his egg from its box…Sunami dropped hers.

April Sunami, Columbus, Ohio. "Un-whole Vision." 
© Feinknopf Photography
"I decided to paint it in its broken state and haven't looked back. In some ways the egg has become a personal metaphor for the detours that one must make in life," she writes in her catalogue notes. While she gives her work the title, "Un-whole Vision," a case can be made for its completeness: It is the only work that even suggests that there is an inside to the egg, a mind to the face, and interior to the exterior.
Audra Skudas, Oberlin, Ohio. "Broken Melodies - Discordant
Fragments - Reintegrating." 
 © Feinknopf Photography

Audra Skuodas' reference to egg lore is more subtle, but breathtaking for the care taken and the process that reveals wisdom at the heart of a common nursery rhyme.

This egg's surface is built up of painstakingly collaged scraps of printed musical notation, which the artist has in parts painted over with red ink, making Easter-egg like designs. Depending on the orientation of the egg, the design radiates out from a center, or is halved around a broad central strip, each side distinguished by its own coloration.

The collaged elements are indeed "broken melodies" and "discordant fragments"—if we are thinking only about the musical scores from which they have been snipped. How could they ever be reassembled to make sense again?

The "Reintegration" turns the music into something quite new though. In effect, Skuodas responds to the dilemma of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again: The nursery rhyme was part of her inspiration. The score will never again be used to make the kind of music it was meant for. Its reintegration is as something new, and we can consider it either as New Music, three-dimensional art, or as an egg, hatching questions in us. 

In "Art 360º," we get to see over forty Ohio artists at the intersection of play and problem-solving, at that moment of creative suspense most of us haven't experienced since we were youngsters. This is a wonderful show for any art-goer at any level of sophistication, from children through art-historians. The whimsy, beauty, and decorative variety of the eggs give them an undeniable appeal for any eye. But the enormous range of approaches to the egg—as surface, as an object with its own meaning; as an object in space; as metaphor—give clues about artists' thinking that can always be carried over to the surrounding galleries. 
Audra Skuodas, "Broken Melodies - Discordant Fragments - Reintegrating."
 © Feinknopf Photography

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"High Style:" Couture and Attitude in Twentieth Century Fashion at the Cincinnati Art Museum

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 
1906–1978), "Tree" Evening Dress, Brooklyn Museum 
Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
 Gift of Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks,Jr.,1981(2009.300.991)
 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
High Style: Masterpieces from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  remains at the Cincinnati Art Museum through January 24 and, oh, how worth seeing this show is! It traces from the turn of the century through the 1980s the progress of couture and the succession of great American and European fashion designers. Displayed are gowns, ensembles, hats, shoes, jewelry, and a special exhibit on American couturier of the midcentury, Charles James, whose phenomenally engineered clothes are de-construced for us in fascinating interactive displays that reveal the many-layered, disciplined structures of extravagant elegance.

Across the span of eighty years one sees clothing designs that run from such garments constructed of layers of bone, webbing, tulle, and bustles beneath yards of silk; to Halston's 1970s whisps of simply cut chiffon or crepe, draped with exquisite flair across the body.

One of the great advantages of a still show like this is that the viewer can examine as slowly and in all the detail merited, each of the exquisite items chosen for the show. Though some people sneer at the idea of fashion as art, I can't accept this as a tenable position for anyone who spends time and attention in a show like High Style. The materials used in any piece are of phenomenal quality—of a quality that they deliver significant aesthetic satisfaction in themselves. Nothing in the show—neither dressmaking fabrics, kidskin of shoes, beads of glass or stones—failed to attract the hand or the imagination of touch. Most of us see high fashion in the pages of Vogue or on televised red carpet events, where only silhouette and dramatic cut stand out; we derive no idea many sensuous elements or craftsmanship that compose the art of fashion. We see only the theatricality of color and cut.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978), 
Clover Leaf Ball Gown, 1953, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan
 Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Josephine Abercrombie
 (1953, 2009.300.784) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art
What is missing from a show like this is the runway. How delightful it would be to see these garments in movement on people with actual skin tones (how dismal the beiges, opals, and creams look against stark white mannequins). The Clover Leaf gown by Charles James is a unique and famous design. Ten pounds of four structured layers depend from the wearer's hips. The front hem is shorter than the back so walking will be unimpeded. Does the skirt sway from side to side, from front to back, or both? (The lace on this dress is held in place by stitches only at the top and at the bottom, where it meets the band of gold, allowing it to breath and rise during movement.) The boning in the bodice holds the wearer erect. Any woman secured into such an artwork becomes one herself. The dress shapes not only her body and her bearing, but, those adjusted, her gestures and the attitude must follow.

