CHILDS GALLERY TAKES AN UNCONVENTIONAL LOOK AT CLOTHING AND COSTUME IN ART THROUGHOUT THE CENTURIES WITH CONTEMPORARY ART CURATOR WILLIAM STOVER.
Artists are far more fashion-conscious than one might suppose. Their portrayal of costumes speaks volumes about a subject's power and status - or lack thereof - as well as communicating character, satire, identity, gender and desirability.
In his first exhibition since leaving Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, curator William Stover explores these themes in an intriguing show that juxtaposes significant period works from the 16th-20th centuries with selections by innovative contemporary artists.
"How we choose to present ourselves is fascinating," says Stover. "We really do judge a book by its cover. And artists throughout history have played off of that, such as the image of Napoleon as a Roman Emperor with laurel a wreath on his head, which I found in the gallery’s inventory."
But how much more interesting is the significance of costume choices when we know next-to-nothing about the subject? It often raises more questions than it answers.
Consider Frank Hill Smith's Gondoliers, Venice (1873), a painting once owned by Isabella Stewart Gardner. "It's a romanticized, almost courtly figure that certainly doesn't look like any gondolier you've ever seen," says Stover. "And he's as well dressed as his cosseted passenger. What's going on here? While you're first attracted to the beautiful colors of the sunset, the clothes make you want to spend more time with this painting."
It's no wonder it appealed to the provocative Mrs. Gardner.
Similar issues of costume and identity appear in photos from the contemporary performance artists and sisters, Triiibe. In Compatibility Quiz (2009), the attractive triplets are shown standing side by side at a bar. But their outfits range from conservative office to sexpot and bohemian styles, making them appear worlds apart.
Gender issues surface in The Dandy (1884), by the highly regarded 19th century Boston cabinet painter Ignaz Gaugengigl.
"The clothes clearly made the man," says Stover of the meticulously rendered portrait of a wealthy Colonial gentleman posing in splendid frock coat, form-fitting vest, and satin knickers. "He's foppish, but there are also hidden meanings in his stance and expression. And it's interesting that this 19th century work is painted in the style of the 18th century."
Less subtle is Hannah Barrett's 2006 series, The Secret Society, featuring satirical historic portraits based on 19th century photographs. The depiction of formal period dress and demeanor mixes distinctly male and female characteristics in amusingly gender-challenged figures.
"Art is a conversation between centuries," says Richard Baiano, President of Childs Gallery. "We thought it was an interesting proposition for artists in this town who've only shown at contemporary art galleries to be seen in a venue that does a mix from the 16th century to modern times."
Inviting a guest curator was a first for Childs in its 70-plus years. "The challenge of being a generalist gallery is that we do a little of everything," says Baiano. "It's exciting to have a fresh pair of eyes look at our inventory to see what themes jump out."
"Doing a show like this is much closer to what you do at a museum than a typical gallery," says Stover. "You have these great things from different periods and cultures for inspiration. Then it's how can I show this piece and build around it with contemporary art?"
Also on view from Childs' inventory is the magnificently outfitted The Great Standard Bearer (1587) by the superb 16th century engraver Hendrick Goltzius, an 18th century portrait of the grandly dressed Colonel John Cox by Charles Willson Peale (who actually served as captain under Cox in the Revolutionary War,) and the captivating Dancing Girl (1881) by William Merritt Chase. It was painted the same time as John Singer Sargent's famous Spanish Dancer, with both artists using exotic costuming to reference their admiration for Velasquez and impressive experience as world travelers.
Contemporary artists in the exhibit also include Ria Brodell, Caleb Cole, Cobi Moules, David Ording and Suara Welitoff. Through a variety of medium and genre styles, these artists use costume to challenge concepts of aging, societal roles, and gender issues.
Baiano thinks Childs' clientele will enjoy the mix of generations among the artists shown in this exhibit. "Everyone who buys older significant art from us, also buys contemporary," he says.
"Art historians look at work for whether it stands the test of time," adds Stover. "The conversation between then and now is what I find most interesting."