November 2006

Elliott David

art slut

Balenciaga, Bourdin and My Enduring Sexual Obscurity

I love being a homo. The only thing I love more than being a homo is having vaginal intercourse. My penultimate love and perennial motivation in life is using my penis for sex making with female genitals. What with the insatiable degree to which I seek out fulfillment of said love, one might -- physiologically speaking -- consider me a heterosexual. But socially and stereotypically speaking, I’m a total homo: I write poetry; I’m rather pretty, but in no way handsome; I’m amorous with my male cohorts (also pretty); I’m a sensualist and an aesthete and I pay attention to detail. I cross my legs like this [tight] and not like that [tough]. I like conceptual art and haute cuisine and I like to dance.

And I love fashion and couture. A lot. I like to read about it, I like to pet it, I like to write about it. I take notice of what women wear and formulate my own opinions re: their outfits. I use words like “outfit.” I like to go to high-end boutiques and hidden ateliers as if they were museums (I also like museums). I write for a fashion magazine that can be found in the Lifestyle section of the bookstore as opposed to Art. And though I’m not a big fan of the unpractical, I still take a certain pleasure in looking at an avant-garde shoe. So when the new Balenciaga and Guy Bourdin books came in the mail, I did a tour jete and butt-fucked an off-duty cop wearing assless chaps. Metaphorically speaking. I really just opened them with a silent excitement, like a 7-year-old carefully removing the wrapping paper on the birthday present he’s been asking for everyday for the past two weeks, now here’s your god damn Fisher Price do-it-yourself track lighting kit. That kid’s totally going to grow up to be a homo. I know, right?

That having been said, allow me to make a generalization. (Or don’t allow it. Whatever. Write me hate mail.) There are three types of fashion books:

1) Legible
2) Sculptural
3) Le deux: the happy medium.

In short: books to be read vs. books to be looked at. The books to be looked at are usually immediately identifiable by how illogically oversized they are -- their spines like porn stars anxious for attention. The fact that they don’t fit in your bookshelf isn’t an accident -- they demand visual priority by claiming the front-row of your “coffee table”: that decorative speed bump in the middle of your apartment that you never associate with coffee.

Meanwhile, the fashion books to be read sit stylishly on the shelf, happy to hang out on the rack, gossiping with all the other literatures. It’s basic couture vs. ready-to-wear. So it’s no surprise that the Guy Bourdin publication is a subtle, accessible two volume hardcover hugged by a sleek box, whereas the Balenciaga book is enormous and paperback, folding over itself like a contorted female torso in one of Bourdin’s photographs. I’m not saying one is better than the other. All I’m saying is that they’re both gorgeous metaphors for the content of the books themselves.

First: le deux of the two:

Guy Bourdin’s A Message for You is a much needed retrospective of the late Bourdin’s ingenious, provocative photography during the late '70s -- the height of his presence as an artistic innovator in glossy fashion layouts, pushing the medium into a marriage of art and marketing. Bourdin was always given carte blanche for his photo-shoots, and if any pressure was put on him one way or another, he bailed. Straight up walked. As a result, he brought the avant-garde into the mainstream with unapologetic absurdism and the intentionality of a studied historian. The photos in this book display his calculated, deliberate dramaturgy: the seeming still-frames stolen from a surreal dream where everything is at once beautiful and horrifying, and you wake not knowing if you had a nightmare or nocturnal emission: the impossible shadows, the glamorous blood, the fetishistic inanimate objects, erotic heels, erotic lights, erotic surfaces, and, by God, the colors. The colors alone are enough to make a blind man dizzy, make a eunuch cum in his pants. (You’ll have to excuse the semen references until you see the book for yourself.)

There have been other celebratory books exposing collections of Bourdin’s work (see: his son Samuels’, Exhibit A, amongst others); but, A Message for You contains something these others do not: a memoir from a modest muse. The photographs collected focus not merely on the work he did for French Vogue and for Charles Jourdan, but the shoots for which the nymphet Nicolle Meyer served as sole model. Model, but by no means centerpiece. Often, you can’t even see her face, just the contortions of her dancer’s body, her pink marble legs, her full lips and bush. But Meyer is not a mindless muse -- she’s also the curator and writer of the book. Whereas Volume I is all photography, Volume II contains Meyer’s memories of her experiences with Bourdin, the bulk of which tells the story of their American road trip to Florida for a photo shoot. Meyer’s prose is intelligent, subtly magisterial, pithy, never filthy, often elegant, always informed, and ultimately compelling. The text is chaptered in real-time by the sketches, polaroids, contact sheets and poems Bourdin produced during the events of which Meyers writes, putting process to the photos and pictures to the story. At times you begin to wonder if this book isn’t about her, or at the very least, about them. But it’s not. It’s all about Bourdin: even when you’re staring at Meyer’s puffy cheeks or her perfect breasts, your mind goes back to Bourdin, his exquisite, underappreciated legacy and the tragic forgetfulness of the mainstream.

But there is nothing underappreciated about Cristóbal Balenciaga. He’s repeatedly been heralded as one of the -- if not the -- finest couturiers ever, as well as countless other hyperboles (“the master of us all” -- Christian Dior; “the fiercest” -- closet mini-heirs masquerading as poor, indifferent gay hipsters).

Unlike A Message for You -- but like most or many art books -- Balenciaga Paris is published in conjunction with an art exhibition: the Musée de la Mode et du Textile in Paris’ retrospective of the designer and his house. Much like A Message, Balenciaga Paris has a narrative as well -- the story of M. Balenciaga’s beginnings in 1919, his voluntary retirement in ’68, and its reopening thirty years later under the creative direction of Nicholas Ghesquière, who was immediately embraced and lionized by the international fashion world for his blend of neo-classicism, avant-everyday, and couture sculpture -- and rightly so.

Only this saga Balenciaga is told more coldly encyclopedic than emotive. It begins with a brutally detailed account of things most people would never want to know (see: architectural plans and legal history). It continues, or seemingly starts over to recount the house’s output season by season, told by sketches, illustrations, receipts, invitations, business cards, contracts, magazine covers, and -- best of all -- pictures taken by some of the best photographers in the history of ever (that’s how you do hyperbole). The text of the book is primarily comprised of magazine and newspaper reviews of each season as well as news regarding the house itself. Three sentence blurbs from Women’s Wear Daily op-eds: Riveting. But whatever, there’s a picture of Diana Vreeland, and I’m sort of in love with her. So that’s good.

The book reads like an art installation, the enormous pages themselves the walls of the gallery: blocks of text and image hang, framed against the white space. Which makes sense; it was edited by Pamela Golbin, curator at the Musée. But what doesn’t make sense is the book’s enormous paper-back stature, folding over itself like some expensive, exaggerated sleeve. This is the exact opposite of M. Balenciaga’s obsession over the technically practical and proportionally precise, yet aesthetically pronounced sleeve; it was often his central concern in a dress. But maybe it’s that word I used: stature. Cristóbal Balenciaga is the capital-t The. He’s arguably the most important singular designer in the history of couture. Does this book communicate that? It depends. The book carries a B-side quality to it that is often only desired by fanatics and conversational fascists, but that’s probably a product of the massive amounts of gratuitous information. Do you have to ride the sidelines of fagdom to appreciate it? I can’t say. Probably not. But speaking for myself: it certainly leaves me one happy homo.