Mme. Eta Hentz (American, born Hungary), Evening 
Dress,1944, Brooklyn Museum Costume
 Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; 
Gift of Madame Eta Hentz, 1946 (2009.300.119)
 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 A gown by Mme. Eta Hentz, who worked in the '40s, a generation before Charles, shows a style that depends on draping rather than construction. Her Classical Greek-inspired gown swathes the body closely, calling attention to its curves explicitly rather than by fantasy. The over-the shoulder scarf requires some technique on the wearer's part—to keep it from (or to allow its) slipping; to allow it to descend down the arm or to bunch it up for greater exposure; or to wrap it around both shoulders for comfort or coyness. In this, the woman is a liquid column and the dress's movement reflects, softens, and enhances her own. This garment does not bestow triumph on the feminine; the wearer must know, own, and display it herself. This gown drapes her preexisting regal status. It is no accident that Cinderella has never been portrayed in a gown like this.

Only Charles James is represented by enough items in High Style for us to be conscious of the important fact that the clothing in this exhibition was commissioned by clients, many of whom depended on particular designers to clothe them routinely and to craft their public personae. We are aware that certain designers are chosen by First Ladies and celebrities to outfit them for occasions. We are less aware of the many women of means (afore-mentioned included) who attend to business, luncheons, and cultural events in couture. 
Madame Alix  Grès  (French, 1903-1993),
Evening Dress, 1969, Brooklyn Museum Costume
Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr., 1988 (2009.300.1373)

 Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unique clothing must impart or enhance the wearer's public sense of confidence. Most of us sporting ready-made can only wonder about the relationship between the dressed and the dresser, the client and the artist. A woman in the position to commission couture is an art collector, the patron of a particular creative individual she wishes to invest in, someone whose taste she admires. She is willing, moreover, to collaborate with her or him disparate ways: as a partner in the artistic process, as muse, as public face of a brand.

 Affinity must bring artist and patron together, and that bond must include social daring (enthusiasm for testing the limits of current taste and style). But that would be secondary to the taste for materials, fabrication, and ideas, of which all visual artists must be possessed. 

Even now, many would find the 1969 evening dress by Madame Alix Gres extreme, provocative for the lack of sex appeal and exposure one expects from evening wear and for the extraordinary, difficult-to-wear sleeves. The basic empire-waist sheath, ornamented not even by a collar, is maidenly to a nun-like extreme. Yet the sleeves are as voluminous and richly gathered as displaced skirts of a Charles James "Tree" ball gown, above while alluding to classical drapery. Difficult to tell in a photograph, the dress is of exquisite papery silk taffeta with a stirring sheen and lightness. 

Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890–1973); Jean Clemént 
(French, 1900–1949), Necklace, 1938, Brooklyn 
Museum Costume Collection, The Metropolitan 
Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009;
Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1955 
(2009.300.1234) Image©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shown surely not to its best effect on this stiff, colorless mannequin, is Elsa Schiaparelli's "bug" necklace. Colorful tin bugs are attached to the surface of a transparent plastic (Rhodoid) ring, giving the effect that the insects march around the wearer's neck. During the 1930's, Schiaparelli collaborated with the well-known Surrealist painters, especially with Salvador Dali, to create clothing of shocking or amusing or thought-provoking content. The necklace is from her "Pagan" series of work, which emphasized natural motifs including leaves, grapes, and ivy. Her clothing was also decorated with signs of the zodiac, musical notes, seed packs, and, famously, a lobster, after Dali.

Schiaparelli represents an extreme of couture. Her genius as an artist seems so driven by her own personality and experience, that dressing in her fashions might be close to dressing in her own, peculiar persona. 

Clothing alters the person in more ways than the visual, and those of us who have the opportunity to choose our garments do so carefully. But usually
when we look in the mirror, even from several angles, we're considering whether we look fat or thin; we're not considering how our garments support the attitudes we wish to project to the world, or how to use clothing as courage to become who we wish to be. 

High Style features some of the most exquisite clothes from the most talented hands and artistic minds, for whom precious materials are available. I think that we even we who sigh over the advantages of the elite can draw inspiring conclusions from the show—about how we and our clothing choices design one another.