New York

Beverly Semmes


Introducing a mutant version of women’s fashion, the “clothes” in Beverly Semmes installation questioned the conventions that have determined the production of women’s clothing and thus the presentation of their bodies. By exaggerating the size and distorting the shapes of female apparel, Semmes surreally reconfigured the normative distinction between the body of the subject and the clothing that both masks and represents it. These sculptures did not merely figure an absent body, they forced us to examine how our perception of it is constructed.

Tucked away in a closet, Sliced Dress (all works 1992), a plaid wool dress with conservative collar and long sleeves, hanging on a wood-and-metal hanger, sported shoulders extending from wall to wall. What first looked like perfectly pressed pleats were, in fact, incisions in the fabric—the full bodice and skirt cut into narrow vertical panels. The sliced skirt undermined the notion of clothing as a protective cover; the well-tailored, neatly spaced cuts in the fabric suggested a methodical violence.

Across the room, Red Dress, an enormous dress of blood-red velvet, shocking in its overpowering, material presence, created an impassable space in the gallery. Hung on one wall just below the ceiling, the shoulders exaggerated, its life-sized sleeves seemingly withered in contrast, the skirt of the dress formed an absurd train stretching the length of the gallery like flowing blood. This long trail of crimson fabric could be readily appropriated for a clear feminist reading of the suffocation and usurpation of the female subject, but it also evoked a disturbing, almost primal violence, a body under siege.

In Shadows, Semmes lined up six sheer, full bodied pink organza and arranged them shoulder to shoulder in strict military formation. The long skirts draped onto the floor, forming a sheer carpet. Tucked behind the dress farthest to the left was a small bright-orange dress or jacket, its sleeves joined and the bottom sewn up. The unwearable, precisely tailored item was like an irritating abrasion beneath the pink translucent skin of organza. Rather than alluring or sensual, the sheer fabric exposed a thwarted image of the female body, an impossible, even grotesque physicality.

In the small back gallery, a four-by-four arrangement of orange-velvet dresses, entitled Chorus, squared off in combative harmony. Draped like limp restraints, the sleeves on each dress formed a single unit, while the skirts, connected to each other like Siamese twins, crisscrossed the small room, frustrating passage, and creating a transparent but obstructive envelope that enclosed a metaphoric body of stymied movement and crushing dependencies.

Semmes’ garments suggested impossibly huge, ungainly bodies, austerely evocative of long frustrations—a clothing of psychological and physical discomfort. In a sublime gesture, the artist supplemented her sculptures with three tiny photographs taken in 1991. The pint-sized images depicted figures in improbable outfits against stark landscapes and in interiors crowded by the costumed presences, presenting a contrappunto to the weight of Semmes’ critical mutations, to the polyphony of her oversized constructions.

Patricia C. Phillips