The Constant Savage
by Eric J Baker
If Alexander McQueen transcended fashion in life, he hasn’t let death stop him from transcending art.
I’ve just returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York having experienced the late Mr. McQueen’s retrospective, Savage Beauty, as well as the longest waiting line I’ve seen there since Leonardo’s drawings about 10 years ago. Like civilization itself, exhibit attendees had to begin in Mesopotamia, home to The Back of the Line. If you haven’t been to the Met, the Mesopotamian collection is almost driving distance from the special exhibit hall. Fortunately, I’m made from heartier stock than the Babylonians, so I didn’t collapse.
Sure, the wait was an hour. Of course the guards were surly and the crowds pushy. Nevertheless, Savage Beauty was a stunning, surreal Hell that I’d be comfortable with as my final destination.
By the way, this hell’s demons came in the form of photograph NAZIs who weren’t impressed with my credentials as a Pure Film Creative contributor. I even dropped James Tuttle’s name, but still they treated me like they were Joan Crawford and I had been using wire hangers. If only the folks in the cafeteria downstairs were as passionate about their jobs, I could retire my “Is this the best they can do for food at one of the world’s greatest art museums?” speech. Seriously, the food court at the mall kicks the crap out of every museum cafeteria in New York. How can you fuck up rice and peas?
It’s either eat there or pay $28 for a glass of wine at the balcony café upstairs.
I’m sorry, but bad, overpriced museum food makes a person digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, the guards/secret service agents literally bellowed, “PUT AWAY THE CAMERA!” (scaring the shit out of the people around me) when I tried to take a no-flash, museum-setting close-up for non-profit display that would serve no purpose but to educate and possibly drive greater attendance for them. I shake my head at the world’s small-minded ignorance and contractual-obligation-inspired hostility.
Alas, instead of original images, you’ll have to make do with the ones I’ve swiped from various places on the internet. As minor compensation, I photographed a hunky nude statue that perhaps Killough has seen fit to stick somewhere in this article.
Even if they had let me take a few harmless photos, images cannot pretend to capture the sensation of a show that was as much about the power of multimedia as it was about McQueen’s fashion. The production’s designers Sam Gainsbury and Joseph Bennett, along with “headwear” stylist Guido Palau, deserve high praise for creating a stark, surreal setting to stage the garments.
The folks who run the stately Met are masters of placement, both in their permanent collections and special exhibits, but Savage Beauty, with its melding of music, film, props, two-way mirrors, sound effects, and holographic images, was equally an elegant haunted house. Effective was the jarring tonal shifting from room to room. Like a good nightmare, the show begins calmly, yet askew, with McQueen’s jackets displayed on half-mannequins in a dusty warehouse setting, accompanied by moody orchestral strains. Next, one seemingly steps into the horror video game Silent Hill, with a series of black dresses displayed on mannequins wearing leather bondage masks and placed before brass-framed, floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The room is made to look distressed and the mirrors are so scuffed as to be unusable, and the only accompaniment is the sound of howling wind. Trashy, but disturbing.
Succeeding spaces throughout the tour offered new themes and multimedia enhancements that highlighted the originality of McQueen’s creations without overshadowing them.
The aforementioned James Tuttle, PFC’s clothing whisperer, says, “The fashion world saw McQueen as something of a savior, bringing a fresh, new eye at a time when things got stale and we badly needed a kick in the ass.”
Besides tempting me to call this piece “Fashion of the Christ,” Tuttle’s comment helps illustrate how McQueen’s efforts inspired the people around him. Guido Palau’s headwear for the mannequins was more than simply kitschy S+M. Some were adorned with sweeping chrome wings that evoked Brancusi, others with burlap that conjured scarecrows, and one was dripping with red paint or wax. Most clever were the masks accompanying McQueen’s “Highland Rape” collection, which depicted stylized slashes across the face to suggest mauling, the “blood” consisting of costume rubies.
As creative and inventive as McQueen was, one wonders if these items are fashion pieces or artworks. The various quotes stenciled on the walls throughout the exhibit reveal the intensity of his politics and worldview, which he often incorporated into his work… an artist’s mindset to be sure. That’s fine, except no one has to wear a Goya painting.
Tuttle also says that, despite McQueen offering plenty of real-world attire in his store collections, he “suffered immensely from a stigma that his clothes were unwearable in the real world, and that’s a feeling that his runway shows and this exhibit do little to contradict.”
Indeed, as someone who has spent a fair amount of time in art museums, I enjoyed the originality and artistry of the garments, and I was enthralled by the upscale funhouse presentation (the Met could have easily stuck the dresses on white mannequins in a hallway and drawn similarly large crowds). However, I’m not a fashion expert, and if I saw one of these things on a runway, I’d say, like a typical fashion Philistine, “Now, who is going to wear that?”
James and I agree the works on display are evocative, provocative, and exquisitely crafted, but Tuttle also points out that these garments are not clothing but, rather, “museum pieces that have found a perfect home at the Met, a museum.”
Whatever your views may be on art, fashion, or the disconnect between eating soggy hotdogs in the same building that houses Van Gogh paintings worth $100 million dollars apiece, you have until August 7th to see Savage Beauty. And you’ll be grateful you did, as I am. Maybe they’ll take it on the road, but if not, it’s a stunning exhibition as fleeting as a sidewalk chalk painting after it’s already started to drizzle.