New York

Aaron Cobbett

Debs & Co.

LIKE WARHOL AND JOHNS, Aaron Cobbett started out in the trenches of fashion, dressing windows for Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman. He moved into photography in the late '80s, taking pictures of drag queens and boys downtown and publishing them in magazines like Empire and H/X In the mid-'90s he started exhibiting his work in galleries. For this show he decided to do “something different”—photograph women. But the artist's claim of branching out is a little misleading: Cobbett has turned “ordinary” women into caricatures of glamorized womanhood, who resemble, more than anything else, female impersonators.

All the subjects in “Lady,” Cobbett's third solo show in New York, are known in the art, music, fashion, or club world: Madonna's publicist, Liz Rosenberg; Zelma Davis, former lead singer of C&C Music Factory; clubland (and now Sex and the City) clothier Patricia Fields; pop star Nelly Furtado; Cosmo's Helen Gurley Brown. But unlike most portraitists, who focus on the (often esteemed) identity of the sitter, Cobbett puts aside what he calls the “precious” notion of portraiture, the attempt to capture the essence of an individual or personality in a single frame, concentrating instead on artifice. The subjects underwent a transformation at the hands of Cobbett, who fluffed their hair, coated on makeup that recalled the expressive excess of '80s punk and New Wave. outfitted their nails with several inches of fiery acrylic, and dressed them in spangled taffeta and lame, so that they looked like a cross between downtown fashion circa 1982 and casualties from the Dynasty set.

Cobbett observes that “glamour does not come from with.” Rather, it's the “glittering crust that protects us . . . the most highly evolved and most artificial kind of beauty.” He focuses on the realms of fashion and entertainment, but his ruminations on an “evolved” brand of beauty could just as easily be shifted to the academic arena, to the world of gender theory, which was beginning to heat up around the same time Krystle and Alexis were going head-to-head on prime time. Cobbett's definition of “glamour” applies just as well to “gender,” as scores (hundreds?) of writers have argued that gender is more social than biological, that being female—or “feminine”—is really like performing a role from a script learned by example, complete with costumes, makeup, and sets (the suburban home, the glass-ceilinged office, the brothel, and so on). What Cobbett has produced are, in a sense, documentary photographs that capture the performance in medias res. His work is charmingly theory-free but subtly invokes gender debates all the same. The title of the show, “Lady,” nods to drag performers, from NYC's Lady Bunny to Lady Chablis, the “Grand Empress of Savannah,” made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, who tack the title onto their stage names—and, turning things around, Lady Miss Kier, female singer for the band Deee-Lite, who borrowed the title from drag queens, completing the cycle of title swapping and gender fluidity.

Cobbett's women impersonating men impersonating women highlight the precarious and performative nature of both glamour and gender. Glamour articulated merely by current fashion carries a date stamp, but by backdating his subjects to the '80s, Cobbett insures them a kind of pedigree (no matter how counterfeit). Like Gainsborough's women in their powdered wigs, the sprayed, varnished subjects in Cobbett's photos suggest that, like Gloria Gaynor's heroine, they will survive—and endure, wrapped in the “crust” of their own timeless-transient glamour.

Martha Schwendener