Connecting the Threads: Amy Lamb and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

In Wonder of the Natural World

Molecular biologist-turned-photographer Amy Lamb (b. 1944) has always loved plants. She spent her childhood collecting and preserving flora, and built a successful career studying biological structures and their processes. Lamb now uses the camera to create striking large-scale portraits of fruits and flowers. She attributes her shift to photography to a desire to “communicate the beauty I was seeing [as a biologist] and the sense of wonder it was evoking.” Lamb’s imagery doesn’t just begin with the camera—she grows most of her subject matter in her own extensive garden and greenhouse.

A colorful portrait of a lush arrangement of flowers including poppies, peonies, roses, carnations, and more. Some flowers have small water drpolets on them and a butterfly and bee are perched on others. The image is a still life photograph, though it looks like a painting.

Amy Lamb, Vase of Flowers I, 1999 (printed 2011); pigment print, 35 x 35 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist and Steven Scott Gallery, Baltimore, in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © 1999 Amy Lamb, all rights reserved

In Vase of Flowers I (1999, printed 2011), currently on view at NMWA, Lamb’s lavish bouquet deliberately echoes flower paintings by artists such as Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750). Like Ruysch, Lamb portrays real flowers and insects, but the resulting composition is not “natural.” Lamb carefully balanced the flowers to achieve the illusion of an overflowing vase, although the pictured vase did not actually have the capacity to contain them all. She also used cold temperatures to ensure that the insects remained still long enough to be photographed. The lush, painterly result demonstrates Lamb’s extensive process along with her emphasis on color, texture, and imagination.

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For Rodarte, the garden is a reoccurring theme throughout their collections, from 2006 dresses with self-fabric floral appliqués to the recent Spring/Summer 2018 collection. In the Mulleavys’ work a garden is a symbol of a specific memory, touch, or scent. Laura says, “Nature inspires our choice of colors and the way that we build garments—with a layering of fabrics that reference growth patterns of flowers, and our use of textural materials reminiscent of the details found in nature.”

For the Spring/Summer 2017 collection, inspired by the poetic Spanish film El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) (1973), models were sent down the runway in yellow, white, and black-hued layers of ruffled lace and dotted tulle reminiscent of a honeycomb. Yet, a subject as seemingly serene as a flower garden has deeper implications; that same spring, the North American rusty patched bumblebee was added to the endangered species list for the first time.

Connecting the Threads: Amy Lamb and Rodarte

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

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Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

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Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

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Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

In the garden, the Mulleavys present a fully romanticized femininity, manipulating tiny seed pearls, caviar beads, floral appliqués, and lace nets into creations as delicate as flower petals. It is also the ideal setting for Rodarte to explore a wide color palette, from scarlet reds and brilliant yellows to soft pinks and airy whites. In the garden—with texture, meticulous planning, and imagination—Rodarte’s painterly sensibilities flourish.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Connecting the Threads: Lynda Benglis and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Material Metamorphosis 

Lynda Benglis's sculpture is a shining knot mounted on the wall made out of bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire that has been manipulated to appear light as a bow.

Lynda Benglis, Eridanus, 1984. Bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, wire, 58 x 48 x 27 in.; © Lynda Benglis; Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Lynda Benglis (b. 1941) has always been interested in the idea of transformation. She reinvented art forms as a pioneer creating sculptures out of paint, melted wax, and latex, thus blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture. She took on the rules of the art world with her infamous 1974 Artforum ad, which interrogated the lack of attention paid to work by women artists. And she “bedazzled Minimalism,” imbuing the staid, masculine genre with color and shine. Her work Eridanus (1984), currently on view at NMWA, continues this interest in completely transforming material. In the wall-mounted sculpture, bronze, zinc, copper, aluminum, and wire are manipulated to appear light as knotted fabric, a bow floating on the wall. Thus, in the hands of Benglis, tough industrial material becomes delicate and decorative.

Eridanus is often read in a feminist context, as a piece working to redefine mainstream perceptions of femininity through craft and material. Her choice to rework a typically masculine material into a shining bow of feminine associations can’t be overlooked. But Benglis has stated, “I am a permissive artist. I allow things to happen. I believe the viewer is half the work.” This sentiment allows the piece itself to continually transform—to intrigue and challenge each set of eyes that come upon it.

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For Rodarte, the Mulleavys transform simple fabrics to evoke emotion and ideas. For example, inspired by a trip to Death Valley, their California Condor Spring/Summer 2010 collection underscored their use of narrative and nontraditional techniques to convey complex ideas. To evoke a futuristic desert landscape for this line, the Mulleavys distressed their materials—dyed cheesecloth, leather, crystals, macramé, and plastic—by painting, burning, shredding, and sandpapering them. These transformed materials encase the figure in a loosely plaited network of pattern and texture.

