Sonya Clark at the Fabric Workshop and Museum

Clark’s current body of work, inspired by the nearly all white Confederate Flag of Truce, flips the experience of instant visual recognition on its head. The exhibition’s title sums it up: This white dishcloth with three very fine red stripes at either end is “the flag we should know,” but we don’t. Why is that?

As published in American Craft Magazine on July 23, 2019

When Sonya Clark and the team at the Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum were putting the final touches on the installation of her exhibition “Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know,” it became clear that the gallery space – which houses an array of works made from subdued white textiles – needed a bit of vivid color. A solution was at hand: The museum’s exhibitions manager Alec Unkovic went to the local Benjamin Moore with a sample of the deep-madder red threads that run along the edges of the Confederate Flag of Truce (in fact, a repurposed dish towel) that inspired Clark’s project.  He found the perfect match, but the paint chip had a chilling surprise in store. From the paint store, he texted “you are not going to believe this."

Sonya-Clark-Woven-Replica-Confederate-Flag-of-Truce.jpg

The matching color chip was labelled '”Confederate Red,” says Clark, adding that Benjamin Moore even described the color as “a timeless and enduring classic" on its promotional materials. “They later rebranded the color 'Patriot Red,' which only serves to legitimize the way in which people hold onto Confederate ideals as though they're patriotic,” says Clark. The team painted the exhibition’s title wall with the color, identifying it just as the paint chip was labeled: Benjamin Moore Paint Color 2080-20 Confederate Red. Clark’s installation at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, itself a former flag factory, is full of just these sorts of visual and conceptual twists, in which something that might appear at first to be quite ordinary turns out to be fraught with massive social and historical consequences. 

Visitors to this exhibition might remember Clark’s 2017 performance Unravelingat the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts just a few blocks away, in which she invited members of the public to deconstruct a Confederate battle flag thread by thread. It’s delicate work, more complex and trickier than most people expect. The Confederate battle flag, with its design of a blue “X” and white stars on a red ground, is immediately recognizable. Clark says, like the term “Confederate Red,” it cannot be mistaken for something else, nor is its meaning, as a symbol of white supremacy and oppression, open to interpretation. Clark’s current body of work, inspired by the nearly all white Confederate Flag of Truce, flips the experience of instant visual recognition on its head. The exhibition’s title sums it up: This white dishcloth with three very fine red stripes at either end is “the flag we should know,” but we don’t. Why is that?

The original truce flag is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Clark discovered by chance while she was an artist research fellow at the Smithsonian. Its NMAH website description says “towel was used as a flag of truce by Confederate troops during Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.” It was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1936 at the bequest of Elizabeth B. Custer (1842 – 1933) the widow of General George Armstrong Custer, who was present at Appomattox. The flag is yellowed with age, but otherwise in good condition. It looks humble, like the household object it once was. As Civil War objects go, the towel is almost unparalleled in history for sheer significance: it served – for lack of a suitable alternative – as the symbolic seal on the truce that ended the war. Yet it’s probably one of the least known artifacts of the period, and, as Sonya Clark illustrates in this exhibition, that’s not an accident.  

Sonya Clark, in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Work in progress for Monumental (2019). Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

Sonya Clark, in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Work in progress for Monumental (2019). Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

On their surfaces, the Confederate battle flag and the Confederate Flag of Truce could not be more different. Where the battle flag is vivid and bold, the truce flag is subtle and almost modernist. The battle flag, by contrast, is eye-catching: "Flags are designed to be visually striking, because they needed to be visible on the battlefield. But the reason we know the Confederate battle flag and not the Flag of Truce isn't a question of graphic design, but of propaganda,” Clark says. “The KKK and other white supremacist groups adopted this particular Confederate flag, of many, in their ongoing campaigns of terror. People, especially those not from the South, will sometimes say, ‘I never saw the Confederate flag around when I was growing up.’ But you know what it looks like, which means that you did see it, maybe even as it slipped into popular culture and that means the propaganda had its effect."

One of the works in the exhibition, entitled Propaganda, is comprised of a list of hundreds of objects that you can buy emblazoned with the battle flag. Umbrellas, wristwatches, sweatshirts, salt and pepper shakers, and – bizarrely – yoga mats. The ordinariness of the things on this list, many of which can be worn or displayed, speaks to the way in which the flag and its meaning have been normalized.

