New York


Rempire Gallery / Dorsky Gallery

Colette’s contribution to feminist esthetics has been underrated. Perhaps this is due, in large measure, to the fact that her frankly narcissistic posture unleashes several traits—self-indulgence, childishness, and seduction—that are anathema to mainstream feminism. At a moment, however, when so much of feminist practice verges on zipless decodings, these transgressions amount to a kind of personal realpolitik.

Colette’s show at Dorsky focused on the latest wrinkle in her career, while a concurrent show at Rempire covered the entire crinkly fabric of the last 18 years. The photos at Dorsky were organized around the device of a picture within a picture. In each, one or more figurines clad in puckered Colette-garb observes an artwork of sorts. With light bulbs for heads, her subjects bear an uncanny resemblance to the mannequins Giorgio de Chirico painted. In a related tableau at Rempire called Figure Looking at Burnt-Out Figure, 1987, a small figurine with an illuminated head beholds a massive photo of its “burnt-out” double. While these pieces convey an uncomfortable feeling of pathos, Colette’s most important work moves furthest from painting and photography toward environments replete with apparel, memorabilia, performance elements, and records. The overview at Rempire testified to this prolific diversity and then didactically underscored it by pasting excerpts from various reviews and essays next to almost every work in the show.

The Eye, Streetwork I, no. 3, 1972, which photographically documents a street painting, is the oldest piece on display. It (prophetically) shows more of the young Colette—decked out in an outfit somewhere between Abba and Stevie Nicks—than of the painting itself. Colette stood out even at a moment when megalomania was the order of the day, even at a time when Guglielmo Achille Cavellini was busy plastering his self-commemorative stickers all over town. Although she has claimed that “ . . . art is magic and the making of art alchemy . . . ,” Colette’s art is strongest when it most closely approximates modalities of mass culture. It does this by way of its relationship to dandyism, or what she herself calls “reverse pop.” Just as the dandy strove to convert his physical self into a work of art, so her framed “Justine ‘I’m a Work of Art’ T-shirt Dresses” include photos of the artist standing in a crate, presumably reading some of the same lines on a painting behind a column at the rear of the gallery: “I’m a work of art; I’m fragile and fair./I’m a work of art; so handle me with care./I’m a work of art; you can look but not touch./I’m a work of art; be happy with that.”

Stenciled on the T-shirts were the words “Handle with Care” and “Work of Art—Fragile.” Over the years Colette has literally pieced together her own “rags to riches” (and back again) fashion sense from musty bolts of fabric. Her habitual dress incidentally recalls the young, affluent Baudelaire sandpapering his suits to keep them from looking too new, or the older, destitute Baudelaire restricting his gestures in order to conceal the holes in his clothing. When Colette is photographed wearing stockings, they always have runs and holes. Fiorucci produced one of her outfits, The Austrian Shade Dress, 1978, in a limited edition, and her overall style prefigured the New Romantic look popularized by Vivian Westwood. Curiously enough, some of this clothing (what Jonathan Crary called “walking architecture”) was literally cut from the material from which she made her environments—intimate bedrooms that harbored the artist sleeping in her birthday suit. From these environments she has also cut her “wall fragments”— paintinglike works that retain the baroque architectonic of the original drapery.

A sign in one collage at Rempire, I’m a Work of Art, Not a Porno Star, 1977–90, from the “Dial ‘C’ for Scandal” series, asks, “If men want to look at me, why shouldn’t they pay?” The provocation is clear and, by conflating prostitution with an attack on the masculine gaze, it cuts both ways, i.e., if men have to shell out, do women get comps? Moreover, what are we looking at when we look at Colette? Not so much the person brought up to bear her father’s name as a serial assortment of buttons and bows, ruffles and lace, silks and satins, rouge and mascara, corsets and garters . . . homologous with the melodramatic seriality of her fictive personae: Justine, Mata Hari, Olympia, Camille, Ophelia, Madame Récamier. The desire-cum-embarassment produced by these frills and enticements is not far from that felt by the heterosexual male who discovers he has just been ogling a drag queen. The environments especially—which Arturo Schwarz likened to “a smooth mass of tissues organized into fatty layers”—transmogrify the patriarchal sublime postulated by Burke and Kant. Instead of the customary alternation between terror and esthetic delight supposedly produced by the sight of an imposing cliff or mountain gorge, Colette plays men’s lust off their fear of subjugation by women—of being trapped in a dollhouse.

John Miller