Wearable Art, Wearisome Prose

Pattern Language: Clothing as Communicator

At the UCSB University Art Museum, through August

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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