The Flag of Truce, by contrast, suggests women’s work and homespun cloth. It doesn’t look like a flag, because it wasn’t designed to be one. It has a waffle-weave structure that’s only visible on close inspection, so it’s the sort of intimate object that rewards a careful look. Clark finds meaning in its form and function: "The idea of domesticity and the structure of the cloth are connected,” she says. Its weave structure is designed to be absorbent. “It also has the potential to absorb our stories. As an artist, metaphorically, I find that incredibly rich," Clark says.

There are interactive works in the exhibition including looms lent by local universities for a piece called Reconstruction Exercise, where visitors can see how it feels to weave and watch the cloth take shape. In a piece called Lesson Plan, there are also old-school desks fitted with a textured panel that allow visitors to make rubbings of the flag, and get to know its texture first-hand. Clark worked with the team at the Fabric Workshop and Museum to create a massive version of the truce flag called Monumental that spans 30 by 15 feet. Its companion piece, Many, comprises 100 small flags the size of the original, arranged in neat rows like a quilt-in-progress, on a huge platform. 

Sonya Clark in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Woven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce detail (2019). Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

Sonya Clark in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Woven replica of the Confederate Flag of Truce detail (2019). Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

On March 30, Clark gave a public performance of a piece called Reversals, in which she used a dish towel printed with the Confederate battle flag to clean the gallery floor. In the piece, Clark was dressed to resemble Ella Watson, who was made famous in Gordon Parks’s photograph American Gothic in 1942. Dust from outside Independence Hall was collected and sifted onto the gallery floor by FWM staff. As Clark wiped it away, the preamble to the Declaration of Independence was revealed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” “Self-evident,” perhaps, but in this case, only because they’ve been made visible in real time through hard work. 

Clark’s project at FMW asks what “monumental” truly means. Our word monument is derived from a Latin word, monere, which means “to remind.” The purpose of displaying the battle flag in daily life, on bumper stickers, or at Trump rallies, is often not to remind and memorialize, but to divide, intimidate, and terrify, just as many Confederate monuments were designed to do a century ago. Americans don’t need reminding that white supremacy exists, we just need to watch or read the news every day. Monuments are necessary when we need to be reminded.

And the truce flag, which represents a pivotal moment in American history but is not an iconic object, is a perfect vessel for the formation of new memories in the form of a thought experiment. Clark asks: What if this was the flag we all recognized? What if there was a truce flag in every classroom in America? What if there were truce flag bumper stickers, or you could buy truce stamps at the post office? What if it appeared, like a minimalist talisman, everywhere Americans come into contact with the federal government? It’s not impossible. Clark reflects on how much has changed in 100 years and how much we still have to do.

Sonya Clark,  Reversals  (2019), in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

Sonya Clark, Reversals (2019), in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. Photo by Carlos Avendaño.

"Life liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but for whom?,” asks Clark. “People will say ‘things are better now.’ And in a way it's true: I’m a college professor at one of the best liberal arts schools in the United States. That would not have happened 150 years ago. But we’re also incarcerating and killing black and brown people at alarming rates, and there are concentration camps at the US-Mexico border. Things are better, yes, but simultaneously worse. All in all, we are very far from where we need to be.”

Weaving is difficult, laborious, repetitive, prone to mistakes, and it takes a long time. If the truce flag symbolizes a conscious retreat from systematic racism, then the labor of making replicas of the flag and weaving each thread to make the pattern is as apt a metaphor as any for how long and far we still have to go.




Marc Newson at Gagosian Gallery

Pushing the boundaries of collaboration, creativity and craft

Gagosian Gallery, West 21st Street, New York, January 17th – February 10th 2019

As published in The Design Edit on May 1, 2019

Visitors to Marc Newson’s lavish design exhibition at Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street could have been forgiven for wondering if they’d been transported back to the 18th century — albeit an oddly minimalist version of the age of Rococo. That’s not because of the deluxe surfboards that were on view, though these works were transporting in their sleekness and vivid colours. It’s that Newson, who has roots in jewellery and silversmithing, seemed to be acting less as a designer in this context, and more like one of the decorative arts entrepreneurs who masterminded the interiors of the Ancien Régime: the marchands-mercier. Literally ‘a merchant of merchandise’, the marchands were somewhat akin to today’s interior designers, in that they were free agents who skirted the restrictions of the French guild system. This enabled them to conduct business across the boundaries of technique and medium; they might have sourced a series of porcelain plaques from Sèvres, or pieces of Japanese lacquer in order to mount them on a cabinet produced by an ébéniste, or taken a porcelain vessel from China and mounted it on a gilt-bronze stand for display. Excelling in the art of placing exotic goods in familiar luxurious contexts, marchands were not craftsmen, and typically had not come up through the rigorous apprenticeship programs that determined who was admitted to a guild, and who wasn’t. But they did know style and taste, and where to find the best examples of every craft, from ceramics to cabinetmaking.

