Couture at the Folk Art Museum
January 21, 2014 | Among the many discussions that are not worth anyone's time is the one about whether fashion should be considered art or not. When the American Folk Art Museum asked thirteen designers to create something based on an object in its collections, the idea was not to prove that, hey, designers are artists too, nor was it to rescue folk art by translating it into modish ensembles. The point was to allow an eighteenth-century quilt, a tattoo pattern book, a carved coyote, dog, or ram, or a paper cutout to live in another context-where we can see it again with a different eye-and to create something arresting in the process. When the exhibition of the designers' work goes on view at the museum, that point will be made. The lush dress that Creatures of the Wind designed inspired by a Eugene Von Bruenchenhein photograph of his wife, Marie, against a floral background is not an appropriation so much as an appreciation. Catherine Maladrino's white gown translates the complex designs of a paper cutout in both shape and pattern with a delicacy that reinvigorates the vexed notion of femininity. And so on through the rest of the designers who have used this opportunity to take the past one step forward.
Perhaps the most historically minded of the thirteen designers is Gary Graham, who has created dresses inspired by an altar at the Cloisters, an engraving at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and in this exhibition a handsome coat and leggings prompted by an eighteenth-century indigo dyed coverlet made by a mill in Westbury, NewYork. When he was approached by the museum, Graham who loves its collections, thought at first that he would do something based on the work of Henry Darger, but when he saw the coverlet he was drawn to the clean, clear, and complex matrix of its design. He has interpreted it as a jacquard and had the fabric woven with the help of Gina Gregorio on a loom at the Rhode Island School of Design. Rather than simply reproduce the pattern of the coverlet, Graham decided to change the scale of the blazing star and snowball motifs; they move in graduated sizes from larger at the edge of the hem to smaller around the shoulders and arms, creating a sense of upward flow to the garment. The steps Graham took to have this fabric woven, from his initial inspiration to its completion, were many and painstaking, a process that was undoubtedly a lot more labor intensive than the one that went into the coverlet itself. The result is inspiring.
Folk Couture: Folk Art and Fashion • AmericanFolk Art Museum, New York • January 21 to April 23 • folkartmuseum.org
Jacquard coats and leggings designed by Graham (1969- ), 2013. Graham reimagined the Ann Carll coverlet as a jacquard and had the fabric woven on a loom at the Rhode Island School of Design. Photograph by Mete Ozeren, courtesy of the American Folk ArtMuseum.
Ann Carll Coverlet: Blazing Star and Snowballs attributed to the Mott Mill, Westbury, NewYork (active 1810 - c. 1850), 1810. Indigo-dyed wool, natural cotton. American Folk Art Museum, New York; photograph by Schecter Lee.