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Wearable Art, Wearisome Prose


Pattern Language: Clothing as Communicator

At the UCSB University Art Museum, through August 27.

Reviewed by Charles Donelan

This exhibition, which brings together works of art that reference clothing, includes many remarkable and interesting pieces, but its presentation gets bogged down in jargon-ridden intellectual pretentiousness. The main title of the exhibit, Pattern Language, has been hijacked from Christopher Alexander’s 1977 treatise on architecture, which is nowhere to be found in the show’s published bibliography. Stenciled sentences on the gallery walls bristle with abstractions and the occasional subject-verb agreement problem. The works themselves fall into a few relatively predictable categories, such as pieces that make clothing out of alternative materials, pieces that add unnecessary but symbolic features to standard designs, and pieces that poke fun at social conventions.

The most popular move here involves the appropriation of familiar materials that serve as ironic commentaries on the art/clothes. For instance, there’s Cat Chow’s “Measure for Measure” (2003). It’s a 1950s-style woman’s house dress made entirely of braided measuring tape. Chow, who lives and works in Chicago, grew up in New Jersey and has a great eye. “Measure for Measure” stands out more because of its graceful proportions and clever matching of subject and medium than for the ostensible connection to Shakespeare or its feminist “critique.”

The show’s most important work is the 1970 “Felt Suit” by German artist Joseph Beuys. While Beuys’s performances, such as “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” may have been more sensational, “Felt Suit” captures the essential warmth and spiritual yearning characteristic of his work. The suit is not intended to be worn, but rather to symbolize the beginning of a new, post-war evolution for the European Everyman. It has great style and power just hanging there, suggesting more than can ever be said or concluded about Beuys’s mysterious and harrowing shamanistic journey.

Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” is an early film (1964) of one of her performances. The instructions were simple. The artist sits at the front of the room, still and silent, as members of the audience each take a turn coming to her and snipping a piece of her clothing with a pair of scissors. The shreds may be taken home as souvenirs of the performance. The concept may be only a little past strip poker, but the resulting film, here transferred to DVD, is a delight, showing the young Yoko in all her earnest, playful mute glory. It’s easy to see how John Lennon fell for this rock star from another planet. More art, less talk — sounds like a plan.



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