Thursday, March 6, 2008

Written on the Body, of the Body

The New Yorker’s recent style issue (March 19, 2008) presents a dramatic cover: a head-and-shoulders illustration of an Asian-inspired woman with the tendrils from her floral dress creeping up her neck and cheeks, becoming one with the blossoms in her hair.

This inscription on the body reminds me of the film Bee Season: as Eliza considers how to spell “dandelion,” tiny flowers sprout from her neckline and shape themselves into the letters of that word.

But I’m also reminded of Nordstrom’s recent advertising campaign (as found in the March 2008 edition of Vanity Fair).

In this eight-page spread, the artist Ruben Toledo (who, incidentally, is profiled with his designer wife Isabel in the above-noted New Yorker) paints black-and-white images both directly on a model’s body as well as on the set to stage the clothes.

The opening image, a head-and-shoulders shot, depicts a woman in whiteface with black birds (ravens? crows?) flying on her face, framing her eyes and lips, while other black birds and lushly petaled flowers adorn her neck and shoulders.

On the ensuing pages, Toledo paints in black on the white walls and floor: more black birds that look like they are hovering (like hummingbirds?) or ready to attack, á la Hitchcock. (And on these pages the model’s hair resembles a bird’s nest.)

But there are also images of water—drops of rain landing in puddles; a ship being tossed by angry waves. It’s these images that recall another artist who works in a similar medium: Kara Walker, the young African American woman who has reimagined the way we think of silhouettes.

I saw Walker’s show “After the Deluge” (2006) at the Met, which invokes both the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as well as the injustices committed against slaves in the nineteenth century—from their journey across the Middle Passage to their lives in bondage. Walker uses the silhouette form—enormous black images that she cuts out and applies to the wall—to tell the story of unspeakable hardships through a beautifully poetic medium. It’s this contradiction that works so well—Walker’s art is stunning; its content cruel.

It’s curious and not a little disturbing that Toledo seems to be culling from Walker’s work here—both thematically and in terms of medium. To pay homage to an artist is hardly forbidden, but to celebrate white models in glamorous dresses in the context of an African American artist’s statement against white oppression of black women and men gives me pause.


enc said...

That does leave a bad taste in one's mouth, doesn't it?

I'm waiting for my copy of that issue of the NYer to arrive, the mails must be slow.

riz said...

Ok - now I am officially head over heels for your blog!

I cannot tell you how much I enjoy K. Walker's work! I have seen about 3 shows of her work, and I helped work on the Narratives of a Negress book about her work (MIT Press)

I think your connnection between Toledo and Walker is fascinating. It has me thinking about the power of silhouetting more generally!

miss cavendish said...

Riz--Thank you so much for your generous comment! I'm flattered.

I love Kara Walker's work and it will be part of my next (scholarly) article. I'm going to check out the book you mentioned.