Blurring the line between fashion and art
The worlds of fashion and art have often overlapped in bizarre ways.
Photographer-to-the-abject Diane Arbus began her career shooting little girls dressed in frilly party dresses for The New York Times. Andy Warhol was an illustrator for Glamour and Harper's Bazaar and created window displays for Lord & Taylor. Epic art filmmaker Matthew Barney once worked as a J. Crew model.
Most often, the fashion world has turned to the art world when it needs an injection of cutting-edge content. That symbiotic relationship — where artists court fashion mags for money, and fashion courts artists for a touch of the outré — is evident in the history of photographers working in the medium of fashion. Shutterbugs like Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Irving Penn and Richard Avedon have marked photographic history with their pioneering movements between the world of fine art photography and commercial work.
That ability to bridge the art and commercial worlds, however, was often a source of anxiety for earlier photography pioneers. As photography struggled to establish itself as a "legitimate" art form, any taint of the gaudy commercial sphere threatened to yank it back down into the gutter of "commerce."
One of the earliest cross-over acts in the business was undoubtedly the German-born Horst P. Horst (née Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann) whose distinctive editorial and advertising work for fashion magazines can currently be seen in the exhibition Horst P. Horst: Sixty Years of Style at Buckhead's Jackson Fine Arts. Over the course of his astounding six-decade, globe-trotting, fence-straddling career, Horst created some of the most memorable images in the 20th-century visual lexicon, first at Vogue in the early '30s then for Harper's Bazaar. Images like "The Mainbocker Corset," "Round the Clock" and "Coco Chanel" have inspired artists and postmodern tomb raiders from Helmut Newton to Madonna.
Horst brought some of fashion's innate kinkiness and obsession with sex to the forefront, often by adapting Surrealism's latent misogyny to the magazine pages' thirst for weird glamour. His interpretation of women as goddesses and monsters broken-down into body parts anticipated the contorted, bandaged, fetish Amazons of Helmut Newton's photographic imagination. One minute, Horst was making archetypally American muses like "Lisa" into Grace Kelly goddesses, all golden hair and aloof gaze. The next he was crafting them into a strange, surreal mincemeat of body parts. The woman undergoing a sadistic beauty treatment in 1939's "Electric Beauty," on view at Jackson Fine Arts, is illustrative. Wearing a conical head snout, one goo-caked leg soaking in a bubbly brew, this model is reduced to a fashion beast with a face and body warped in supplication to the wages of beauty.
Thomas Southall, the High Museum's curator of photography, notes that such incorporation of Surrealist influences into fashion work occurred long after the art movement had peaked and waned, but in the past several decades the pace of the fashion world's samplings has intensified. In recent decades, fashion magazines have ripped off Nan Goldin's heroin chic and Larry Clark's low-rent denizens, while Donna Karan and Prada ads sample the conceptual photographic work of Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. The art world, in the case of William Wegman and Duane Michaels, has often returned the favor, Southall notes, by then ripping off the studio-aesthetic and stilted ambiance of the fashion aesthetic.
As the media becomes more image-choked and the average consumer is overloaded with visual information, the need of the commercial sphere to catch the perpetually distracted consumer's eye with weird, excessive, challenging imagery has increased double-quick.
That is where the conceptual art photographer comes in: skilled at shaking up a moribund, complacent visual vocabulary with his/her radical way of seeing. The scads of money currently available to photographers in the fashion sphere and the greater allowances in personal expression have been only some of the many enticements luring artists onto the pages of old- guard periodicals like Vogue or the more cutting-edge Big and Surface, which have featured editorial work by former Atlanta photographers Chris Verene and Jody Fausett.
The old photographic hierarchy, in which the commercial and conceptual worlds were segregated, has broken down into a world more fluid and democratic, where appearing in a commercial venue no longer carries the taint it might once have.
Instead, a new breed of artists has been weaned on the more pragmatic and cynical postmodern notion, of all things tainted by commerce. Contemporary art school grads are thus less likely to see their ventures into the commercial realm as a contamination and have readily lent their conceptual-based edginess to fashion's needy pages.
Lately, the cross-over between the art and fashion worlds has blurred even more noticeably, as primarily fashion photographers like Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber and Inez van Lamsweerde appear in gallery shows and highbrow art publications like Frieze devote essays to the work of fashion photo superstar Steven Meisel. Fashion spreads now borrow art world photographers for their pages and mimic the current art world vogue for narrative ambiguity and purposefully theatrical tableaux innovated by theory-suckled photographers like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.
And in the perpetual tail-chasing circularity of big city creativity, younger artists like Dana Hoey and former fashion model and fashion student Mariko Mori have referenced the slick look of advertisements and fashion spreads for their own fine art work. Hoey's fellow Yale photography graduates Katy Grannan, Deborah Mesa-Pelly, Justine Kurland and Malerie Marder are characteristic of the next generation of artists whose work draws from the vocabulary of fashion's pages and who have also created fashion-oriented work in magazines like Vogue, Harpers & Queens and The New York Times Magazine.
Artists raised in the late '60s and '70s, inundated with media imagery, have created work that mimics the big brother omni-
present media, while commenting upon that pervasive aesthetic. Contemporary artists are simply more pragmatic about how similar the financial interests are in the worlds of art and fashion.
"The realistic ones have realized that the patronage system is really not that different," Southall observes, "whether you're working for a magazine editor or for the Museum of Modern Art to get on the walls there."
As fashion photography has grown increasingly committed to naturalism, the art world has grown more blatantly "fake." Artists from Mariko Mori to Inez van Lamsweerde have adopted the fraudulent slickness and airbrushed bodies of fashion to question how much of our reality has been defined by the media. In an era when "reality" TV reveals the scripted conventions of social behavior and the stylized artifice of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut can be amazingly telling, the fiction of fashion and the truth-telling of the art world have never seemed more inseparable.
Horst P. Horst: Sixty Years of Style runs through July 28 at Jackson Fine Art, 3115 E. Shadowlawn Ave. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. 404-233-3739.??