Marc Newson, ‘Cloisonné Black Blossom Lounge’, 2017, © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Xiangzhe Kong.

Marc Newson, ‘Cloisonné Black Blossom Lounge’, 2017, © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Xiangzhe Kong.

Newson did not fabricate the pieces on view here by hand, or even oversee their work in his own studio. Rather, he travelled the world and employed a small army of skilled artisans to make these lavish, even spectacular works, reviving some age-old techniques in the process. Some of the most striking pieces were the cloisonné chairs, which stand out as technical marvels — indeed, there’s a reason you rarely see cloisonné furniture. Aesthetically, they do not echo Newson’s older work. He first rose to fame by making muscular, space age-inspired furniture like the iconic ‘Lockheed Lounge’, which recalled the futuristic, 1930s’ designs of Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy. He has since collaborated with Apple, Nike, Hermès and Louis Vuitton, among others, designing everything from sneakers and shearling backpacks, to Apple EarPods. So this group of works at Gagosian, which includes an Aikuchi sword fabricated by Japanese Living National Treasure Saburo Nobufusa Hokke, pointed not to a high-tech future, but to a rich and sensuous past.

Marc Newson, ‘Murrina Low Table Yellow’, 2017 © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Jaroslav Kvíz.

Marc Newson, ‘Murrina Low Table Yellow’, 2017 © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Jaroslav Kvíz.

But whose past? If Newson is a modern day marchand, his exhibition could have been understood as a contemporary wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities containing treasures from all over the world. To make the cast chairs, Newson worked with master glassmakers in the Czech Republic — a glassmaking mecca — to produce a group of murrina pieces, in which canes of coloured glass are pressed together then sliced in cross-section to reveal a pattern, like a Battenberg cake. The cast glass chairs were made in the same workshop, but Gagosian has not revealed exactly where that is. To produce the cloisonné pieces, Newson went to China, only to find that there were no extant factories that could do what he needed for this project. So, with Gagosian’s help, he initiated the construction of an enormous new kiln at a factory near Beijing.

Marc Newson, ‘Blue Glass Chair’, 2017 © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Jaroslav Kvíz.

Marc Newson, ‘Blue Glass Chair’, 2017 © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Jaroslav Kvíz.

Exhibition installation view, 2019 © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Rob McKeever.

Exhibition installation view, 2019 © Marc Newson. COURTESY: Gagosian / PHOTOGRAPH: Rob McKeever.

Cloisonné originated in the ancient Near East, and made its way to China in the 14th century. By the early modern period, Europeans developed a robust appetite for Chinese cloisonné goods, importing snuff boxes, vessels and bowls in great quantities. Newson’s creations have the effect of blowing up traditional cloisonné to an almost absurd scale. Each piece of cloisonné begins with an intricate pattern rendered on a metal surface, creating channels in which coloured enamel can melt when the piece is fired, forming a complex, multi-coloured design. This is tricky to do on a snuff bottle, and doing it on the entire surface of a desk or chaise longue practically defies belief. And again, we don’t know the identity of the craftspeople in Beijing who brought these objects into existence.

However, we do know who fabricated one of the exhibition’s small showstoppers: the aforementioned Aikuchi sword by the 9th generation master sword maker, Saburo Nobufusa Hokke, who lives in Tōhoku. This project grew out of a collaboration between Newson and the government of Japan, who invited designers from abroad to Tōhoku in the wake of the 2011 tsunami, enlisting their help in rebuilding the centuries-old craft infrastructure of the region. This is the only example in this exhibition of a true collaboration, in which the identity of Newson’s overseas counterpart is known. Given the feats of design, craftsmanship and engineering required to make the other works on view here, it’s a real loss that we don’t know whose skilled hands we have to thank for them.

