It might seem strange that J and I would hop a train to New York City with the sole intention of viewing Greg Lauren‘s latest art show, Alteration: after all, the show features an entire wardrobe of clothing fashioned from paper, and I’m not much of a fashionista. But as a writer, I love the touch of paper, and as a photographer, I love the look of mannequins…and while I might not dress fashionably, who doesn’t enjoy looking at clothes?
When J first explained to me the premise behind Greg’s show, I didn’t envision how realistic the pieces would actually be. When I heard the description “clothes made of paper,” I imagined the two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts I played with as a child, or perhaps a display of origami-like shapes that merely approximated the size and shape of clothes. I wasn’t expecting to see actual pieces of clothing sewn from paper instead of fabric and complete with buttons, zippers, and buckles, nor was I expecting to see these pieces being “worn” by mannequins and hung on clothes hangers just like the real thing.
My first impression of Alteration, in other words, was like my first impression of the famous glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. When I went to see the glass flowers, I was expecting pretty little baubles that were vaguely reminiscent of actual flowers: an approximation of the thing rather than the thing itself. What I actually saw at the Harvard Museum, though, were botanical specimens that looked so realistic, I had to repeatedly remind myself that they were made from glass.
Walking into Alteration offers a similar kind of mind-trick. The bright and airy exhibit space looks more like a store than a gallery, with well-dressed mannequins displayed in expansive windows and racks of clothing along several walls. When J directed us into the gallery, in fact, I thought we had the wrong address, and apparently we weren’t the first to make a similar mistake: many unsuspecting “shoppers” stroll into the gallery thinking it is an actual store and have to be told the goods on display are works on paper, not an actual clothing line intended to be worn.
As a painter, Greg has worked on paper before: his previous work includes meditations on the nature of superheroes and the iconography of wedding dresses. In this previous work, Greg has hinted toward the “paper thin” nature of costume and design: can merely donning a cape or dressing in a princess gown transform an ordinary person into someone extraordinary? If “clothes make the man,” can we mold our own identities merely by changing outfits?
In Alteration, Greg revisits these themes in a three-dimensional medium, as if the clothes from his earlier portraits have sprung from the containment of their painted canvases. In the corner workspace where Greg displays the sewing machine, paper sketches, and rough mock-ups he used in creating his pieces, he also displays a larger-than-life canvas of Cary Grant, a portrait in which Grant’s headless torso is clad in a suit whose wrinkles rumple beyond the confines of two dimensional space. In viewing this painting alongside his more recent projects, you realize how Greg’s work is all of a piece, the move from paintings of clothing to the construction of actual clothing being a natural next step.
Media reviews of Alteration inevitably mention that Greg Lauren is an heir to fashion royalty, as if having a famous uncle is explanation enough for Greg’s artistic interests and aspirations. Although it’s true that Greg was steeped from childhood in the fashion rhetoric of male icons such as Cary Grant and John F. Kennedy, ultimately we each choose our own style, identity, and image. Clothes may make the man, but at a certain point, each man dresses himself.
Viewing the wide range of sartorial styles included in Alteration–suit jackets, coats, dress shirts, and even a straitjacket–it’s apparent how many choices we have when it comes to crafting our own identities, even if image is ultimately paper-thin. In addition to the paper clothing that constitutes most of Greg’s show, also featured are one-of-a-kind cloth jackets he fashioned in a range of styles from a ragtag assortment of materials. One suit-coat, for instance, sports scraps from a Superman comic book, and another is stitched with mementos from a trip to Paris, including candy wrappers, Euros, and a page from Greg’s journal sewn into the lining. These pieces from Greg’s own wardrobe (SoHo’s largest walk-in closet!) point to the ways our clothes, like our cars, can be an expression of our deeper selves, at least after we’ve worn them long enough that they become suited to the shape of our character.
Clothing can be a cookie-cutter expression of our desire to conform, or it can be an expression of our one-of-kind selves…but only if we are brave enough to bare not just our hearts but also our thoughts on our sleeves. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau critiques the conformist nature of fashion, complaining about a tailor in town who refuses to alter a garment to Thoreau’s specifications because “They do not make them so now.” Is fashion so tight a straitjacket that we all must fit ourselves to the expectations of “They”?
Thoreau responds to his tailor with characteristic tartness: “It is true, they did not make them so recently, but they do now.” Whether Thoreau was a fashion maverick or simply a clueless curmudgeon, he begins Walden with a metaphoric nod to the human tendency to copy the style (and lifestyles) of others when he admonishes readers to “accept such portions” of his philosophy “as apply to them,” trusting that “none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.” Neither life nor lifestyle is one size fits all.
Both fashion and identity may be paper-thin; as Thoreau suggests, “We don garment after garment, as if we grew like exogenous plants by addition without.” But isn’t it possible, as these paper garments suggest, for our outer style to reflect our inner style, growing outward from within so a bold and independent-minded man might make his clothes just as surely as his clothes make him?
There are, after all, plenty of worthwhile things in life that are but paper-thin: money is merely ink on paper, and so is poetry, and neither Thoreau’s words nor my own are printed on anything more substantial. If we have neither a personality nor a mind of our own, our clothes hang limp and empty as if on coat racks; if we have both a mind and a style of our own, we fill our suits with an undeniable substance that enlivens their style.
After looking at so many mannequins decked in so many paper duds, J finally asked the inevitable question: would it be possible for us to touch the “fabric” we’d been admiring, politely, with our eyes alone? Near a cluttered workspace where a sewing machine sits surrounded by a motley assortment of art supplies, we’d examined a wall tacked with scribbles and scraps, a kind of vertical journal with sketches, notes, magazine clippings, and an occasional collar or cuff: the usual junk. One of the items pinned to this wall was a paper sleeve, and whether it was a prototype for a future work or a reject from previous one wasn’t entirely clear. With permission, first J then I gingerly touched its crinkled surface, as if to reassure ourselves that it was indeed paper, and not cloth masquerading as such.
We found it to be substantial stuff, with the fibrous durability of vellum and the satin sheen of rice paper. Even something as thin as paper can be tough and enduring, assuming a wide variety of shapes and textures while remaining true to its essential self.
Click here for my complete photo-set of images from Greg Lauren’s Alteration, which is on view in SoHo through November 1st.
New York Magazine produced a short video in which Greg highlights several pieces from the show, which you can view here (after a short commercial). Enjoy!