New York


Elizabeth Weiner Gallery; Rizzoli Gallery

Members of the art photographic community have been very successful of late in convincing the broader public that photography is as valid an art form as painting or sculpture. This victory seems to me to be a Pyrrhic one, since most photographers intent on proving that their images can conform to the conventions established for “art” have chosen to overlook—indeed to reject as irrelevant—the larger issues raised by the medium’s diverse roles within our society. Ironically, these very issues are now being explored by contemporary artists known for work in other media. Three such artists—Colette, Les Levine and Carla Liss—had exhibits in New York during January, and all used various forms of photography to comment upon economic, social or political aspects of our society.

Colette’s installation, “Special Christmas Gifts: Conceptual Albums and Jewelry,” at the Elizabeth Weiner Gallery was the most complex—and the most successful—of the three. The work, a sumptuous display of textiles, clothing, objects and photographs that filled the three upstairs rooms of the gallery, reiterated Colette’s interest in environments, fabrics, historical impersonations and performance. The artist, I was told, slept on a long table during the opening of the show to illustrate that Colette had died and that Justine, the beneficiary of her estate, had risen to promote her and to continue her work. (The Rizzoli installation, a transparent “tomb” containing a life-sized, fabric encased photograph of the artist, was also a reminder of this “fact.”) This personality switch places Colette’s work within the framework of women’s “transformation art” (Lucy Lippard’s term); it also allows the artist to distance herself from the actions of this new persona, whom she used as the active party in this piece in order to parody the ambition, greed and self-promotion inherent in the worlds of haute couture and media stardom. Thus “Special Christmas Gifts” functioned simultaneously on two levels: it was both a complex conceptual statement and a tactile, sensuous, almost decadently esthetic work of art.

As the title of the show suggests, Colette’s installation resembled a slightly faded but highly fashionable boutique. The first room, immediately visible from the stairs, was dominated by a long display table. Surrounded by fabrics and graffiti, this table was covered by objects that can only be described as chatchkas: T-shirts, cosmetic bottles, mementos, personal artifacts, color xeroxes, photographs and posters of Colette and Justine in various stages of dress and undress, art historical replicas, etc. The second room, almost an alcove, was the “dressing room.” A headless mannequin stood on the floor; a mirror was surrounded by elaborate “conceptual” jewelry; elegant dresses and lingerie in lace and silk and definitely a la Colette hung from floor to ceiling. The third room, barer than the first two, was the “audio room”: photographs and posters of “Justine and the Victorian Punks” (the artist’s rock group) were tacked up on the walls, and copies of her newly released and continuously playing album (a disco version of “Beautiful Dreamer”) were stacked on a large crate.

“Beautiful Dreamer” was an appropriate accompaniment to this installation—a spectacle merging historical and personal references with grandiose fantasies of opulence. The photographs of the artist in her various roles and incarnations functioned as pseudo-documents that placed Colette firmly within the center of her dreams. But the irony—and the strength—of this work was that the artist manipulated her fantasies in such a way as to simultaneously parody and pander to the commercial realities of art marketing, exploitation, and the media.

Justine, who as Colette’s alter ego represents overt commercialism, was using the artist’s reputation and creations for self-promotion and financial gain. Her company, the “Colette is Dead Co. (Deadly Feminine T.M.),” which recently sold a line of clothes at Fiorucci, in this show transformed Colette’s “conceptual” album idea into a real disco record, presumably intended to catapult Justine to the rock stardom suggested by her promotional photographs and posters. But Justine’s crassness was played against loftier ideals in “Christmas Gifts.” Although “Beautiful Dreamer” was available for purchase ($8.00 unsigned, $22.00 signed, $75.00 signed with a painting) at the gallery, the dresses and jewelry on view were displayed with blank (conceptual) price tags. “Of course they were left blank,” Colette told me. “Because real art is priceless.”

Shelley Rice