Bringing Back Op with a World of Zigzags, Sunbursts, and Bullseyes

Bringing Back Op with a World of Zigzags, Sunbursts, and Bullseyes

Trace the dynamic zigzags, sunbursts, and bullseyes in Liz Collins’s “Zagreb Mountain Scroll” with your eyes, and you can almost hear the exclamations of a sharp impact, cartoon-style: “THWAP!”, “POW!” But this piece isn’t cartoonish or crudely printed, like a vintage comic strip, nor is it precisely painted, like a large-scale Pop Art scene. Look closely, and you’ll see that the surface of each stripe and razor-sharp boundary line is made from a soft, shimmery blend of Jacquard-woven silk and polyester. Were you to touch this nearly 26-foot-wide work (which you shouldn’t do — but it’s very tempting), its surface wouldn’t feel cool and clinical, but comfortable and fuzzy.

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Glenn Adamson Thinks You Need Less Stuff

Glenn Adamson Thinks You Need Less Stuff

When it comes to collecting, decorating, feasting, and celebrating, even fans of Modernism are apt to flip Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum on its head: More is, actually, more. For people who really love design, it’s hard not to covet the fresh and the novel: a new collection, an updated color palette, a different material to give our homes a fresh look. We’ve been trained by generations of annual upgrading (for everything from cars to iPhones) and the long-established practice of shopping for leisure to browse, admire, and acquire things, whether our survival depends on them or not. (It usually doesn’t.) In his inspiring new book, Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Object (Bloomsbury, $27), writer, curator, and former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, Glenn Adamson, confronts such long-ingrained notions of materiality from several angles. Adamson invites readers to follow along on a series of thought experiments about the objects in our lives, our relationships to them, what they mean, and how we might go about distilling them so that our material footprint is greatly reduced. And this isn’t just an exercise—the future of humanity might depend on it.

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How Furniture Shapes What We Teach Children

How Furniture Shapes What We Teach Children

How long have children had designed objects to call their own? Ancient toys from Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Indus Valley suggest that kids in the ancient world were playing with tiny horses on wheels, bird-shaped whistles, dolls, and even yo-yos several millennia ago. Portrait paintings of well-to-do and royal children from the Renaissance onward suggest that privileged kids wore custom-made clothing, and sometimes had their very own picturesque pets. But the mass marketplace for furniture, books, clothes, and games, as well as public spaces designed specifically with children in mind, is a surprisingly recent phenomenon, as Alexandra Lange explains in her fascinating new book The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury, $20). The playgrounds, video games, and tiny T-shirts that populate the world of contemporary childhood all exist today because we believe that childhood is a phase of life worth celebrating and taking seriously.

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Artful Furniture Takes the Stage in Philadelphia

Artful Furniture Takes the Stage in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is no stranger to exquisite handmade furniture: It’s a city full of design galleries and renowned university craft programs. In the colonial period and in the early days of the Republic, Philadelphia craftsmen made some of the finest furniture in the New World. Later, nearby Bucks County was home to the furniture makers Phillip Lloyd Powell, George Nakashima, Wharton Esherick, and Paul Evans. So the city of Brotherly Love is a natural fit for the Philadelphia Furniture Show, which, for the past 24 years, has showcased the work of top independent designers from across the country.

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How the 1960s and ’70s Counterculture Queered Fashion

As published in Hyperallergic on April 21, 2017

It’s not often that a fashion exhibition in New York City presents vintage garments against a backdrop of faux-wood laminate paneling, or accessorizes select pieces with clusters of hanging plants in macramé holders. But Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, takes aim at the contested territory that separates DIY practice from luxury craftsmanship. The stretch of time between the late 1960s and early 1970s is a rich moment in which to examine this theme. Though steeped in protest, the fashions and fads of this era were also frilly and decadent, luxuriant in materials and elaborate in construction — a sartorial mode that deftly underscores the exhibition’s “queerness,” both in the broad, countercultural sense, and in the more specific sense of sexual identity. 

“Hippie Royalty on the Rocks” (1969) (photo by Karl Ferris, featuring crocheted designs by 100% Birgitta)

“Hippie Royalty on the Rocks” (1969) (photo by Karl Ferris, featuring crocheted designs by 100% Birgitta)

Some of the works on view could have been runway looks, had the powers-that-be at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture decided on a whim that studded denim was suddenly an acceptable medium. The broad message of the exhibition seems to be that do-it-yourself doesn’t have to mean making something sloppy or shoddy. Contrary to the punk aesthetic, which valorizes a certain duct-taped, improvised nonchalance, many of the garments and accessories displayed in Counter-Couture are exquisite, even obsessive in their design and fabrication, like the embroidered ensemble that Mary Ann Schildknecht created while serving time in an Italian prison, where skilled nuns taught her to stitch. These pieces may be labors of love, but they don’t say “amateur hour.” 

