Tuesday, 21 May 2013

New on AnOther Magazine: Keith Haring, The Political Line

Everybody knows Keith Haring: his t-shirts printed with radiating babies, red hearts and barking dogs became iconic in the mid-eighties as he started selling them in his Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan and are nowadays recognized by one and all. Yet few know about the artist’s longstanding political engagement, his activism and his fight against racism, environment destruction, homophobia and AIDS. That is why the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and Le Centquatre gallery have joined forces to present Keith Haring: The political Line. The exhibition a comprehensive retrospective featuring nearly 250 works explores the messages of social justice, individual freedom and change conveyed by the artist through his canvases, sculptures and graffiti.

Haring was exceptionally aware of the international political situation, something he attributed to having grown up during the boisterous 60s. Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, he took an early interest in art and began studying at the Ivy School of Professional Art of Pittsburgh. However, he soon grew frustrated with commercial art and decided to move to New York’s School of Visual Arts. It was 1978 and Basquiat, Rauschenberg and Warhol (who would become his close friends) were at the forefront of the city’s art scene. It was during these years that he started doing his subway paintings, which he humorously dubbed “urban guerrilla art”, working frenetically and risking arrest every time he took the subway downtown. These quick drawings, which became part of his everyday routine (some of them have survived time and are visible in the exhibition, even if Haring wished them to be ephemeral) were made in chalk over publicity billboards. Sketched quickly in one lean line, they would shape the artist’s visual identity, gradually turning into the clean, naïve characters inhabiting his canvases.

Even through the use of pop art techniques (Coca-Cola logos, dollar bills and Andy Mouse, a crossover between Mickey Mouse and Andy Warhol, are recurrent in the exhibit), Haring could not hide the conceptual nature of his work. His figures were drawn with an almost irritating precision and their touching candour expressed paradoxically dark and complicated realities, conveying his message in a very comprehensible way. With cartoonish charm, a painting in the exhibition depicts the United States as a muscular character with an erect penis and a tank where his head should be. Another canvas features capitalism as an oversized pig merrily devouring humans. Where one painting represents media as a Technicolor monster trapping humans with its many tongues, another reflects upon the atomic menace using only black, white and red. Haring’s political engagement drove him to work mainly in the public space (he famously painted the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie in 1986). In his opinion, art should be accessible: “the public has been ignored by most contemporary artists”, he wrote in his journal, “but the public needs art. Art is for everybody”.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Unconventional Style Icons: Glenn Gould


About two years ago I wrote a post titled "Unknown Style Icons: Natacha Rambova", about the eccentric 1920's costume designer and wife of Rudolph Valentino. I really intended to do a whole series of posts on some of my personal style icons who are generally not identified as so by the mainstream media. However, a random reader wrote me an appalled e-mail telling me sarcastically that "he was very glad I had at long last discovered Rambova but that she was by no means unknown and I should research more before talking without having a clue". That made me feel like such a loser I stopped altogether the unknown style icons series. But, hang it, after two years I've finally gotten over it (sensitive, me?) and decided to start it again, only this time I'll call it "Unconventional Style Icons" so as to not attract more hate mail calling me an ignorant idiot. 
Anyway, after Natacha Rambova I give you Glenn Gould.

Admittedly, Mr. Gould's style is the least important thing about him. You are looking at one of the biggest musical geniuses of last century. I know the word "genius" is thrown around way too frivolously these days, but in this case it applies. Glenn, who was born in Toronto in 1932, could read music before he could read words. As a baby he would play with the family piano, not by randomly hitting the keys but rather by pressing one key at a time and carefully listening to each sound and its evolution. By the time he was 13 he gave his first concert and at 25 he embarked on a tour of the Soviet Union. He had his very own views on music and believed a performer should be - rather than just a machine playing someone else's compositions - a true interpreter, bringing a new sound to an already known score. Also, besides a genius, he was a hopeless eccentric. 

Before he sat down to play the piano (on his very low wooden chair, a present from his father which he carried to all his performances), Glenn had to make sure the temperature in the room was extremely warm (he was constantly cold).While playing, he invariably hummed to the music, which gave sound technicians many a headache during recording sessions. He disliked being touched; in fact, he didn't much enjoy human company in general and felt better around animals.All these quirks obviously shaped his "nutty genius" style, which to be honest attains levels of cool otherwise only reached by the Japanese.

I must also mention Mr. Gould had the good looks of a young Ethan Hawke, which also helped (why hasn't anyone made a movie about his life starring Ethan yet by the way?)

