Driving north on the Pasadena Freeway, we would pass a cluster of old Victorian homes. One day, we noticed that a piece of insulation had fallen off, which got us thinking about the artist Gordon Matta-Clark and his architectural interventions. This made us re-examine Victorian homes as pieced together Frankenstein objects.
Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the Rodarte fashion house explained to Los Angeles MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch the inspiration for their fashion of the grotesque in an interview on the occasion of their 2011 exhibition, Rodarte:States of Matter .
The sisters shot to worldwide fame when their designs for the film Black Swan was acknowledged during Natalie Portman’s Academy Award acceptance speech in 2011. Portman called them the “people on films that no one ever talks about that are your heart and soul every day.” And of course, she was wearing Rodarte.
Kate and Laura are inspired by horror film and science fiction, disfiguration and configuration, deconstruction and building, ruin and preservation. For their costume creation for the film, they thought of the beauty and perfection of the ballet on stage and the grueling and disfiguring training that dancers endure, the metamorphosis between perfection and decay – that endless back and forth between opposites, like from Halloween costume to runway elegance.
What makes their clothes elegant? And why are we drawn to grotesque things?
The answer to the first question is simple: form, shape and color in pleasing proportions – the result of careful use of materials with just the right weight, weave, drape, color, touch, and texture. Thus, the title of the show, States of Matter.
The second question though is not as straightforward. But we might find some answers in the exhibition, What Is The Grotesque In Art? in Museo Picasso Málaga (10/22/2012 – 2/10/2013). The show examines this subject with works from Picasso to Victor Hugo, de Kooning to da Vinci, and including contemporary artist like Cindy Sherman, Bill Viola, and Franz West. It demonstrates how ancient this fascination with the grotesque is.
The trend started in late fifteenth century with the discovery under Rome of Nero’s villa, Domus Aurea , (Currently closed to the public). In it there are first century Pompeian wall drawings of weird hybrid creatures, like horses with dragon tails etc, which became popular in the Renaissance. This strand continues today, in the form of caricature, burlesque, comedy and satire etc… to take us:
…to the vertiginous edge of meaninglessness, from Brueghel, to the Symbolists and the Dada movement…This tradition has interspersed [human psychic] needs that have been satisfied… by Carnival, masquerade, cross-dressing…
In contemporary art, to cite just one example of this trend of the mixing of extremes, see Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). It is high art in the form of popular Victorian ceramic dolls blown up to unreal proportions, with gold and gloss aplenty. Koons, famous for his outrageous kitschy sculptures and performances, is himself always impeccable in a business suit. Thus he not only questions the established order of aesthetic and cultural values in art, he questions the artist himself in a business world.
Grotesque is everywhere – in everything we hold dear and everything we abhor, in the constant clanking of opposites – and in its aftermath, a sense of nothingness. Adrian Searle of the Guardian says it well when he opened his review of Koons’ 2009 show at the Serpentine in London with this:
Jeff Koons leaves me feeling empty. Or is he just reaffirming the emptiness that’s already there?
Well, with Rodarte’s fashion, we (or some of us) at least have got something to wear.