New York

Diane Blell

Stefanotti Gallery

Discovering the nature of reality through its appearance is an essential human drive. The modernist point of view places more value on the way things look than on what categories they fit into or what they might seem to represent, and believes that this awareness increases human potential in many ways. It is surprising then to discover an aspect of human expression in which we have not yet fully acknowledged the importance of appearance.

Such is the case with fashion and clothing—paradoxically so since appearances would seem to be primary to the nature of both. Where the looks of most phenomena can inform and affirm, we do not consider it appropriate or humanistic to judge individuals by externals. Clothing masks (actually and psychologically) specific physical characteristics (whether positive or negative) and replaces them with another more abstract set of visual data, which in turn express a limited set of qualities or preferences. Individuality thus reduces to stereotype. Clichés and banalities become substitutes for the realities of physical inequality and the human eye, ultimately dependent upon appearances anyway, then classifies an individual according to “type.” In order to protect ourselves from the harsh judgments that might result from direct scrutiny we have established a set of conventions that severely limit our ability to perceive each other as individuals.

It is possible that examination of these conventions can answer some questions not only about the relationship of clothing to character, personality and communication between people, but also about the way in which such social structures limit many of our perceptions and thoughts. When clothing, fashion and physical appearance are made the subjects of visual art it seems appropriate to view them as symbols of the struggle to understand the difference between appearance and essence.

Artists Diane Blell and Pat Oleszko have recently been raising these questions in their work, although with different points of view and means of expression. Blell, in her first one-woman show in New York exhibited photographs which explore the conventions of fashion photography. Using herself as model (a role to which she is quite well suited), she wears the clothes of major designers, has her hair and make up done by well-known stylists and is then photographed in settings designed to be directly imitative of the conventions found in figurative works by Bronzino, Goya, Blake and Muybridge, among others.

Her intention, it seems, is to clarify the manner in which a stereotype is created by the fashion world. The model is a stylized being presented as devoid of any negative physical characteristics, and one who combines with the clothing to create an image that (it is believed) can stand up to direct scrutiny. Because she (the model) can be seen as an ideal she makes it possible for us to tailor our perceptions of ourselves and others. It is not her unique beauty we are after but rather her very lack of exceptional qualities which can help us view others more abstractly. She is not really flawless, just conventionalized. As an artist transforms appearances into legible and illuminating abstractions, the model transforms the human body into a type.

Blell’s complex paradigm is reinforced by her use of various conventional compositions, here rendered unique by the incorporation of new clothing styles, thereby personalizing a stereotypical world.

In her captions, she credits all the designers and stylists but neglects to mention the artist whose compositions she has used. Granted, some are quite obvious: in Divine Visitors in an Interior, Blell as odalisque watches her own image on T.V.; in Portrait of a Young Woman she is clearly Goya’s beauty in a Betsey Johnson body suit with crinoline. But such priorities indicate an attitude of futility about the possibilities of art. She has shown us that a new “style” becomes desirable because it promises to allow us to escape type-casting and satisfy a collective wish to present ourselves more directly. But new styles can never deliver us in this way because we are not able to escape the need to adhere to seasonal equations of dressing and must conventionalize our experiences. Her paradigm seems to come full circle—by making fashion the subject of art with the artist as model, the art process is presented merely as a cyclic updating of conventions.

Maureen Connor