I guess he didn't give much importance to the way he looked, and that's exactly what made Glenn so irresistibly cool: his hair was seldom combed and always too long, his suits were mismatched, his trousers were too wide, his shirt rarely tucked in and more often than not unpressed.

Because he always felt cold, he used to wear heavy woolen fabrics, big coats, thick sweaters, scarves, knitted mittens and leather gloves (sometimes one on top of the other. Has Junya Watanabe drawn inspiration from the photo above yet?). All these details added up to create a unique style which in my opinion is truly unique and inspirational.What do you think?

Having steadily studied classical music from the age of 2 to 18, I was familiar with Glenn Gould before I was familiar with Michael Jackson. I know both his music and his persona are not everyone's cup of tea and some people think he is just "too much"; but I'm a fan. Besides admiring his brilliantly creative intrpretations, I've always been partial to him partly tanks to his ambivalent feelings towards people and the fact that he had even more aversion to cold than I do. Over the years he has become one of my icons, and I'm not just talking about style. Even though he had tons of it.

PS: If you would like to know more about this genius, here is a really interesting documentary featuring lots of original footage of Glenn and his inimitable "allure".

Monday, 13 May 2013

Backstage at Beijing's Dior Homme Show

On April 26, Dior Homme held its first-ever fashion show outside of Paris, and the spot chosen by Kris Van Assche for this one-off event was Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts museum. The organic, airy building with curved walls hosted 600 guests, including a long list of Chinese celebrities (from media mogul Hung Huang to “China’s number-one heartthrob” actor Huang Xiaoming) sporting a studied air of effortless elegance. “After having staged some events in Shanghai, Beijing seemed like the logical next step”, Van Assche said. “I love the momentum of China, and how people in this city pay a lot of attention to the way they look.”

The show was a reprisal of Dior Homme’s A/W13 show which debuted last January in Paris. Half of the impeccably groomed models were cast locally and three new looks (which according to the designer will only be available in China) were added to the show. Drawing inspiration from 1997’s film Gattaca, Van Assche created a rigorous collection with a futuristic edge (“clothes for tomorrow”) leaning on technical fabrics and functional details like safety belts and jackets equipped with zips instead of buttons. “I have been very inspired by sport and the notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body lately, that’s why I took Gattaca as the starting point for the collection. From there I worked to achieve an athletic silhouette, lean yet virile, following the masculine anatomy in the cut of the clothes.”

In their austere, waist-belted black suits and tightly combed-back hair, the models were the embodiment of inexorable physical perfection as they marched down the catwalk. The show was a cavalcade of high energy, with the added excitement of a black bat flying into the room and twirling around over the models’ heads, in what many guests thought to be a deliberate performance. After the show, a gig by synth-pop duo Hurts (dressed head-to-toe in Dior Homme, naturally) got the crowd dancing. “I think they are a great representation of contemporary dandyism”, said a relaxed Van Assche as models challenged the crowd to a dance-off, beginning what would be an all-night after party.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Punk: from Chaos to Conformism

On monday I got depressed upon witnessing that travesty of a punk celebration that was the Met Ball. Seeing that gang of self-important celebrities parading around in six-figure outfits and smiling through their flawlessly whitened teeth made me feel, as Leonard Cohen would put it, like the war was over and the good guy lost. Welcome to 2013, where doublethink is as current as in Orwell's 1984 and we honor punk by placing a bunch of clothes in an official building and then letting one of the most powerful women in the world host an expensive party and invite a bunch of mainstream idols for a lovely politically correct black tie ball. The irony is endless.
I've heard all kinds of anecdotes about that evening. From Madonna stating that punk is not caring what anybody thinks while sporting a Givenchy look that surely took several weeks to put together, to Vivienne Westwood being cut off in an interview because the journalist wanted to speak to Hilary Rhoda instead, to Kate Upton saying in a Zoolanderish tone "I don't think I fully understood the theme". It all seemed like a colossal joke. Kristen McMenamy was one of the few guests who got it right, laughing "this is the antithesis of punk. Punk is not putting it on. Punk is angry. Punk is not pretending. Punk is real. This is like a costume party for punk". After which she proceeded to spit on the red carpet - subsequently becoming an absolute goddess to my eyes. 

Fashion advice for red-carpeters from Siouxsie Sioux and her friends.

