---------- Art review ----------
"An Historical Anecdote About Fashion," by Josiah McElheny, at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 41st Street, Seattle, through May 30. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays until 8 p.m. Info: 206-543-2280.
Josiah McElheny is fascinated by historical context, the meaning of objects, and the mysterious way that ideas about aesthetics ripple through cultures.
Trained as a glass blower, but operating more as a conceptual artist with a deep romantic streak, McElheny in the past has used his exquisite craftsmanship to make glass objects such as plates and beakers that he then presents in vitrines as though in a museum. Frequently he writes his own museum-style labels and wall texts for his installations, a gambit that further stretches the notion of fact vs. fiction.
Now McElheny has created a charming bonbon of a show at the Henry Art Gallery based on historical fact but embroidered with many threads pulled from his own imagination. "An Historical Anecdote About Fashion" is a show of nonutilitarian glass objects made by McElheny, and costumes and textiles drawn from the Henry's permanent collection of costumes and textiles. Though it is one of the museum's largest and most comprehensive collections, the textiles collection rarely is exhibited.
The historical basis for this sweet, small, ephemeral show comes from the world of decorative glass. For much of the past 500 years the world's most admired glass wine goblets, chandeliers, plates and decorative bibelots have come from the famous glass factories of Murano, an island off Venice. The most famous of all these is the Venini factory, long run by the Venini family.
What is also true is that in the late '40s, the head of the Venini family was married to a glamorous French woman with a glamorous name, Ginette Gagnous Venini. When Parisian designer Christian Dior came out with the "New Look" in 1947, Signora Venini embraced the radical look, and could be seen wearing her Dior dresses and hats when she visited her husband at the factory.
Dior's "New Look" was a scandal in the fashion world because it was a complete come-about from the more tailored, masculine, fabric-saving fashions of the war years. Dior's silhouette meant pinched wasp waists, voluminous full skirts sometimes over padded hips, and exaggerated high, pointed breasts. It was intensely sexual for the period, and was admonished by its critics for inciting undue desire in men.
In one of the quirkier footnotes of cultural history, Dior's "New Look" influenced glass blowing, briefly, during the early '50s in the Venini factory. Because the working-class glass blowers saw Signora Venini parading up and down to her husband's office day after day dressed in her haute couture Dior frocks, the men ended up making table-top glass decorative objects in the extreme hourglass shapes of her dresses. This also is fact. The pieces were entered in the 1952 Venice Biennial and are well-documented.
Embellishing on that plot, McElheny has created 11 of his own glass vessels. Even if you didn't know they are based on Dior's radical silhouette, they are all about the '50s with their wide bottoms and tiny necks. None is as literal as to be a human figure, but the forms suggest the figure of a fashionable '50s woman, a time when it was still desirable to have ample hips and soft shoulders. (So fascinated is McElheny by the design of the period that he even patterned the vitrine that houses these 11 glass objects after the Italian vitrines used by the Veninis at the time. They might be described as sleek, pre-space age modern.)
A half-dozen or so women's dresses from the Henry's collection are positioned throughout the exhibition. And though all are lovely and historically interesting, only one, a romantic white silk organdy lawn dress, is a Dior. Several others are from the period. An elegant brown silk Norman Norell cocktail dress from 1947 - owned and worn by actress Lauren Bacall - also is a good example of the postwar silhouette.
A few other pieces of apparel in the show are fascinating - such as one of Elsa Schiaparelli's famous trompe-l'oeil sweaters from 1929 - even though they have nothing to do with the "New Look." Schiaparelli was famous for her interest in surrealism, which came out in her apparel designs, and McElheny presumably chose to exhibit her clothes as a way to demonstrate other links between fashion and art.
McElheny is an endearingly unaffected speaker, and at the opening for his show a while back he said he hoped the installation would spark thoughts about class, sex and gender, along with ideas about the relationship between art and design. These are tall ambitions for such a modest show. But anyone with an interest in fashion or the history of Italian decorative glass will find this exhibition delightful, even if it does have a few loose ends.