Photo © Tony Powell. 2018 NMWA Rodarte Opening. November 8_ 2018-27

Selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Tony Powell

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Close up of selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Alicia Gregory

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Close up of selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Alicia Gregory

Connecting the Threads: Lynda Benglis and Rodarte

Close up of selections from Rodarte's Spring/Summer 2010 Collection on view at NMWA; Photo by Alicia Gregory

Connecting the Threads: Lynda Benglis and Rodarte

Rodarte exhibition installation view at NMWA; Photo by Floto+Warner

In 2010, the Mulleavys designed and created the ballet costumes for the Academy Award–winning film Black Swan. Natalie Portman, the film’s star, recommended them to director Darren Aronofsky, recognizing the synergy between the psychological horror film and the elegant yet visceral balletic designs of Rodarte’s Fall/Winter 2008 collection. The Mulleavys conducted extensive research into the history of ballet and sociopolitical developments surrounding ballet and the female body. As Kate explains, “The dark and extremely beautiful transformation in ‘Swan Lake’ mirrors the physical transformation that the ballerina goes through in order to perform.”

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Connecting the Threads: Joan Mitchell and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Landscape & Memory

In the 1950s, Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) emerged as a leading member of the second generation Abstract Expressionist movement. One of just a small group of women painters to gain acclaim in the movement, Mitchell is known for her expansive paintings and ecstatic, gestural brushstrokes. In her work, she sought to capture the emotional and psychological impressions of landscapes and experiences—each painting a preservation of feeling. “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with,” she once said. In Sale Neige (which translates to Dirty Snow) (1980), on view in NMWA’s collection galleries, Mitchell evokes impressions from childhood in her native Chicago—frozen Lake Michigan, falling through the ice in a sledding accident, and competing as a champion figure skater.

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Mitchell spent much of her career in France—moving to Paris in 1959, and later, the small village of Vétheuil in 1968. There, with nature as a backdrop, her work changed significantly, encompassing more spaciousness and light. In her book Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel described this change: “In an environment so rich in natural bounty…a part of Joan long buried awakened. The ‘violent’ high notes of yellows and reds she first used as a girl returned. Joan’s canvases shone like light.” Mitchell herself once explained the refuge she found in rendering nature: “I become the sunflower, the lake, the tree. I no longer exist.”

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Ever-present in the Mulleavys’ work is the landscape of California. This influence is deeply rooted in their childhood, which was spent outdoors, exploring the redwoods and beaches that surrounded their home in Aptos, California. Kate says, “There is probably a little bit of California’s natural beauty in every one of our collections.” Laura describes “tide pools, redwood forests, mustard fields, California poppies, and apple orchards…the entire landscape had a sort of hazy atmosphere. Hare Krishnas, psychedelic skaters, hippies, punks, surfers—all of these memories shaped the way we think creatively.”

Photo © Tony Powell. 2018 NMWA Rodarte Opening. November 8_ 2018-51 2

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Tony Powell

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Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Photo © Tony Powell. 2018 NMWA Rodarte Opening.

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Tony Powell

Rodarte’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection reflects the Mulleavys’ memories of growing up in 1970s and 1980s suburbia. Dresses echo the faux-wood paneling of their childhood home, the blue-and-white porcelain in their house, and a bronze Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, shown on the Great Seal of California. Other dresses reflect impressions of Santa Cruz, where two subcultures—the surfers and hippies—are transformed into printed silk gowns that replicate tie-dye combined with neoprene bibs. California, thus, is not only a source of inspiration, but also an ideological point of reference, both free-thinking and iconoclastic.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Connecting the Threads: Audrey Niffenegger and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Tragic Figures

Audrey Niffenegger, Black Roses (In Memory of Isabella Blow), 2007; Linocut, Gampi tissue, and thread on Japanese paper, 67 x 25 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Audrey Niffenegger; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Audrey Niffenegger, Black Roses (In Memory of Isabella Blow), 2007; Linocut, Gampi tissue, and thread on Japanese paper, 67 x 25 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Audrey Niffenegger; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Eccentric British aristocrat and fashion icon Isabella Blow committed suicide in 2007 at age forty-eight. She was famous for her unfiltered wit and visionary fashion sensibilities. Artist Audrey Niffenegger (b. 1963) was a stranger to Blow, but so moved by her life and death that she created a series of works for her. Black Roses (for Isabella Blow) (2007), the largest piece in the series, is part of NMWA’s collection. It features a skeleton adorned in a cascading skirt of black roses and a black rose hat—a nod to Blow’s close friend and acclaimed hat designer Philip Treacy. Of these works, Niffenegger said, “After she died I had dreams about her. I wanted to give her something…. So I made some pictures for her. It isn’t much, but it is in a language she would have understood.”

