Papa's Got A Brand New Bag

evolution/revolution at the RISD museum

by by Sophia Narrett

Evolution/Revolution, currently on view at the RISD museum, includes fake Chanel and Balenciaga bags of a different species than the Canal Street lovelies. Designer Mary Ping has created striking replicas of easily recognizable purses in natural cotton and linen as a sort of slogan for her line, Slow and Steady Wins the Race. But even as she jokes about conspicuous consumption in our culture, Mary Ping is no angry outsider. A respected designer of original as well as copycat pieces, she uses simple, accessible materials and keeps prices reasonable in an effort to bring democracy back to the tents Bryant Park. Mary Ping's work places her in a group of contemporary designers that attempt to refine the practices of a business they feel has become environmentally and socially wasteful--but not in a let's-throwred-paint kind of way. These artists attempt to contribute to the design industry on their own terms.

Evolution/Revolution considers the efforts of apparel and textile designers in the context of the Arts and Crafts movement centered in Britain in the late 19th century. The movement was an effort to re-instill meaning and beauty in functional objects by returning to handmade techniques in the age of mass production. Artists such as William Morris, who made botanically inspired fabric and wallpaper using vegetable dyes, were concerned with the preservation of nature and traditional handicrafts. The juxtaposition of Morris pieces such as Borage (1883) and Larkspur (1875) with contemporary fashion confronts the viewer with the similarities between the reformers of the Arts and Crafts movements and those of today.

The artists emphasize the importance of environmentally responsible production throughout the show. Christien Meindertsma attaches photos and information regarding the sheep whose wool she used to create each of the sweaters in her 2005 Dyckman Farmhouse Collection. The playfully tacky prize ribbons affixed to each piece avoid morbidity; Meindertsma simply wishes to foster a transparent process that encourages a greater appreciation for the source.

Similarly, Andrea Zittel of A-Z Smockshop foregrounds process with blatant seams that expose the construction of her pieces. A-Z employs practicing artists whose work does not yet generate income, and encourages clients to wear their smock every day of its season of purchase in an attempt to refine the consumer's role.

Meanwhile, RISD graduate Alyce Santoro considers recycling by using unraveled cassette tapes to create what she calls "sonic fabric" for Silent (dress) (2007) and Tell-Tail Thangkas (2004). Her work strives for more than sustainability; waving a tape head over the material actually generates sound. A patch of velvet on Silent (dress) and saucy orange circles on Tell-Tail Thangkas attempt to translate auditory contrasts into visual ones, bridging the gap between sensations.

Perhaps the most exciting piece in the exhibit is one of Carla Fernandez's two wool "waist-loom-woven, hand-felted" outfits, entitled Woman's Ensemble (Chamula blouse and skirt) (2008). The thick, hair-like texture of its black elements is the result of a two-month long process involving mud soaking by the women of an indigenous co-op in Chiapas, Mexico. The irony of the severe square open back and short, flouncy skirt in such an over-the-top texture is not lost in its conscious mode of production.
The exhibit is a clear endorsement of a natural, visible process that humanizes the production and consumption of functional goods. This agenda is as readily apparent as the ways of making the works; the show values instruction as much as inspiration. The highlights are the points when the conscious process does not preclude the aesthetic value of a piece.

Evolution/Revolution will be at the RISD museum until June 15.

SOPHIA NARRETT B'10 loves her cotton Dior bag.