Fashion and art. They seem to move a bit more together every year. The fashion-world oddly parallels the artworld, and also draws on it to heighten not only its legitimacy but also its charge. Kathryn Dunlevie’s recent photographic collages are not fashion, they are art. And yet they are fashion, in a fashion. The collage elements are from everywhere, but always present is some element from fashion. I used to do some collage myself and always wondered how to work with fashion magazines. The images seemed to have too much fashion presence to serve any other purpose. Dunlevie doesn’t let that worry her, and all for the best. An individual piece of hers could even be a fashion shot, of a particularly surrealist or innovative sort, one strongly influenced by art. Yet the fashion shots are just so much material for her art, an art that undercuts the ideology of fashion (“all is fantasy, all mystery is for the sake of glamour”) while still drawing on it ironically.
“Detectives of Fiction and Women of Mystery” is a series in which most of the titles have something to do with detectives, and most also have something to do with mysterious women. Women who strut like models but are mysterious in more than one way. Fashion, too, wants to make women mysterious, wants to glamorize the underworld of crime so as to enhance the storyline of the shoot, but there are other ways of mystery that art knows and fashion does not. When talking about her art, Dunlevie brings up the mystery cults of the ancient world. Her women may be goddesses or priestesses, or symbols of a world in which goddesses and priestesses really meant something, a world that seems sometimes to hover in the background, chidingly, behind our own.
For example, “Khidr” is a straight fashion shot at first, but then haunts us as the model’s reconstructed green hand disturbs the all-white right half of the work, her face masked by more green, as though she were the revenge of nature itself. “Archimedes and the Disturbed Circles” appears at first sight to be just a statue of the ancient Greek scientist against a strange background, and then one discovers that he is a she, that his hair is her hair, purple hair, of some fashion model dressed in purple too, perhaps on a boat -- one goes back and forth as in one of those old psychology experiments with the picture that is both old and young woman. “Inspector Saito’s Seaside Satori” draws the viewer’s attention most to the bright pink hand, the place, perhaps, for the concentration of the satori experience: mystery in both senses of the word; as enlightenment and as mystery story. Saito plays an electric guitar but faces a limpid abstract harbor scene where shaky reflected mast-lines seem to correspond to the energy of the hand about to strike a chord. Similar mast-lines appear in “Terry McCaleb’s Dock,” but this time dripping like elements in an abstract expressionist painting over an aerial photograph of a road-laced seaside community, which gives me the shivers.
My current favorite is “Cinderella,” another goddess and mystery woman, for sure, but also a wild motorcycle girl with a Fragonard head. This photomontage is packed with formal qualities taken from several seamlessly collaged photographs; the bright red fencing on the right balancing nicely the bright white barriers on the left; the scene is urban, but moment is wistful, romantic, with its character ready to escape.
Dunlevie is an avid mystery reader. In “The Garden of Sergeant Carlos Tejada” the title refers to an obscure Spanish detective character: but what we get is a world that is lush, tropical and infected by an invasion of abstract red riots of paisley-like designs, all bisected by a cactus and some fronds. Almost-disturbing excess is the order of the day. Dunlevie could easily be co opted by fashion, bought out, incorporated….I could see a spread in Vogue, where each montage introduced a spread: fantasies for elegant women with a taste for the extravagant and edgy. Case in point: “Rescue” features a model whose head is obscured by a tangle of yellow garden hose. Carrying chains, she is juxtaposed against a background of car headlights, book spines and other verticals. Another case: “Ostara." Although covering the model’s face with plant matter leaves us the red lips, her handbag transformed into another chunk of tropical vegetal matter, as though she were on a journey into the jungle, half Amazonian native, half 5th Avenue.
Some of the works are named after fashionable spots: places to strut your stuff: “Ipanema” features the model’s boots, and then a collaged-in languid scene, all topped by a very high neck supporting a head that is a perfect white flower: a flower head that seems to challenge our human-centeredness. Similarly, “Ibiza” is a place, and yet also the silhouette of a woman in high-heel shoes incongruously on a beach, with vague tan figures against a tower as her interior world, the squiggly shadow that she leaves in the sand balancing five lines of what could be soul-substance entering or escaping her heart.
I am taken by these flower ladies. For example, in “Our lady of the Harbor” where the model in a fetching checkerboard outfit has lost her head to a lush red rose that blends perfectly with her halo of auburn hair, and she is holding a leaved branch in a way that makes me think of the followers of Dionysius, the maenads, and the Thyrsus, the Dionysian symbol. The fashion-world wants women of mystery, but, using their images and transforming them, Dunlevie takes it to another symbolic level. I can’t help but think that the harbor over which this mystery woman dominates was once an ancient town, perhaps like Rhodes, and she the colossus of Rhodes, this time female: the angle of her body is the angle of a dancer on a Greek urn.
“Marlowe’s Mistake” takes us to another place in the harbor where the collaged elements make up a lady who, although named after the great fictional detective from L.A., is once again our wistful Fragonard, this time grasping a phone, and facing an unexplained male shoulder. The colors, lines, water abstractions, and vagueness of two shoed feet, increase the ominous intensity of the scene. Underwater is the theme of “The Long Goodbye,” another Marlowe reference, where the model wanders through a forest that also features a fish, and yet the water above is probably a photo of water from above, the object that takes over her head like a 19th century mask worn by sea-divers.
Maybe all of this can be summed up by two of the works with which I will conclude. “Siri Paiboun’s Bedroom” strikes one with its baroque ferocity, with taking everyday high-end commodities such as pillows and sheeting and placing them with decorative shell motifs in a lush world of green banana plants, so that the bedroom is more an anti-room. “Escape from the Lab,” which features two creatures, one the model this time transformed into a kind of insect, the man behind her another alien insect whose head is geometrical paralleling the globe in the classroom setting on the left, a strange underground world where the red cross insignia on the bag signifies something 1940s. Don’t we all want to escape from the lab, our postmodern world made up in equal parts of science and fantasy, and yet remember it too?