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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Materials and Aesthetics are pretty core to most artworks, but sometimes these elements are relegated behind concept and subject. In this post I’m trying to think about why this might be and to define some of the less obvious ways in which visual aesthetics are important in fine art practice.

The open submission exhibition at The Whitechapel, The London Open, led me to think about the role and status of visual aesthetics in contemporary fine art. The exhibition was divided into two major spaces on the ground and first floor: the ground floor gallery featuring a range of installed film works, text, sound, installation and photographic works; while the first floor gallery featured predominantly sculpture, painting, objects and assemblages and image based works. However, while there were some interesting differences in media and form between the works exhibited in the two major spaces, what was much more notable were the stark differences in approach to material and aesthetics.

Whitechapel OpenWhitechapel Open

The curator’s notes suggested that the works in the first floor gallery had been grouped because the artists demonstrated interests in kitsch, folk and outsider art and, to an extent, these themes could be detected at least in some of the pieces. Much more obvious, and in my view more important, was that these artists engaged with the material and visual in an explicit way which could not be separated from the meaning and intention of their works. This was evident in pieces such as Zebra by Caroline Achaintre in which fibres had been woven into a tufted, carpet like, composition of intersecting lines; in the delicate pencil drawings of Mark Harris; in an installed animation by Shona Davies, Dave Monaghan and Jon Klein; and in the heavily textured paintings of Dale Carney. In all of these pieces, the evidence of the make process as well as use of colour, texture, composition and material interacted to create works with cogent visual identities. In the case of Davies, Monaghan and Klein’s macabre animation, for example, the choice of muted hues, hand made animated models and hand painted sets (the work was also displayed in a set) lent the work a poignancy and delicacy. The associations of animation with children’s television underscored the suicide narrative, adding a layer of complexity and dark humour to the piece. In this way, thematic, narrative and conceptual concerns were inextricably bound up in the materiality and form of the artistic work.

Whitechapel Open

In the text, installation, and video pieces of the ground floor gallery, aesthetics were much less explicitly prioritised as content of the work. Nevertheless, the aesthetic choices and values, of both artists and curators, could be detected. Whereas, the upstairs gallery had featured a rich variety of textures, colours and materials, here a palette of cool grey, white and black predominated. Videos were displayed on1990s matt black plastic monitors (shiny flat-screens would have hit the wrong note), slide machines clicked through images of the sky, a wall, apparently chosen to suggest at once the mundane and the profound. It struck me that the intended signifier for the anti-aesthetic aesthetic of these pieces was a kind of intellectual seriousness. It was as if in denying the allure of harmonising colour, the inviting tactility of texture, the expressive power of image making one could ascend to a realm of pure philosophical thought. This fine art Iconoclasm is one that I find particularly difficult, redolent as it is of Puritanism and a prioritisation of some kind of mysterious “content” which exists outside the form of the work.

There is certainly room in the art world for work which is meditative, idea based and not primarily concerned with the visual. But I would strongly argue that the communicative and associative power of aesthetics are important in framing even these works. Too often a failure to engage with visual aesthetics means falling back on a range of fine art clichés which not only risk alienating the viewer from the work, but also obscuring its core ideas

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Menswear is an increasingly exciting area of design. Innovative up-and-coming designers and an expanding market share have combined to improve its status, alongside womenswear, as an important creative discipline. In this post I’m trying to describe some of the major tendencies in contemporary menswear and their wider cultural significance.

Men’s fashion in the last decade has been characterised by a style, pioneered by Hedi Slimane, of closer fit; an emphasis on fine drapey fabrics, shrunken tailoring and touches of androgyny. This aesthetic comprised of rocky and punky influences mixed with a kind of louche dandyism, the defining look: skinny jeans with a tailored jacket.[1]

Dior Homme by Hedi SlimaneDior Homme Hedi Slimane

Now a new menswear aesthetic appears to be emerging. Fashionable brands such as Our Legacy, YMC, Bleu de Paname and Folk are exploring a look with a strong emphasis on traditional fabrication, detailing which heavily references workwear, and hippyish folk-inspired touches, particularly in knit.

I would contest that while both of these styles are associated with particular designers and labels, their origins lie in fashionable dress as worn on the street. In both cases, models for these styles existed before their reproduction by designers: these were creative people who mixed second-hand, customised, and reclaimed garments to achieve their own look.

For me, this shift in menswear is intriguing. If we accept (as I do) that the clothes we put on encode meaning, we can suggest that this transformation reflects broader cultural and attitudinal changes. A desire to engage with the process of manufacture or make, strikes me as central to this folky-workwear aesthetic. Magazines such as Inventory, an early adopter and innovator of the style, spend as much time explaining to their readers how garments and accessories have been crafted, as discussing their inherent qualities. Equally, this is a look that favours texture (and even coarseness) over smooth, lustrous or drapey fabrics: there is a sense in which the consumer wants to see evidence of how the fabric has been woven or knitted.

 

It is surely laudable that consumers wish to know how, where, and by whom their clothes were made, with the concern for welfare and craft that implies. Nevertheless, there is (at least for me) an uneasiness about clothing that gives one the appearance of a 19th Century industrial or agricultural worker, but which costs many hundreds of pounds. To quote a friend “it’s as if people want to have things which are home-spun without spinning them themselves”. While it is easy to critique this consumption of craft as a co-option of something authentic by commercialism, it could be argued that it points to more radical instincts and aspirations in which work is meaningful, productive and celebrated.[2]

While the shift from rock-dandy to folky-proletarian may seem quite profound, I would suggest that both form part of a wider and more significant trend in which menswear has become more diverse and creative. Nor do I think that the styles pioneered by Hedi Slimane have become irrelevant, even if they are increasingly superseded by more contemporary interpretations of menswear. He remains for me one of the great innovators of modern fashion: in revisiting tailoring, exploring silhouette, and playing with the semantics of iconic menswear garments (the dinner jacket, the motorcycle jacket, the jean) he expanded what was deemed possible in menswear. The huge increase of interest in men’s fashion and the increased economic importance of the sector points to developments in male consumption and indeed in the consumption of masculinity(ies) which are worthy of further exploration.


[1] Some of us (hardly dinosaurs) entering fashion school in the first years of the 2000s remember how radical and indeed “contested” this new aesthetic was. Hedi Slimane’s collections for YSL and then Dior Homme started to attract positive attention at the same time as magazines like Arena Homme Plus were styling shoots with reinterpreted, nipped-in tailored styles, mixed with denim and leather. The process of the adoption of this look by the mainstream was slow, but by the end of the decade it had filtered right down to the high street.

[2] These problems and contradictions aren’t new of course. William Moriss and Arts and Crafts manufacturers came up against similar pressures in the 19th Century. I would also argue that as in Moriss’ day, they point to wider dissatisfactions with the model of market capitalism which prevails.