And what about the exhibition itself? "I had a little look and I liked some of my stuff..." said Dame Viv, "and we'll leave it there". Curated by Andrew Bolton with the help of photographer Nick Knight and filmmaker Ruth Hogben, it had everything to be fantastic; but in a 21st century where political correctness, advertisers and antibacterial gels rule the world, it turned into a toned-down, antiseptic version of punk. Apparently all references to drugs (except for the Ramones song Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue) and swastikas were wiped out. And that's where the fashion industry - generally so obsessed with aesthetic perfection - fails to understand that punk is not about being fabulous; on the contrary, it's about filth and trouble and ugliness. And that's the beauty of it (and no reconstruction of Seditionaries or CBGB's bathroom can entirely make up for it, although those were definitely cool ideas).

The Swastika was decontextualized and widely used by punks for obvious shock value but also as a reflection on the boundaries of freedom of expression. And for the zillionth time, this doesn't mean punks were nazis.

Dame Viv & friends showing their stuff. I hoped something like this would happen at the Met Ball. How could I be so deluded.

Punk was all about trouble, see? Here's Malcolm McLaren (my least favourite punk- read John Lydon's autobiography to know why) all thrilled at being arrested after the Jubilee boat trip incident.

Sid Vicious injecting himself with heroin in 1978. Punk is sometimes also about drugs. Why act like it never happened?

This is punk too, but I guess Anna Wintour and her sponsors wouldn't approve.

Sid said it: "I'm not chic. I could never be chic". And that's the problem with this whole Punk: From Chaos to Couture thing. It aims to be a high fashion exhibition, therefore a chic affair, yet when Vivienne Westwood established Sex in King's Road with Malcolm McLaren she was hardly considered a high-end designer.Of course I understand the importance of punk in the history of fashion and its enduring influence (and actually studied it quite a bit at Central Saint Martins with the amazing Peter Towse, who witnessed the punk years firsthand), but I think studded Burberry trench coats or Versace dresses decorated with gold safety pins are purely anecdotic. Also, as someone very cleverly pointed out to me, original punk clothes were meant to be worn. The rest of the clothes in the exhibition (all the numbers by Galliano or Margiela or Slimane) were conceived for the catwalk and for editorial purposes. They were not lived in. And what is fascinating about punk (at least for me) is that it's all about stories, about how people lived and about the spontaneous narrative of their styles.

Joey Ramone and Debbie Harry, king and queen of cool. 

Dee Dee Ramone being cute. Also, check out Joey in the background being a total style god.

I definitely understand how challenging it must have been for Andrew Bolton to conceive and put together the exhibit from a 100% fashion point of view. Maybe it should have been about more than just fashion (but would it have its place in the Met then?). It is doubtessly a privilege to be able to see original Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett T-shirts (some of them had not been seen in years), but from what I've seen the exhibition feels kind of lifeless.And punk was all about energy! Someone (I don't remember who) was defending the retrospective on Twitter stating in an outraged way that "of course it is about the clothes! What other outlet did the punks have to express themselves? Just music". "Just music"? For a start, I don't think music was secondary to style for most punks. And I do think they had other outlets: they spat, they provoked, they hung out together. Okay, they did not focus on creating beautiful sculptures or brainy avant-garde films. And why? Because punk was not about those things! If it is called "punk" it's because it's all about being a punk. 

CBGB's was an art form in itself.

DOA had the right attitude.

One of the anecdotes that depressed me most about the Met Ball was the one about the punkish-looking boys and girls who were "hired" to stand on the stairs and give the grandiose Met a bit of a subversive feeling to counteract all the (hideous) satin ball gowns. Anna Wintour told one of the boys "you look very handsome", to which he politely responded "uh... thank you. You look beautiful too". I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person in the planet (designers of the world, I'm looking at you) who would have loved to see a real punk adress Ms Wintour in a typically punk manner. But as the great Grace Coddington said, "I don't think real punks have been invited". 

This is what I mean by punk behaviour. You have to adore Johnny Rotten being all impretinent yet repentant like a school kid when he says the word "shit".

So was the whole thing a complete failure? Actually I don't think so. It was openly commercial and shamelessly anti-punk, and it has gotten me and countless others exceedingly upset upon noticing how full of utter crap our society is. But it also got many people thinking about the true essence of punk, and discussing it - in a very 21st century way - through social networks. As a matter of fact, ever since monday night all I see on my Facebook and Twitter feeds are really interesting discussions about the importance of the punk movement, what it stood for and why we have to still be punks at heart. You gotta hand it to the Met Ball's glamourous clique: by making us violently react to them, they have brought true punk back in fashion.