Works by 36 contemporary artists on display at the Katonah Arts Museum were made of or inspired by clothing.

Published: August 21, 2009 The New York Times

THE new summer exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art, “Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor,” contains the work of 36 contemporary artists who use clothing as material, inspiration or medium. The idea may sound gimmicky, but the show is provocative and compelling.Barbara J. Bloemink, the curator, has done a marvelous job of selecting first-rate works created since the early 1990s by important artists. This is no attention-getting stunt, but a serious examination of a surprisingly widespread trend in contemporary art; the show includes artists from half a dozen countries.

Ms. Bloemink, in an essay in the exhibition catalog, looked at both the historical and contemporary connections between clothing and art. Her focus, she noted, was on the work of artists who use clothing to draw attention to issues ranging from ethnicity and gender to homelessness.

As with many thematic exhibitions, works were borrowed from a variety of sources. Here, again, Ms. Bloemink has done an impressive job, assembling pieces from private and public collections all over the United States and, in a handful of cases, from abroad.

Some of the artists included in the exhibition are well known, including Louise Bourgeois, who is represented by “Pink Days and Blue Days” (1997), a sculpture on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art. It resembles a cross between a coat rack and a rotary clothesline, on which she has hung pink and blue items that she says signify conflicting emotions.

Other artists have lower profiles, but are nonetheless stalwarts on the international art circuit, among them Monica Giron, an Argentine who sprang to prominence in the mid-1990s. “Penguin Suit,” from her “Trousseau for a Conqueror” series (1993), for which she knitted protective clothing for endangered birds in Patagonia out of merino wool, is on display. The bodysuit and booties correspond to the size and shape of a penguin.

Latin American artists are particularly well represented. In addition to Ms. Giron, there is work by Maria Fernanda Cardoso, an installation and performance artist who emigrated from Colombia to Australia and is known for her flea circus performances. At Katonah, she is showing “Emu Flag + Cloak (Fluoro Orange)” (2006-2008), wearable costumes made of emu feathers that symbolize her identification with a new land; the emu is an Australian bird.

Similarly fragile exhibits include Sanford Biggers’s “Ghettobird Tunic” (2006), a full-length puffy jacket covered with the feathers of exotic birds, and Oliver Herring’s 1993 work “Untitled (Flowers for Ethyl Eichelberger),” a pair of shiny women’s jackets knitted out of transparent strips of Mylar as an homage to Mr. Eichelberger, a drag performer who died of AIDS in 1990. The craftsmanship of both these works is astonishing.

Many of the artists in the exhibition remake clothing using unexpected materials. Ray Beldner’s suit is made of United States currency sewn together; Sonya Clark’s bra and panties, of pennies; Kate Kretz’s coat, of velvet studded with nails, and, perhaps most spectacularly, Wang Jin’s traditional Chinese robe, of PVC plastic embroidered with fishing thread.

Not everything is handmade or new. Derick Melander’s “Where Do You Begin” (2003) is an immense floor-to-ceiling pillar made of carefully folded and stacked pieces of secondhand women’s clothing: Donald Judd meets the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. As layers accumulate, the clothes are compressed, creating a swirling, intensely colorful surface that can put you in mind of the trippy imagery seen in a kaleidoscope.

Clothing and accessories are also used as raw material for works by Jean Shin, who tore up men’s white oxford shirts to create abstract sculptures, and Luca Pizzaroni, who collected shirts from almost every country in the world and arranged them on a circular shopping rack accompanied by individual labels identifying the origin of each one. Nearby is a circular wall sculpture by Willie Cole made up of hundreds of pairs of used shoes, arranged according to color.

This show will appeal to visitors who enjoy both fashion and art, but that is only the beginning of its appeal. It is a celebration of creativity, in particular the way in which the cross-pollination of creative fields has resulted in artistic forms unimaginable just a few decades ago. Take for instance Yael Mer’s evacuation dress, a stylish garment that inflates to become a functioning kayak in case of flooding. It’s the perfect thing for our wet summer.

“Dress Codes: Clothing as Metaphor,” Katonah Museum of Art, Route 22 at Jay Street, through Oct. 4. Information: (914) 232-9555 or