October 2009


Dapper

Technically, this ghoulish fellow (one of an entire tree of dangling ghosts, skeletons, and beasties that appears in a neighbor’s yard this time every year) is well dressed, not well groomed. But semantics aside, you have to admit he’s a delightfully dapper dude.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Well Groomed. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Buckle

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?

Trench

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.

Window shopping

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?

Mixed media

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.

Off the rack

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.

Buckled

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.

Tuxedos

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.

Vertical journal

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!

Stacked

Leave it to a parking lot in SoHo to figure out the best way to pack as many cars (and graffiti) into a small space as possible.

Packed

J and I took a whirlwind day-trip to Manhattan on Saturday, arriving by train at Penn Station just in time to walk to SoHo, check out Greg Lauren‘s latest art show, grab lunch in Little Italy, and then walk back for our return train. Although we were in Manhattan for only about five intermittently rainy hours, we each took hundreds of pictures, New York being the kind of place where you can completely submerge yourself in sensory stimulation. Even in five hours–only about 300 New York minutes–you can absorb a month’s worth of color, movement, and shape: sights to savor on a quiet day.

I’ll have more photos to share, along with impressions of Greg Lauren’s show, later in the week. In the meantime, I have several stacks of papers (and the usual schedule of classes) between me and a Tuesday night grading deadline. I’ll see you on the other side, after I’ve (metaphorically) unpacked.

Leaf and sky

Every year, I worry that I’ll miss the so-called “peak” fall foliage season. If you travel to (or even within) New England to leaf-peep in the autumn, you presumably don’t want to waste your time looking at anything but the best colors, so there are handy maps to help you determine which places offer the best leaf-peeping bang for your travel buck.

Leaf and shadow

If you live and don’t travel much within New England, you don’t chart your leaf-peeping by maps. Instead, you see whatever you stumble upon, particularly if October is your busy season and you don’t have time to drive to picturesque spots offering the best autumnal money-shots. Last year I struggled to find a handful of appropriate images for the Photo Friday theme “Autumn,” and this year, I find myself facing the same sort of insecurity. Given the challenge of picking one picture that says “Autumn,” how can any one image live up to the hype?

Driveby

If you think that fall foliage has a “peak,” then you have a problem. What if you stumble upon, breathless, a particularly lovely autumnal scene, only to learn later that this vision of loveliness was merely mediocre? As soon as you think “peak,” you introduce the possibility of disappointment, for anything less than the height of perfection is second-best. Wouldn’t it be better to hold off in your peeping until you were quite sure autumn herself was peaking? And yet by waiting, wouldn’t you run the risk of missing that precise moment of visual perfection you were holding out for?

Green veins

I say to hell with peak foliage: I for one don’t have the time to wait around for it. While others are planning their fall-foliage tours against maps and weather forecasts, every day I just walk the dog. The pictures illustrating today’s post come from a dozen photos I snapped on Wednesday morning’s dog-walk; if you don’t like these, I have others. On any given day, the sights we see might be below average, prime, or merely mediocre, but they are, after all, all we’ve got. Whether or not this moment, this picture, this red-flaming leaf is Peak or not isn’t my matter to decide. Instead of waiting for the One Perfect Moment that captures Autumn 2009 in quintessential perfection, I’ll continue taking and sharing whatever images I can gather.

This is my contribution for today’s Photo Friday theme, Autumn 2009.

Last night's snow, melted

This is what last night’s soggy snow looked like this morning: melted and awash.

Late bloomers

It’s not unusual for New Hampshire to get its first snowfall in October–one year, we had a major snowstorm the first weekend of the month–but in Boston, October snows are rare. So after having enjoyed a dry New England Revolution soccer game–our last of the season–in Foxboro, MA on Saturday night, it was downright surreal for J and me to watch Sunday’s snowy Patriots game on TV at home with friends. There on the screen was the same stadium we’d sat in less than 24 hours before…but the dry field the Revs had enjoyed on Saturday night had been replaced by a slushy, snow-covered surface for the Pats on Sunday.

Saturday’s Revs game was a scoreless tie, and Sunday’s Pats game was a 59-0 rout. Win, lose, or tie, it all ultimately comes out in the wash, just like the morning-after melt-water from the season’s first snow.

Click here for a photo set from Saturday night’s New England Revolution game: the last home game of the 2009 regular season. Enjoy!

