Wicked Artsy: Fashionably Artsy

by |
02/19/2009 3:04 PM |

Wicked Artsy is Benjamin Sutton’s art column. He thrives on positive reinforcement and constructive criticism, which coincidentally is what the comments section is for.

Though Fall Fashion Week will relinquish its hold on Bryant Park Saturday (for the next-to-last time before moving to Lincoln Center in 2010, incidentally), several art exhibitions devoted to fashion will still be around long after the runways are dismantled.

Among the shows bringing the catwalks and fall catalogues onto gallery walls, the two biggest are just across the street from Fashion Week central at the International Center of Photography. Taken separately, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937 (featuring the image at right) and Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now (at left) are adequate surveys. Both, however, benefit enormously from being seen in tandem. The vast series of studied lines, stripped décors and warm hues in Steichen’s fashion photography during his years as photo editor for Vogue and Vanity Fair might have seemed staid and repetitive alone. Taken along with the artists in Fashion Photography Now‘s radical subversions of the photographic and artistic conventions Steichen helped establish, both bodies of work acquire additional depth.

Among the artists tearing through the iconography of art history, popular culture and advertising in Fashion Photography Now, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find some of the images that inspired Leah Tinari’s paintings from Sneak a Peek at Chelsea’s Mixed Greens gallery. Her stylized snapshots of a deliciously glamorous and glitzy hedonistic lifestyle are rendered in a hyper-real caricature aesthetic, using vibrant colors to convey dazzling lighting effects. These scenes of wild parties, playful snapshots and sun-drenched jet-set destinations offer nearly satiric glimpses into the exaggerated fashion industry narratives we’ve built up around events like Fashion Week.

A decidedly more sober approach to fashion photography – one very much attuned to Steichen’s aesthetic program – is on display nearby at the nifty Honey Space gallery along the West Side Highway. Walk into the unmarked open doorway in the wall and your eyes will eventually adjust to the cavernous room. Tiberius, Chadwick Tyler’s exhibition of black and white and sepia-toned photographs, adorns the walls. The images’ mythic overtones and muted style lend an air of sanctuary to the simultaneously austere and exciting space. The effect is the closest one can get to stumbling upon prehistoric cave paintings in the wilds of far-West Chelsea.

Despite the classic forms and mis-en-scene of Tyler’s photographs that recall Steichen, there is also a clear sense of narrative, the working through of an aesthetic idea and program, which places him among his contemporaries featured in Fashion Photography Now. That foregrounding of narrative, in fact, is these disparate exhibitions’ greatest strength. Since Steichen’s days, the conventions of fashion photography have followed a sophisticated evolution more akin to that of Hollywood cinema than of contemporary art. Thankfully, many current practitioners are acutely aware of that narrative and incredibly agile when playing with it.

Chadwick Tyler: Tiberius at Honey Space, 146 Eleventh Ave (between 21st and 22nd Sts), until March 14

Leah Tinari: Sneak a Peek at Mixed Greens, 531 W 26th St, until March 14

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937 and Weird Beauty: Fashion Photography Now at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Sixth Ave (at 43rd St), both until May 3