McMichael’s Victoria Dickenson

A bra made from two dream-catchers and a raccoon jockstrap may never have surfaced on any Canadian runway yet—but if you’ve got a penchant for the ridiculous to the sublime in fashion, you’re going to love these outlandish accessories by Canadian artist Kent Monkman which are part of mesmerizing exhibit at Kleinburg’s McMichael Gallery. Entitled “Fashionality: Dress and Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art”, the innovative show features 84 mixed-media works from 23 artists who all have something to say about the whys and wherefores of fashion, and how clothing and sartorial accoutrements express aspects of both our personality and nationality. Brilliantly and playfully curated by Dr. Julia Pine, the imaginative exhibit also includes such oddities as a gargantuan lumberjack shirt and mammoth knitted wool socks by Guelph based artist Janet Morton; 365 days of hand-made clothing by Vancouver’s Natalie Purschwitz, which she wore and blogged about; and shoe boxes containing a dozen pair of colourful paper mache pumps by octogenarian BC artist Gathie Falk.

I visited the McMichael Gallery recently to take in this wondrous exhibit and spoke with the gallery’s executive director and CEO Dr. Victoria Dickenson, a great fashion enthusiast herself, about the lure of this unusual, style-inspired show.

Jeanne: There’s so many disparate media work here, it’s incredible to think of the eclecticism of this particular project and how difficult that must have been to really pull together.

Victoria: Part of the excitement of it to me is that there are so many ways in which artists can show dress. It’s not just painting, like the work of realist painters Barbara Pratt or Jane Eccles…. It’s sculpture, it’s this wonderful steel cutout by Barb Hunt, The Root Dress… What’s really exciting is they can even make dresses out of weeds! Nicole Dextras, who’s going to be one of our artists-in-residence this summer, actually makes weed robes!

J: I think what’s so interesting about it too is that you got some artists that are relatively unknown and some who are quiet established, so there’s a real mix.

V: Absolutely. Kent Monkman is very well known. I think a lot of people have seen his work. And his great headdress series which we have on display here at the McMichael is fabulous. But we also have less established artists, like Farheen Haq, who’s done a wonderful video installation, which depicts here as an iconic “Miss Canadiana”. We have about twenty-three artists in the show and they range right across this country, from coast to coast to coast, and there’s a great spread in age as well.

J: It’s a superb meeting of the minds for sure, and for those who really adore fashion and for those who really adore art, this is certainly a great common ground.

V: I love coming in here! I love to look at the dresses, but I love the way in which artists manipulate and change them because they’re not just giving you a dress they’re using that dress, particularly I look at Gathie Falk’s wedding robe in which she’s got this wonderful wedding veil made out of paper mache with two huge rocks on it, kind of anchoring it. Or weighing it down? Now, what is she saying there you know? (laughs) And it’s a joy to see the ways fabrics are used here too….like the hundreds of mini sweaters knitted by Michèle Karch-Ackerman, who lives in Buckhorn, and her team, commemorating the Canadian soldiers who fell in WWI and through them she’s saying she wants to be like Wendy from Peter Pan, and sooth all the Lost Boys. Then there are Newfoundland artist Barb Hunt’s myriad aprons—some new, that she made herself, some vintage. I remember my grandmother, for special occasions, wore a little organza apron. Barb is saying something about the way woman were part of the household domesticity…. but seeing hundreds of those aprons-

J: This apron display really reminded me of when we were kids in Home Ec class, having to make aprons as a project….

V: And can you imagine today, assigning a young girl to something like that? To say: I want you to make an apron because that’s what your life is going to be…. wearing an apron!

J: Although aprons they have become rather chic… Marc Jacobs has used the apron in some of his collections lately….

V: Yeah, but I think those old fashioned aprons were not about chic.

J: (laughs) What have you personally gleaned from this, being as passionate as you are about the world of fashion and of course the world of art?

V: For me, there’s such a wonderful esthetic experience. Often you see exhibitions which don’t strike the eye so much, and I think there’s something about fashion that’s meant to strike the eye in a particular way. Everything about this exhibition strikes the eye. It makes my heart sing when I walk through it, it’s so beautiful. And I think that beauty, and the textures, the materials, the colours, the shapes, all have a lot to do with the way we think about dress.