Frosted

The devil isn’t the only thing in the details; in fact, I’d argue that everything dwells there.

Frosted

One of the things I love about frost season is the way a morning coat of crystal transforms even the most mundane things into jewel-bedecked lovelies. Rain dampens and darkens the things it falls upon, and snow covers them. But only frost outlines the objects it touches, etching them with a fine white border that makes even an ordinary shrub look lacy.

A hard overnight frost makes litter look like fine crystal, a fallen leaf look like a jeweled ornament, and a castoff sofa look like a venerable antique. Finely divided leaves look particularly detailed when frosted, and furry mullein leaves look even furrier. Frost, in other words, doesn’t add anything alien to the objects it covers; instead, it highlights an object’s essential outline.

Yesterday morning, I tweeted the sight of the diamond-glittering fallen leaves that sparkled in my flashlight beam when I took Reggie on a predawn walk. The night before, those leaves were simply litter, but with a touch of Jack Frost’s magic brush, they gleamed like gems underfoot. A layer of frost worked wonders simply by encouraging me to look again, and deeply, at the details of something I had previously trod upon.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, …is in the details.

Asters with concrete blocks

In the months after my divorce, a longtime friend I see only occasionally gave me a precious gift. At a gathering of friends who had learned only recently of my separation, M approached me apart from the others, looked me straight in the eyes, and asked, “So, how are you doing…really?”

Golden

It was an insightful question, borne from M’s long familiarity with the manner in which I’ll always put a bright face on any kind of hardship. Not swayed for a minute by my blithe insistence in public that I was doing fine, M wanted to know for sure, when there weren’t other folks around–when just the two of us could check-in, friend-to-friend, and when I didn’t have to maintain a Public Face–how was I doing, really?

Fortunately in that case, my public face matched my private one: I was doing fine in the months after my divorce, and I continue to do fine in the intervening years, since M has moved away so I see him even less frequently now than I did then. But M’s question has remained, like a koan, for me to contemplate, turning it over in my mind like a well-worn stone. “So, how am I doing…really?”

Grounded

It’s a question, I’m coming to realize, that I revisit every morning in my journal. After I’ve scribbled about a page and a half about my to-do list, the weather, or whatever I did yesterday–after I’ve scribbled, in other words, about the superficial logistics of daily life–I find my writing typically shifts and settles, hunkering down and around this one question like a dog curled around a juicy bone. “So, how am I doing…really?” Apart from the mundane Must’s of today’s to-do list, what else is going on? Apart from the frenetic activity of work, chores, and social interaction, how are things when I’m not doing anything?

Concrete blocks

During the decade I devoted to pursuing my PhD, my life had very little room for contemplation. One of the most personally troubling things about that long slog was the sense that my dissertation–this big, unwieldy project–somehow had taken over my identity. Whenever I’d run into a friend, family member, or acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a long time, or whenever I met someone new and mentioned that I was a graduate student, I dreaded the inevitable question: “So, how is the dissertation coming?” When you’re in the middle of a decade-long slog toward a goal that seems distant and elusive, the last thing you want is to have to explain, again, that you’re still not done. During those dark days when the end seemed nowhere in sight, another long-time friend, himself in possession of not one but two PhDs, once greeted me with words that were sweeter than honey: “I don’t care how your dissertation is: how are you?”

It’s easy to define ourselves–or to let the rest of the world define us–in terms of what we do: how is our job, how bright and well-behaved are our children, how impressive are our accomplishments, or how big is our investment portfolio. But how am I, really? When you strip away the things I do, the things I own, or the obligations I am beholden to, who or what am I?

C(h)aotic goldenrods

Each morning, my journal offers a place where I can contemplate this question, in a place where there’s no need for me to keep a bright public face. In the rest of my life, I check countless other things: as a teacher, for instance, I’m always checking my students’ work, or checking the syllabus to keep us on-topic, or checking the clock to keep track of class time. If I don’t check these things, after all, who will? But when it comes to the question of how I’m doing, really, nobody will check that for me, either. If I’m allowing myself to get swept up in daily details, who’s to keep me from being swept away entirely?

Sometimes we each have to serve as our own best friend. Even if you have a friend like M to inquire about your genuine wellbeing, it helps to check in with yourself every now and again just to make sure everything’s okay, really.

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