Monday, August 9, 2010

Vision To Visuals: Feed The Models!

By Baldev Duggal Published in The Business of Photography
The “Feed the Models!” project on display at the World Monuments Fund Gallery in New York City.
The “Feed the Models!” project on display at the World Monuments Fund Gallery in New York City.
I want to love models. I want to feed them and take care of them and make them better...
These opening lines from "Feed the Models!" a monologue performed on NPR's "All Things Considered" by artist Jane Gennaro, are the genesis of her solo exhibition that Duggal helped launch at the World Monuments Fund Gallery in New York City last month. Gennaro can't easily be labeled as an artist of a specific genre, with her versatility extending across disparate media as a performer, writer, sculptor, cartoonist, voice-over artist and an illustrator. It's consummate storytelling that unifies Gennaro's work across these different spheres, and it was the story behind her unique works that she hesitatingly brought into Duggal one day, which led me to offer Gennaro the full support of our creative and production team to help create the spectacular "Feed the Models!" exhibition.

"Feed the Models!" began with Gennaro's personal focus on femininity and presentation of the body form in media, leading her to question the phenomenon of extremely thin models in the fashion industry. Emotionally affected by seeing ever-increasing photographs of thinner and thinner models in magazines, Gennaro conceived of a unique art form to communicate her point of view on this phenomenon—she started using scissors like pens to cut out delicate figure shapes from the magazine pages on which the models were featured. The shapes she cuts are extremely thin, but mimic the shape of the model represented in the picture. These fluid silhouettes are cut with such precision that they start to look like a drawing resembling surreal human abstractions reminiscent of Paul Klee's or Dali's works.

Those of us who work intimately inside the fashion industry have become immune to the fragile human forms that personify our favorite fashion brands. It takes an artist like Gennaro to reflect back to us the truth—the tension that lies underneath the beautiful mirage of carefully doctored aesthetics and loss of self-identity. Dominique Nahas is an art critic who comments on Gennaro's work and puts it best when he says, "Her work pertains to the oscillating appetite of the American psyche that veers between repulsion and desire that culminates in the objectification of the female body."

Like many artists who, when they first walk into Duggal's retail store on 23rd Street in Manhattan, are both overwhelmed and intimidated by the choices available to them, Gennaro and her digital collaborator Lynne Lipton reconsidered their original intent to produce the show on small Giclée prints when they arrived at our store. In my first meeting with them, I spotted the unique interplay of art and technology in their work and convinced them to open their minds and allow us to challenge the conventional standards of size, materials and display techniques that they had intended.

The feminine themes and beauty in Gennaro's artworks struck a personal note with my senior art executive Marina Stark. Stark is an artist who dedicated herself to creating the perfect match of printing and mounting techniques to complement Gennaro and Lipton's works. Referring to this as a "magical collaboration," Gennaro and Lipton accepted our recommendations of printing on materials from us that were beyond their wildest imaginations. They were introduced to the new world of substrates at Duggal, which remove all limitations and restrictions that artists have experienced in the past. Our commitment is to empower artists with alternative choices of displaying their works on unexpected materials such as stone, bamboo, fabric, glass, mirrors, aluminum, brass and others.

Stark suggested printing some of the works on large metallic panels to complement the "reflection" and "mirroring" themes that run through Gennaro's works, and others on wood to lend an element of nature in the exhibit. Leading them through a two-month process of selecting the right images and testing the resolution at the largest size possible, we took their works from simple 11x17 prints to images as large as five feet on aluminum, wood and canvas, which were exhibited as fine-art prints floating elegantly off gallery walls. To communicate the contrast between the small cutouts Gennaro had started with and the larger-than-life reproductions on the wall, her original cutouts were framed in glass and exhibited as a series on an adjacent gallery wall. Some in the audience at the opening called the pieces "an act of love," others, "a celebration of life." In this age of digital generation and 3D graphics, it was incredible to see handmade cutouts from magazine pages transformed into such beautiful pieces of art.

On the opening night, as Gennaro welled up with emotion in gratitude for the spectacular exhibition, I, too, couldn't help but feel truly moved, for this had been a profound journey of trust for both of us. We believed in her work the moment Gennaro walked into the door, but knew that in order to do justice to the potential impact of their work, we would have to question the conventional methods they had in mind. By placing complete trust in us, Gennaro allowed us to help her create the most powerful statement she could make with her art.

A poignant moment at the opening was summed up in a photo of a 10-year-old girl, Adia Stark, gazing intently at one of the artworks. It was a moment that Gennaro had hoped to create—a child reflecting on a photograph that openly questions the absurd fashion paradigm of presenting seemingly anorexic women as being beautiful. Enabling such coalescence of profound meaning and beauty by supporting artists who actively comment on critical social and cultural aspects of our world is the true vision of Duggal and where our legacy lies over the past 45 years.

Gennaro generously acknowledged our work in the press release of her show through these words: "When my collaborator Lynne Lipton and I walked into Duggal we had no idea about what was possible. Each model has a personal story under the surface and we wanted to portray that. Seeing the models realized and dancing across unexpected surfaces on a large scale is a dream come true. Marina opened our eyes to a world of visual solutions and working with the family of artists and technicians at Duggal was just a joy. The response has been amazing."

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