The Body Made Strange: Gerwyn Davies’ Beast | Essay by Dr Nadia Buick 2013.
Gerwyn Davies is an emerging artist whose practice straddles fine art and commercial photography. His work is a playful mix and match of art, craft and design approaches, with costume making forming a foundational element of his process. In his most recent series, Beast, Davies has created a suite of self-portraits that seem to hint at future directions for his practice, while also distilling a number of the themes he has explored in previous work; including the construction of identity, the strangeness of the body, fashion as an embodied practice, and a preoccupation with materiality.
Davies practice emphasises highly staged environments in which a central figure is often the main focus. Through excessive and frequently over-the-top costuming—recalling artists such as Nick Cave and figures like Leigh Bowery—these bodies become obfuscated behind the construction of a set, adornments and highly unusual garments, and the mediation of the camera lens. The resulting works are framed and polished snapshots that only reveal a portion of the labour intensive processes that produced them. The materials that Davies chooses are not customary in fashion and costume design, and at times border on the absurd, strange, or the mundane made fantastic. They recall domestic or industrial spaces, salvaged lots, two-dollar stores, and an eye for excess. Items typically used for cleaning, or renovating, sit beside icons of camp and even toys or handicrafts that evoke childhood memories of play.
To date, Davies’ work can be characterised by his attention to the potentials of costume and dress to represent various identities through photography. I want to use this abiding interest as a way to briefly discuss the complex relationship between art and fashion, as well as the connection between fashion and identity.
The thorny subject of art and fashion seems never-endingly dissected by critics, curators, academics, designers and artists. A glance at the past of both of these disciplines reveals their long shared history of collaboration, mutual interest and co-existence (Troy, 2003). An easy example is the genuine curiosity that many early 20th century modernists showed in fashion, including the Surrealists and the Bauhaus, as just two instances. In a contemporary setting it seems that these practices have only continued and become more widespread between both disciplines (Arts & Calefato et al, 2010). However, art’s critical resistance to fashion, at least on paper, seems greater than ever.
While art sees itself as aligned with the lofty and serious concerns of the mind, fashion is associated with frivolity, consumption, and with the grounded and lowly pleasures of the body (Hanson, 1990; Potvin, 2012).
Fashion is also associated with the feminine, and its highly gendered status puts it at odds with fine art, which has been a male-dominated arena throughout history. Of course, men have succeeded in fashion as big-name designers, but they have typically been gay men producing clothing for consumption by upper-class women. It is worth remembering that this is only one aspect of the fashion industry, in the same way that expensive and luxurious art fairs are only one aspect of the art world. Despite this, it seems that the apparently negative—although not unique—connotations of gender, luxury and glamour inherent in the fashion industry also overshadow its significance as a cultural, social and personal form of expression. But rather than advocating that fashion be considered ‘on par’ with art, it is important to reject approaches that reinforce art’s so called ‘higher’ status. Instead, both should be able to co-exist as separate endeavours, and be free to take a healthy interest in the other without inciting clearly outmoded moralistic, or materialistic, panic.
Davies ability to move with seeming ease among this complicated ground suggests that this ‘healthy interest’ is indeed possible, and perhaps this is due to his engagement with portraiture and self-portraiture; genres in which the cross-over between art and fashion in Western art has been the most enduring (Hollander, 1993; Borzello & Chadwick, 2001; West, 2004; Buick, 2008). In these artistic realms, the potential for clothing to assist in the communication of identity in limitless ways is keenly revealed. The use of costume to play a certain role has many implications for the reading of an artwork. A portrait subject will, at very least, likely don their best clothing for the occasion, and thus project an image of social standing, wealth or at least something other than the ‘every day’. Alternatively, their choice of attire may be symbolic of a public persona, such as a uniform, or may even downplay their social or professional status for political reasons. Thus these choices indicate the potential of clothing to be used as a narrative and representational device that can be read.
Unsurprisingly, fashion historians frequently utilise portraiture as a means of dating costume prior to photography, again illustrating the relationship between art and fashion in this instance (Ribiero, 2000). Of course, art is never a true picture of reality, and nor is fashion, and these codes can be, and are, played with. Left to their own devices in self-portraiture, artists have used clothing in fascinating and subversive ways as a means to capture, or elude capturing, themselves. Thus, Davies’ progression towards becoming his own model in Beast is an interesting and loaded choice that speaks to the close bond between fashion and identity.
Many fashion theorists have explored the potential of fashion as a tool for self-expression (Wilson, 1985; Entwistle, 2000; Gonzalez & Bovone, 2012). Our clothing can present a particular public image that may simultaneously have intimate or personal significance. It can signal that we are part of a group, or that we want to reject simple categorisation. Clothing can be a uniform—à la the stereotypical all-black of the art world¬—but our choices are rarely, if ever, truly outside of fashion. And, when an artist is using themselves as their own model, the self-conscious mode of presentation may render clothing all the more fertile. It can also make clothing a liberating toy to be played with, so that ‘dressing up’ can become a process of layering meaning in to art, and a way to conceal or reveal, or entirely fabricate different identities.
The identities that Davies has created in Beast aren’t instantly recognisable. We are not dealing with ‘types’ or ‘tropes’ of identity in these works. Rather, the figures that have been created are almost sculptural forms that seem to have taken over Davies’ body. The process of creating these works involves layers of craft that are not immediately visible in the final works, although we can imagine how Davies might create his costumes; how the materials might feel against the body, or behave when attempting to transform them into a garment. Some are made directly on to a dress-form and then worn for the shoot, while others are crafted almost entirely onto his body in front of a mirror before the photograph is staged. This process in itself—the act of looking in the mirror and creating a ‘look’—is an integral part of constructing an identity with the tools provided by fashion and costume.
Occasionally we can glimpse a detail of Davies’ body that reminds us that these beasts are in fact human, and the contrast between a scrap of white flesh or body hair next to a plume of pink feathers makes the concealing/revealing process of costuming all the more apparent. In other works we see Davies’ tattooed arm contrasting with delicate and beautiful artificial flowers, and even his face makes an appearance, but the frozen child-like expression still seems part of a costume. Smaller details such as chewed fingernails tell us something about the artist hiding underneath, but may also fit neatly into the persona of the fabricated beast before us. But, who are these selves that Davies presents in Beast? Are they a self-conscious riff on multiple identities, or a considered romp through the dress-up box? I would argue, at very least, they are an elaborate and playful construction of both.
Dr Nadia Buick, 2013.
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