Counter-Couture premiered at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington in the fall of 2015. It was organized by guest curator Michael Cepress, a Seattle-based fashion designer who specializes in menswear. Quoted in the exhibit’s press release, Cepress points to his discovery at age 15 of Alexandra Jacopetti Hart’s 1974 book Native Funk & Flash, which captured his imagination and inspired him to launch what would become a 15-year process of researching counterculture fashion. Since the late 1990s, Cepress has personally reached out to scores of makers across the United States and painstakingly assembled the garments and collateral material on view in Counter-Couture.

Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture , installation view (photo by Jenna Bascom; courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, installation view (photo by Jenna Bascom; courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design)

The exhibition, displayed on two floors of the museum, is divided into five sections: “Funk & Flash,” “The 1974 Levi’s Denim Art Contest,” “Couture,” “Performance,” and “Psychedelic Style.” Each section exudes what Cepress characterizes as a “vital stream of passion, ideas, and artist activists who chose fashion to help create a better world for us all” — a sentiment that rings as true in 2017 as it did in 1967. The visual language of protest appears here in overt forms, like Michael Fajans’s frenetically colorful and aggressively stitched “Hand Embroidered and Applique Army Coat” from 1967, which I read as symbolic of the countless battlefield injuries occurring in Vietnam. Other pieces are subtler, like the bright red dashiki dress from 1970, a symbol of Black pride, which is displayed next to one of the exhibition’s priceless finds: a Simplicity pattern for dashiki shirts from 1972, with an illustration that shows a young black couple in the foreground and a white couple in the background.

Simplicity pattern for Dashiki shirts and dresses (1972) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Simplicity pattern for Dashiki shirts and dresses (1972) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The counterculture-ness on display here is ultimately about fighting conformity, which comes across most powerfully in terms of gender and sexuality. The artists and designers who made these garments were, for the most part, raised in the 1950s, on a steady diet of postwar suburban etiquette and ideals. In one of the exhibition’s displays of printed ephemera, a 1967 photograph of Hibiscus (born George Edgerly Harris II), founder of The Cockettes, shows a relatively clean-cut young man with blond hair wearing a turtleneck sweater, gently placing a flower in the barrel of a military police officer’s gun. As associate curator Barbara Paris Gifford notes, Hibiscus was almost “preppy” in his youth. It’s bittersweet to note that just a few years later, in full hair and makeup, he would radiate androgynous, psychedelic splendor — which is captured in the magnetic films that are projected in a continuous loop on the opposite gallery wall — and a few years after that, in May 1982, he would die of AIDS. Hibiscus has long held cult status among fashion cognoscenti, and a 2003 profile in T Magazine by Horacio Silva counts Viktor & Rolf and John Galliano among the contemporary designers who revere his creativity and talent. (The article was published prior to the 2011 anti-semitic tirade that cost Galliano his post at Christian Dior.) And this is far from the only connection between the hippie commune and the runway: Another example is Yvonne Porcella’s patchwork gowns from 1972, which appear to presage the peasant silhouettes in Yves St. Laurent’s much-beloved 1976 “Russian” collection.

George Edgerly Harris II (AKA Hibiscus) placing a flower in the gun of a soldier, October 1967 (photography by Bernie Boston, via Wikipedia)

George Edgerly Harris II (AKA Hibiscus) placing a flower in the gun of a soldier, October 1967 (photography by Bernie Boston, via Wikipedia)

Cockette Pristine Condition (left) and Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn (right), opening act for New York Dolls, Matrix, New York, August 1973 (courtesy of Kourosh Larizadeh and Luis Pardo)

Cockette Pristine Condition (left) and Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn (right), opening act for New York Dolls, Matrix, New York, August 1973 (courtesy of Kourosh Larizadeh and Luis Pardo)

Most of the works in Counter-Couture are visually of a piece. Fur collars, body jewelry, a faintly Biblical ensemble worn by Father Yod from the Source Family, and the album cover from the original cast recording of Hair all set the scene in a cohesive way, along with some smart atmospheric touches from MAD’s team, like walls of hanging beads and a lush classic-rock soundtrack. Gifford also added works from MAD’s permanent collection that predate those in the show, which adds visual and temporal layers to the installation. One particular work that seems ahead of its time is Mildred Fischer’s linen wall piece “Daydream,” from 1965.

