Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rich and strange

The female bird of prey in "Savage Beauty."
The hottest ticket in New York right now is to a museum show - "Savage Beauty," the Met's tribute to bad-boy gay couturier Alexander McQueen.  Only there actually aren't any tickets to this particular show; you get in with the general museum admission.  The catch is that you have to run something like a two-hour gauntlet in line: the queue for the show snakes through nearly the entire second floor of the museum.

Which gives you plenty of time to peruse some of your favorite pieces from the Met's stunning European collection (so the wait ain't all bad).  But last Saturday, I simply didn't have two and a half hours to spend at the museum - I had to be in my seat at the Park Avenue Armory in less than two hours, in fact, to catch the RSC's Julius Caesar.  What to do?  Well, like a lot of people, I joined the Met then and there - which means I paid more for "Savage Beauty" than any other art exhibit I've ever seen; still, at only $70, it seemed like a bargain (I've paid more for worse shows!); and I got to skip the queue.

Of course one reason why people are waiting two and a half hours for "Savage Beauty" is that right now its subject couldn't be hotter - not only did his fashion house (now led by Sarah Burton) whip up Kate's gorgeous bridal gown, but his notorious "jellyfish" ensemble (shoes, below) appeared in a Lady Gaga video - plus, he's dead at an early age (McQueen hanged himself, after slashing his wrists, a week after his mother died; an autopsy found numerous controlled substances in his blood stream).

But the major reason people are lining up to ogle McQueen's oeuvre is that the show is simply ripping.  Done up by the Met in a kind of high-tech haunted house, it drips with vulpine glamour and perverse panache, largely because McQueen was a bratty master of a certain kind of aesthetic contradiction - he tailors horror-movie extravagances with a severity so exquisite it almost makes you bite your lip.  Thus his costumes (or wearable sculptures? you can't call them clothes) all but vibrate with a hypnotic yin-yang intensity: they're both orgiastic and utterly controlled; violent, almost vicious - yet coolly poised at the same time. That sense of contradiction extends from their structure to their "content," too - McQueen's designs for women relentlessly style them as beautiful gorgons who draw their power from having been violated (not for nothing did he name a collection "Highland Rape"). And that ruthless thematic opposition transforms his pieces into bold-type statements in our ongoing pop-cultural sex arcade.

Take the beautifully beaded bodice below - and the loosely ruched scarlet stole above it; in formal terms this "traditional" ensemble tells you almost all you need to know about McQueen's superb technique: it combines cruelty (that tightly cinched waist) and what the French call volupté (look at the thwarted drape of the stole - McQueen became a master of drape - and the sumptuous spread of the silk skirt) in nearly-perfect proportion.  The intense colors convey both virginity and its loss (via the bleeding streams of rubies) - and the muscularity of those bunched scarlet shoulders tells you the wearer of this particular dress draws her power from that loss (which you guess was probably a forced one).  Combine this coded message with the piece's fanciful, royalist hauteur, and you have a ravishingly ironic comment on the historic pinnacle of the fashion hierarchy - and what it costs to get there.

Horns are so in this year!

The kernel of erotic pain embedded in that plush design constitutes, in a nutshell, the sexual politics of "Savage Beauty" - McQueen transmutes the experience of sexual coercion into a source of vengeful emotional (and political) power; over and over again, he designs outfits for the Furies. If this strikes you as - well, potent but none too original, then I admit you're absolutely right. Thematically, McQueen is completely derivative; there's nothing in his work that would have looked out of place in a Madonna concert circa 1993; sometimes it seems all too easy to sum him up as Camille Paglia with a Singer. And frankly, even many of his structural tropes (horns, tails) are transparently borrowed from H. R. Giger (below left), or even Disney (an early McQueen avatar, at right).

A corset courtesy of H.R. Giger.
But what makes McQueen startling (and compelling) is the way he extends a familiar conceptual complex into a truly dizzying array of styles and materials - and pushes everything to a new level of intensity.  He ransacks traditions from the kimono to the Scottish tartan for his collections, and there seems to have been nothing in the natural world which he could not tailor into a superbly realized article of clothing.  In "Savage Beauty," antelope horns rub shoulders with clamshells, fresh flowers, duck feathers, and even worms - and all yield stunning pieces (the macabre feather ensemble below was a particular favorite of mine).

It must also be said, however, that while McQueen may roam the world for inspiration, he usually ends up in the same place: his kaleidoscope of materials too often serves something like tunnel vision.  And that vision can be summed up in a single word: pain.   McQueen relentlessly returns to the same old tropes of bondage and domination when the time comes to actually sew his clothes. There are shoes and accessories here that could qualify as implements of torture, and the heads of the manikins are often sealed in grotesque leather masks - a trick which simultaneously "decapitates" the body and transforms the head into a kind of phallus (the"skin" of the dummies is also bruised, and I discovered that in the catalogue, the "manikins" were actually live models encased in acrylic - similar encasements and restraints are a popular B&D pastime).

Engulfed and transformed by nature.
What's a bit dismaying about all this is not so much that McQueen was misogynist (a common feminist complaint against him) but rather that he seems to have used women as pawns in a very dated kind of psychological theatre.  Indeed, in terms of gay sexual politics, the bitchy McQueen - who had a famous sideline in buttock-revealing pants called "bumsters" - seems to have been outspoken but pathetically retro, and maybe even self-hating.  Certainly he seems to have taken Freud's silly equation of gay sex with the death wish completely (and maybe even literally) to heart.  And to be honest, a kind of hidden, self-pitying creepiness born of this internal complex slowly surfaces in the show, despite its wild variety; "Savage Beauty" is certainly thrilling, but it's also a little suffocating.

McQueen did have one other, deeper theme, however: time's relentless onslaught, and its transmutation of the beautiful into something rich and strange (the ultimate, and universal, form of bondage).  There are some works here that are overwhelmingly poignant, in which women are engulfed and transformed by the natural world, or swallowed by the sea.   And every now and then, as in the famous "jellyfish shoes" (above) from a collection called Plato's Atlantis, you do feel McQueen breaking free of his personal demons into a world of pure fantasy and invention.  The resulting follies may be weird, but they're also sublime, and absolutely unforgettable.  Looking at them, you're reminded again what a loss his untimely death truly was.  And you're also reminded that whatever else you may say about him, the boy could sew.


  1. Here's the secret they didn't tell you--you can become a member of the museum for free at the customer service desk and skip the line.

  2. Really? I know that admission is actually pay-what-you-can (rather than the posted $25!), but I've never heard that membership was free. But, I suppose it doesn't hurt to ask at the customer service desk!