Fashion victim

Fabulous Anger skewers fashion imagery

Like rock 'n' roll, part of fashion's cachet has always been its willingness to shock. Fashion photographers have built reputations and sold reams of merchandise by marrying big bucks and bad taste. German fashion photographer and agent provocateur Helmut Newton's entire career is founded on violence-laced kink, featuring women in metal leg braces or strapped to operating room tables, and Amazonian beauties engaged in mock combat. The props for fashion photography are legendary for their tastelessness: half-naked, impoverished Africans ornamenting fashion spreads featuring expensively coutured white models; the scrawny, vacant eyed mannequins of the short-lived "heroin chic"; and Calvin Klein's jail bait obsession.

New York artist Carter Kustera has clearly spent time flipping through the pages of fashion bibles like Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and W. His wicked little drawings in Fabulous Anger at Solomon Projects, done in gauche, watercolor and pencil, mock fashion conventions expertly.

Kustera's tongue-in-cheek drawings suggest that even adversity can become less, umm, adverse, if you're wearing the right Gucci sunglasses and Imitation of Christ dress.

Kustera's scenes put a perverse twist on the kind of "edgy" fashion shoots featured in women's magazine's. His images are of pallbearers decked out in Prada and Jil Sander, a babe brandishing a gun in Diesel (her victim wears Ralph Lauren) and a corpse draped in a body bag, but perfectly turned out for the occasion in "just do it" Nike.

Even death calls for the right look, an image titled "Purple Power" asserts. "Paradise is waiting but you don't want to show up overstated," a handwritten note on that image warns in the gushing vernacular of fashion copywriters. When Kustera talks about "a splash of red" he's not talking about a Banana Republic scarf, but the color of blood soaking into one man's shirt as he helps a wounded man to his feet in "Who's Afraid of Color?"

Each of Kustera's illustrations also comes with prices and brand names of the clothes on display: Shirt by Kenneth Cole $79, Shades by Hugo Boss, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani Exchange. Mocking the trend for "ghetto" fashion, in "Danger Equals Excitement," two white guys sporting baggy, hip-hop-style clothes are being held at gunpoint by a black youth who seems to have taken their tough guy fronting literally.

The work in Fabulous Anger tends to function best when it mimics, chameleon-like, the conventions of its source material. At 12-inches-by-15 inches, Kustera's smaller pieces are roughly the size of a magazine page. Larger, 22-inch-by-30-inch works don't carry as much impact because of their disconnect in size from the phenomenon Kustera references.

But Fabulous Anger is otherwise savvy, often laughter-provoking stuff that cuts to the heart of fashion's cruel and callous side. And in the process, the artist questions a society that sandwiches such empty, showy frivolity in fashion pages between articles on war and poverty. The artist shows that there is very little distance between the practiced cruelty that defines so many fashion spreads and the casual violence that crops up elsewhere in society.

Kustera also targets the specific, unique violence of fashion's lexicon; its goading, soulless commands that if we look right, smell right and spend enough money, we may just escape our impoverished existence.

It might seem like shooting fish in a barrel to parody fashion's excesses. But fortunately, Kustera's scope is larger than simply mocking magazine cliches.

Wise to the hustle of a label-defined reality, Kustera nevertheless, thankfully, spares us the sermon by crafting bad taste comedy out of critique. This is, after all, the artist who in the 1980s staged a funeral and buried his own identity.

That combination of humor and outrage is like Martha Rosler mixed with Mad magazine — part conceptual attack and part teenage bluster. Done in the naif-style of folk artists and self-aware primitives like Elizabeth Peyton and Raymond Pettibone, Kustera's work is both immersed in the fashion lexicon it parodies and distanced enough from it to convey its essential absurdity.

The crazy, maxed-out colors — kelly greens, sugary grapes and yield-sign yellows — also tread a line between the vivid, attention-grabbing house paints of folk artists and the slightly psychedelic color palette of more contemporary visual artists. The purposeful crudity of Kustera's technique, which mimics homemade signage, is also a rude boy flaying of the hyper-slick look of fashion ads.

It's that stylized, hypnotic surface, Kustera affirms, that can distract us from an essential antisocial nastiness at society's core. In that regard, we may all be fashion's victims.