Put it On-Take it Off: Appearance as Art

The Hollows
Feb 13, 2017 8:42PM

The artworks of both Tom Baldessarini and Ariel Ruvinsky take on the exhibitionist nature of appearance, fashion, and the ornamentation of the human body- Baldessarini through his revealing exploration of the subculture of drag performers and Ruvinsky through her colorful, exaggerated costumes, delving into the concept of the Hermit. "Put it On-Take it Off: Appearance as Art" will explore in depth how both artists examine the various cultural and sociological implications of costumes and performative dress, ranging from the “The Other,”to the concepts of subcultures and their overall social function, and sociological definitions such as class, gender, and sexual identity.

The works of Baldessarini and Ruvinsky are in-depth surveys of cultures that exist on the fringe of Western culture. They dissect these seemingly impenetrable social groups mostly through their styles of dress, while subtly contextualizing with hints of social norms against which they exist. Baldessarini’s portraits of drag queens frame them in the manner of a glamour shot, reminiscent of the style used in fashion photography of the likes of Annie Lebovitz and Richard Avedon, specifically designed to emphasize what the person modeling is wearing. This genre of photography, it is typically coded hyper feminine. Using drag queens, the archetypical queer performer, Baldessarini implements an instantly recognizable “female” style to deconstruct the rigid social norms often applied to gender and sexuality. 

At first glance, his Queens appear slightly similar to Avedon’s In the American West. However, in that series, Avedon directly appeals to voyeurism and turns the static bodies of its subjects (all lower class rural outcasts) into objects, allowing the viewer to gawk at every speck of dirt and grime on them and highlighting it in the process. In Baldessarini’s series, the social outsiders portrayed are given two vital dimensions that allow them to express how they live their lives on an equal plane as the viewer: action and agency. The photographs reveal the performers in various stages of undress, stripping off the costumes of their invented glitzy “diva” personas. They pluck off false eyelashes, remove wigs, and smudge their lipstick, their actions of disrobing displayed in high definition. Yet, their constructed personalities are shown as just as ingrained and valid within their being as their underlying masculine identities are beneath their outfits. His photography does not delineate which is the “true self” of these drag queens. Through use of these ingrained visual cues, they are present as fluid and liminal in their identities, skirting cut and dry classifications. It is incredibly powerful and striking to view a process that typically precedes a pose depicted in such high production. The seemingly more conventional aesthetics Baldessarini utilizes in his photography allow for its subjects to be put in a broader context, beyond subcultural. They appear caught in a spontaneous, “not camera ready” moment, unafraid of revealing the costume and the person within it.

Meanwhile, instead of framing the dress to reveal a subculture, Ruvinsky creates her own costumes, inventing ceremonial clothing for the concept of the hermit, or someone who willingly abstains from society. The fixation on the idea of the hermit within fine art is not unheard of, going back as far as Paul Gauguin,nwho often depicted Breton peasants (a 19th century French subculture which actively rejected modernity) in his paintings. However, Ruvinsky’s work diverges from and avoids this typical, often fetish-like handling of hermetic people. Her costumes range from real, such as nuns and monks, to heavily fictionalized,such as witches and Santa Clauses, figures celebrating and, in a way, scrutinizing the function of the “Other” within society at large.

This particular class of outcast chooses to abstain from society and therefore, is in some sense, mythologized. Ruvinsky takes this concept of mythology and expands it while also somewhat dismantling it. She takes these ways of living that are often viewed as alienating and gritty and synthesizes them as bright, Technicolor, elaborate robes and ornamentation in a timeless stylization. These secluded subsets of people are made more accessible and noticeable, but also, their vibrant, exaggerated appearance manages to exhibit an overwhelming foreign quality. The costumes become alluring constructs of these subsets of people, embodying the pull of escapism they represent, as well as the fear of abandoning the trappings and predictable hegemony of society. They harken to the transforming, yet ephemeral experience of wearing a costume while also carrying the weighty implication of holy garments, something that is not simply done for entertainment.

Beyond displaying the confines of society in which they exist, the artists’ works are designed to empower and embolden the “other” whom they portray. Baldessarini frames his subjects in a bombastic, larger-than- life style. Theatrical and dramatic, despite their state of undress and the humanity within which the artist imbues them, the drag performers are portrayed unflinchingly as being in control of their own presentation and depiction. Their gazes are directed at the viewer, staring back at them as the remove their dresses and make-up, signifying that they are participants in choosing how the audience will view them and their bodies. Baldessarini subverts the typical idea that undressing signifies powerlessness. Ruvinsky, on the other hand, constructs elaborate clothing specifically to elevate. For her, costumes function as vernacular, wearable architecture composed of fabric and fiber. They embody a way to solidify and commemorate the transient and temporary lifestyle of the Hermit without ringing false. Fashion becomes a mode of storytelling, imparting the folklore and concepts of a fleeting, fringe style of existence through materiality, how they’re sewn together, and the appropriated debris integrated. Through the wearable, functional artworks, the Hermit is allowed to remain as they are without having aspects of their existence erased ironically, with the intent to preserve. 

Despite the often parroted claim about the frivolity of fashion and dress, appearance and how one dresses becomes integral to individualistic and cultural identity, and nothing surpasses fashion in its intent to costume and transform the wearer. Baldessarini and Ruvinsky explore subcultures through dress and are not only powerful, but also represent an urgent necessity. Since fashion and textiles are, at times, regulated to a more niche genre, such in depth examinations of those who intentionally use dress to reject what is considered socially normal are rare. However, capturing these subcultures and their practices through clothing in high production and a meticulously well-cared for manner exposes universalities about the mechanics of presentation, as well as defiance against homogeneity.

-Gina Mischianti

The Hollows