For me, though, the highlight of the exhibition is the work of San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong (1950–90). Wong’s aesthetic, which could best be described as “outer space/regal,” stands apart from the hippie coats and peasant dresses on view, and it easily passes the test of time as a thoroughly original body of work. Try to imagine that someone crossed highly structured examples of Elizabethan court dress with costumes from the movie Xanadu, and you’re almost there. Indeed, Wong’s creations read as cinematic costumes more than fashion: They’d look right at home in Logan’s RunLabyrinth, or, if you squint a bit, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Like Hibiscus, Wong died of AIDS at a tragically young age, and although his clients included the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John, and Salvador Dalí (who commissioned his 1974 “Ray” series), his work didn’t enter the mainstream fashion world during his lifetime. This could well be for practical reasons: His 1974 “Yellow and Green Ray Dress and Headdress” from the “Seven Ray” series, a Paul Poiret–like garment that resembles a glittering peapod, seems more likely to influence moviemakers and stylists than merchandisers looking for the next workaday, wearable look. (Although one of Wong’s jackets was notoriously plagiarized by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga in 2010.)

Kaisik Wong, “Yellow and Green Ray Dress and Headdress,” from the Seven Ray series (1974), yellow, gold, and green lamé (courtesy of the DeYoung Museum)

Kaisik Wong, “Yellow and Green Ray Dress and Headdress,” from the Seven Ray series (1974), yellow, gold, and green lamé (courtesy of the DeYoung Museum)

From Wong’s work, to the wild, androgynous jewelry of partners in love and life Alex and Lee, to Billy Shire’s studded “Welfare” jacket (winner of the Levi’s Denim Art Contest) — it all reads a bit like the left-behind artifacts of a final Summer of Love, just before AIDS destroyed a generation of gay men. This isn’t explicitly referenced in the exhibition, as its chronology stops just short of the end of the disco era. But Counter-Couture offers a new way to think about the lasting legacy of the counterculture movement. To be sure, there were plenty of middle-class American teens for whom long hair, casual sex, drugs, concerts, and macramé were understood in the context of pleasure, suburban rebellion, and cool-kid trends. But the ’60s and ’70s also set the stage for a genuinely radical transformation in the way we read and understand the visual cues of gender and sexuality, many of which are, in part, fashion choices. Only an exhibition that considers vernacular material could do this: It wouldn’t make sense at a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute show about the ’60s and ’70s that featured Pucci shifts, space-age Courreges hats, or Halston ultrasuede wrap dresses. Fashion’s queering during the counterculture is an overlooked preamble to so much of what we think and talk about with regard to gender and culture today. Men with long hair may have been sporting a visual rejection of “square” society, but they were also (perhaps unwittingly) paving the road for queer identities to be seen, recognized, and even celebrated in fashion and society at large.

Alex and Lee (1974) (photo by Jerry Wainwright for  Native Funk and Flash )

Alex and Lee (1974) (photo by Jerry Wainwright for Native Funk and Flash)

Primordial Architecture

New Work by Pauliina Pöllänen

Ceramics Monthly, February, 2016

To hear Pauliina Pöllänen talk about her recent work, lacking any visual clues or prior knowledge of her practice, you might think that she has been busy building houses, or perhaps sculptures you could walk around in. Pools of glaze ‘flood like water to the basement in the Springtime’ (an annual event in Finland) and works take shape built ‘around space’. It is the particular phrase “primordial architecture” (Pöllänen’s own) that seems to capture the spirit of this idea with the most nuance. Curvy and sensual but structurally sound, each sculpture looks like a dwelling in which the placement of the walls, floors and ceilings have all been carefully considered, and a natural flow of light touches the surfaces of different ‘rooms’ in various ways. Layer upon layer of glaze colour each surface some indelible hue: magenta, cherry red, royal blue, chartreuse, all melted across a textured surface that looks gently shaped by hand.

Architecture for whom, one might ask? It is hard to look at these works and not see them as models for something bigger, even an ultra-bohemian doll’s house. As children, Pöllänen and her sister (also an artist) spent hours in their attic recreating the sights and shapes of their nearby village in rural Finland, complete with architectural details, plants and animals, each detail made small enough to be contained in a domestic setting. A familiar form from the outside world – trees, a grocery store, a pet dog – could be scaled down and arranged just so. Pöllänen has played with scale, form and colour, creating sculptures that look exactly like something you have seen before, only different. Recent creations that evoke the tools of the builder’s trade such as bricks and trowels, fashioned from clay and sporting what appear to be sturdy handles, like those one would find on a heavy door or a bricklayer’s float. They function, but only in the sense that they remind the viewers of something they recognise; they don’t do what they signify.