In 2017, the Mulleavys wrote and directed their first feature film, Woodshock, which starred Kirsten Dunst. The story traces the emotional unraveling of Dunst’s character, Theresa, as she grieves the loss of her mother and considers suicide. Her personal state, intensified by the use of psychotropic substances, is mirrored in her wardrobe, which becomes both increasingly distressed and elaborate.

Wearing Emotion

The themes of mortality and the passage of time are of interest to both Niffenegger and the Mulleavys. Blow was said to have suffered after being unable to find stable footing in an industry that could not “compute her value.” In Woodshock, Theresa is shown in the grips of an existential crisis, questioning her own place in the world after her mother’s death.

In both cases, the artists used delicate materials to convey grief and depression. Niffenegger used Gampi tissue paper, silky and translucent, to form the flowing skirt in her piece—perhaps also referring to the fact that even in her anguish, Blow was always dressed elegantly. The Mulleavys worked with silk crepe, lace, and chiffon to create Theresa’s black-and-white dresses. They colored the white dresses with mauve and beige so that they appear bruised over time, communicating Theresa’s sadness and isolation.

Layers of Meaning

The works of Niffenegger and the Mulleavys also portray deeper facets of their subject’s emotions. Blow openly talked about her desire to commit suicide and approached the subject with candor and humor. Niffenegger captured elements of Blow’s personality in the skeleton, which appears in an almost conversational pose—mid-sentence with hands mid-gesture. In Woodshock’s ending, Theresa reaches destructive depths and the dresses take on new aspect: there is a violence and power in their bruised coloring and the black that cloaks Theresa’s body like a shield.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Connecting the Threads: Petah Coyne and Rodarte

NMWA’s exhibition Rodarte celebrates the innovative American fashion house, founded by sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy. The show—open until February 10, 2019—is a survey of the designers’ visionary concepts, impeccable craftsmanship, and impact on the fashion industry. The dresses on view share visual appeal and many common threads with works in NMWA’s collection. From technique to theme, dive into five innovative works by artists at NMWA in this series, “Connecting the Threads.”

Eclectic Experimentation

Contemporary American sculptor and photographer Petah Coyne (b.1953) is critically acclaimed for her use of unconventional materials in her poetic pieces. Coyne renders human hair, scrap metal, wax, taxidermy, mud, chicken-wire, velvet, and more into haunting works with incredible emotional range. “I gather materials everywhere I go,” she has said. “Materials are a language.”

In their early collections, Rodarte drew acclaim for their use of unconventional materials that fused the dressmaking and art-making processes. Layering metallic ribbons, eyelash yarn, wire, chainmail tube, leather, Swarovski crystals, silk tulle, and more, their works upended conventional fashion practices by letting their material choice determine each silhouette.

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Emily Haight

Petah Coyne, Untitled #781, 1994; Wax, plastic, cloth and steel, 62 x 35 x 44 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Artist; © Petah Coyne, Courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York; Photo by Emily Haight

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Rodarte exhibition installation view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C.; Photo: Floto+Warner

Masters of Craft

Her complex and layered sculptures require Coyne to do it all: she sews, she waxes and wires flowers, she paints, she manipulates wire, and she learned a Victorian method for making jewelry out of human hair. Coyne even worked with a chemist to “patent an archival wax formula that she uses in melted form, like a pigment. It has become her signature.” This is seen in Coyne’s Untitled #781 (1994), part of NMWA’s collection (not currently on view).

Rodarte’s early works also reveal a rapid command of their craft. Entirely self-taught, the Mulleavys mastered one technique after another, skillfully combining them in subsequent collections. Their approach to design is dictated by the textural qualities of their fabrics and driven by process and materiality.

Embodying Contradictions

At the heart of Coyne’s work is dissonance—an exploration of the fine lines between lushness and decay, beauty and grotesqueness. In Untitled #781, the pink-and-white sculpture alludes to a tutu, a birthday cake, or a party dress—symbols of girlhood and innocence—but it also appears to be curdling before the viewer’s eye. The piece seems to float, but is actually quite heavy, constructed over a wire-and-steel core. Throughout her work, Coyne thumbs these fine lines while also exploring the larger theme of life and loss at the core of her creations.

The Mulleavys are also interested in juxtaposing ideas in their collections. Through a complex layering of techniques that simultaneously build and destroy the materials, they transform their works into hybrid creations—both perfect and ruined. “We are attracted to imperfection and to beauty and chaos,” Kate Mulleavy has said. This dissonance has surfaced in many Rodarte designs, including their work for the costumes in the film Black Swan. “We were inspired by the idea of transformation, specifically the dichotomy between perfection and decay.”

—Alicia Gregory is assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.