Thursday, August 18, 2005

CSI : High Fashion

Anyone from Los Angeles?

Introducing "High Fashion Crime Scenes", Maggie Pullen's current "extra-large" exhibition which is open at the Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills from June through August 20, 2005. (2 days left!!)

The show is testament to the notion that interesting things can really happen when you marry big space with big business, big bucks and a woman with a big, strange idea.

Melanie Pullen set out to research and gather vintage murder and other tragic death scenes at the Los Angeles Police Department and the County Coroner's Office. With much attention to detail, real scene settings were pieced together into composite backgrounds where models and actors were posed as the victims. More unusual, and the proverbial hook, is that all the players are dressed in high fashion clothes and jewelry.

Designer brands like Boudicca, Bulgari, Gucci, Chanel and Westwood are but a few names that grace the victims bodies. More elaborate scenes required large crews to prepare and execute.

Even before addressing the subject of the show, the super-size scale and number of photographic images will grab your attention; many prints are at least 7' in one direction, the poster is 7' x 8'. The photography is mostly sharp focus, hi-res with post production adjustments to increase color, contrast or atmosphere. Several photos did seem a bit soft and/or overly grainy but, by and large, they all achieve their visual goals.

Manner of death criteria is varied. Some victims are hanging by the neck from ropes, some dangle partially in the frame from an off-camera device. In the largest gallery room there are 2 different drownings, 1 gun shot victim in a car, 3 hangings, 3 different bodies lying in subway stations and 2 bodies on piers. Other rooms reveal more methods of death; slashed throats, severed heads, electrocution, bludgeoning, and a fall down a stairway shaft, among others. All victims are beautifully dressed and shod.

Overall, the impression is far from shocking, considering the subject.

There is little, if anything even remotely sad. Drowned subjects underwater come closest to evoking an emotional response. The clothes and shoes do stand out but, unless you find meaning in clothes, they are merely accents.

The photographer's intent is to "comment on society's glamourization of violent acts and crimes by literally re-dressing what are deeply disturbing events." In the re-dressing, and re-staging one aspect seems to cancel out the other. The photos are neutral, dead, as it were, basically about nothing that induces feelings for the subjects. Fashion photography is often like that but this is an art exhibition.

So where is the significance? It is in the dialogue. I have never been to an opening where more people skipped the usual schmoozing to talk to each other and to strangers about what they saw in the photos and what they thought. The reasons for this are not clear but the results were dramatic.

We do witness the after-images and descriptions of real violence everyday in the news, on TV, in magazines. The worst of it is described to us in words, not graphically depicted. It could be that Melanie Pullen's photos, in their fakery and extravagance, jump the brain pathway to imagery and go directly to the language zone. Whatever the explanation, it is a show worth experiencing.

A major exhibition so early in an artist's career is unusual but Melanie Pullen had the ideas and resources to pull it off. It will be interesting to see what the photographer does next.

Institute Of Contemporary Art
9430 Wilshire Boulevard
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Saturday
10:00 AM to 6:00 PM
T: 310.858.9090 F: 310.858.9091


Meanwhile, for those who are geographically immobile and are short of time, check out their online gallery. My favourite piece? Dorothy in her red shoes (above right).