The sculptures in this exhibition capture Pöllänenin pursuit of abstraction. “In my works there is an ongoing exploration of how much things can be taken towards abstract and how far they should be taken,” she writes. “I seek connections between certain actions and the visual qualities that shape and structure our perceptual experience of the world and its objects.” Because of their scale, these objects can be understood as belonging to the same visual club as vessels and small sculptures, forms that can be inspected in the round, and studied in the familiar context of a gallery pedestal perch. You cannot walk around inside them, but to imagine doing so is almost irresistible.

Asked about the process of developing these forms, Pöllänen immediately refers back to the
material at hand. Working with clay and having both an intuitive and finely honed sense of the
material’s working properties, in this series, she allowed the material to drive the form. The resulting structures can be described as ‘primordial’ in style, but they were also art-directed by instinct. If her most recent work is her exploration of the aesthetics of building and construction by referencing tools and materials, this series goes further back in time, to something formed by direct touch. Subtle finger marks, glaze that pools here or there by chance and the curved, semi-enclosed chambers that articulate the sculpture’s centres all lend these works a visual association with organic matter. The cells and organs of the body, the complex structures of plants and especially aquatic animals whose bodies have compartments like shells or exoskeletons, are all imperfect organic containers. Each one has a unique structure, some even providing tiny houses for living creatures. The evocative and funny titles of these works – Stealth Barnacle Genesis, Crab Nebula Wave and Arctic Soul Pudge – suggest the existence of a world occupied by creatures with a well-developed sense of humour.

Pauliina Pöllänen’s working process, in which the material drives the form, is not unlike a natural process, in which a final form confidently unfolds according to some plan, but whose interior workings remain mysterious. In her case, the final product depends entirely on knowledge of how clay responds to touch, pressure, gravity and firing, so that a primordial form can ultimately emerge.

Installation View.

Installation View.

Golden Valley Trio (Detail).

Golden Valley Trio (Detail).

Nuclear Nightclub Above.

Nuclear Nightclub Above.

Patterns Against Users.

Patterns Against Users.

The Genre That Wasn’t There: A Wide-Ranging Examination of Postwar Ceramics

The Genre That Wasn’t There: A Wide-Ranging Examination of Postwar Ceramics

Leave it to a former professional studio potter to organize a wide-ranging exhibition of postwar ceramics that’s relatively free of hangups about form and function. The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art: Selections from the Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection, currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, demonstrates connections of various sorts between works in clay and paintings, drawings, and other forms of sculpture from the period. The exhibition’s core material, and its initial inspiration, is the collection of Linda Leonard Schlenger, one of the world’s foremost collectors of post–World War II American ceramics. Works from the Schlenger collection are juxtaposed with paintings, sculpture, and other ceramics from Yale’s own collection. For the most part, pottery in its most traditional form plays the role of the genre that wasn’t there, while sculptural works explore volume and the vessel form in various media. The exhibition was curated by Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II director of the gallery, and Sequoia Miller, a doctoral candidate in art history at Yale. Before returning to graduate school, Miller was a full-time studio potter — a pedigree that gives him rich material insight into the subject at hand. The exhibition comprises 233 objects, ranging from small, exquisite ceramic vessels by George Ohr to a towering bronze by Martin Puryear. It occupies two floors in Yale’s elegant galleries (housed, appropriately enough, in a 1953 Brutalist building by Louis Kahn, who taught in the Architecture school) and offers visitors an unpretentious banquet for the eyes.

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‘The Art of Grace,’ by Sarah Kaufman, shows how to regain this vital quality

On or off stage, dancers always seem to hold their bodies in that instantly recognizably trained posture: heads held high, backs straight, no trace of a slouch. They look as though they’re being pulled gently upward by an invisible force, even when doing the most quotidian tasks. That hard-to-emulate quality — the very antithesis of the hunched-over pose we adopt while squinting into our smartphones — is probably best defined as “grace.”

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‘Razzle Dazzle’ review: Michael Riedel pulls back the curtain on for Broadway

‘Razzle Dazzle’ review: Michael Riedel pulls back the curtain on for Broadway

Remember when an evening at a Broadway musical required scurrying past seedy, adults-only shops and all manner of colorful entrepreneurs on the way to the theater? If your impression of Times Square dances with Disney characters and shiny retail meccas, you probably don’t remember. But Michael Riedel’s new book, “Razzle Dazzle,” brings this gritty world back to life. His history of Broadway in the 1970s and ’80s paints a candid and thoroughly entertaining portrait of the period just after New York theater’s golden age. Money for artistic endeavors was scarce, and the city seemed adrift in economic and social turmoil. Broadway, Riedel argues, was both a beneficiary of and a critical factor in the city’s astonishing transformation in the following decades.

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Contemporary Artists Create a New Kind of Order at the Barnes Foundation

Contemporary Artists Create a New Kind of Order at the Barnes Foundation

It’s an illuminating mental exercise to ponder: what if Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the pharmaceutical tycoon and physician who assembled an unmatched collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings in Philadelphia, was actually an installation artist before his time? This is the central conceit that inspired The Order of Things, now in its final days at the Barnes Foundation. Curated by Drexel University art history professor Martha Lucy, the exhibition comprises three distinct installations by Mark DionJudy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson. It also includes a re-creation (with original objects) of the “Dutch Room” from the original Barnes site in Lower Merion as it looked from its inception, in 1925, until it was dismantled to make way for an ADA-mandated elevator in the 1990s.

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Who was Eve Arnold? The woman behind some iconic photographs

Who was Eve Arnold? The woman behind some iconic photographs

Chances are, you’re more familiar with Eve Arnold’s photographs than you are with the photographer herself, who died at the age of 99 in 2012. Arnold’s images, published in an array of legendary periodicals including Life and London’s Sunday Times, captured the big personalities of her day in moments of reflection and unguarded repose. Joan Crawford receives spa treatments and gets fitted for a new dress; Malcolm X reclines with his hands cradling the back of his head; Marilyn Monroe applies makeup in a bathroom mirror; Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton relax at a pub in Shepperton, England, enjoying a respite from Burton’s work on the set of “Becket.” Arnold traveled on assignment to China, Russia, South Africa and Afghanistan, photographing weddings, hospitals, picnics, schools and street scenes. Over the course of her career, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire, named a master photographer by the International Center of Photography in New York, and given a lifetime achievement award by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. You’ve seen many of Arnold’s images before, but you might not know that the woman who shot them was a Long Island housewife until she took her first photography class at the age of 38 in 1950.

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Imagining Real and Fictional History

Imagining Real and Fictional History

New Yorkers could be forgiven this month for confusing their museum itineraries with the schedule of a vintage film festival, or an Anna May Wong-inspired Netflix binge. Two exhibitions, China: Through the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men at the Museum of the Museum of the Moving Image each make manifest (if not exactly “real”) cultural phenomena that are likely to be more familiar to visitors from something they’ve seen on TV or in the movies than from something they’ve encountered in a museum or a gallery. Aesthetically, conceptually, and in terms of their scope and scale, these two exhibitions could not be more different. But in their own ways, each one is a zeitgeist-tapping synthesis of the layered artistic and cultural influences that inspire screenwriters, and fashion designers, to evoke semi-fictional times and places in their creations.

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Making Sense of a Biennial of “Makers”

Making Sense of a Biennial of “Makers”

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial is the closest thing you’ll find to a crowd-sourced exhibition on view in New York right now — perhaps anywhere. Conceived during his first weeks on the job last fall by the Museum of Arts and Design’s (MAD) new director, Glenn Adamson, the show was organized at lightning speed, by museum standards: eight months. A brain trust of 300 leaders from New York’s cultural community nominated a pool of artists, designers, and fabricators of various sorts, which was then winnowed to about 100 participants by a jury that included Adamson, the exhibition’s curator, Jake Yuzna, and MAD Chief Curator Lowery Stokes Sims. About 80% of the participants are new to MAD, which lends this show a sense of possibility about the talent that lies just beyond this museum’s doorstep.

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A Design Fair with a Sense of Play

A Design Fair with a Sense of Play

The first thing you see when you enter Collective design fair at the Moynihan Station Skylight space is a mini-exhibition of work by Hella Jongerius, organized by Murray Moss and Franklin Getchell of design think tank Moss Bureau. The presentation includes a group of stuffed “Quilted Vases” (2006) by the Berlin-based Dutch designer. These rather cozy versions of Jongerius’s famed “Red White Vase” from 1997 tell you that this is not a deadly serious presentation for expert eyes only. The pair of well-behaved live chickens at the center of Dienst + Dotter’s booth confirms this hunch.

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