I’ve been gently avoiding opportunities to review NSU Art Museum’s blockbuster exhibition of the season, “The World of Anna Sui,” a landmark tour of more than 100 looks that have blazed trails in American and international fashion for the past 30 years. It’s not that I’m disinterested in such a show so much as utterly unqualified to review it with any degree of discernment. Fashion unquestionably merits inclusion in an art museum, but, like ballet, it’s wildly outside my cultural expertise. We all have our blind spots.
I felt on firmer authoritative ground at my visit this week to a pair of upstairs exhibitions at the Fort Lauderdale museum, which all but strip fashion of its functionality and everyday wearability. I’m still not sure what the central takeaways are from Eric N. Mack’s “Lemme Walk Across the Room,” a capacious and gnomic installation combining paint, tapestry and couture, but I’m not sure I need to fully understand it; general conceptions of surprise and disruption may be enough.
Its most sprawling element is a gauzy cotton spread, hung like a clothesline across an L shape on the central second-floor space, and painted with ribbons of muted color—shades of browns and siennas merging into greens, blues and yellows, like fraying prototypes of potential flags.
The installation also includes a deconstructed cowgirl outfit draped over a furious tangle of wire that, given the context, suggests a horse; the way the dress expands on the gallery floor evoked, for me anyway, the most famous scene from Hitchcock’s “Topaz.” A metal rod and stepladder, apparently discovered in Robert Rauschenberg’s studio, complete the installation. It’s a fitting sort of provenance: With its inspired and eloquent material juxtapositions and multiple associations, the piece feels at least partially indebted to Rauschenberg’s beguiling “combines.”
Mack’s only 2-D work in the exhibit, “Tartan Film Strip From 1987 Till Present,” is one of the artist’s so-called “mood boards”—a collage of pinups from fashion and music magazines and international newspapers, along with Mack’s own photography, layered with the occasional daub of errant spray paint. Suggestive of zine culture, it feels curated and personal, both art and not, and a peek into what one of Mack’s studio walls might look like.
If the larger objectives of Mack’s installation are more mysterious than concrete, portrait photographer Iké Udé’s work in an adjoining gallery offers a more direct appeal. A style icon often celebrated as among the world’s best-dressed people, the Nigerian-born, New York-based artist is a cultural omnivore, dressing his models—often himself—in eccentric ensembles and gilded anachronisms from across time and space.
This is most evident in his “Sartorial Anarchy” series, in which the artist poses in extravagantly unorthodox combinations: a Catholic Church cape with Madras checked trousers, a harlequin suit with tuxedo jacket and cotton organdy, a sombrero with a cub scout cape full of patches alongside pants embroidered with whales.
None of the getups make any sense in the world of Anna Sui; hence the “anarchy” part of the series. But they are rich with wry humor. In one “Anarchy” piece, Udé sports an elaborate Nigerian spiral headpiece and carries a butterfly catcher in an attempt to capture an insect that has alighted on his wig. In another, a mini fedora is precariously perched atop an enormous “macaroni” wig.
These sorts of ethnic fashion tropes have been appropriated for centuries of entertainment, usually by western creators, with little regard to their cultural insensitivity. Borrowing from slapstick and surrealism, Udé’s stylish satire exposes this history of exploitation. And he looks really good doing it.
“The World of Anna Sui,” “Eric N. Mack: Lemme Walk Across the Room” and “Iké Udé: Selected Portraits” are on display at least through Oct. 3, some longer, at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $12 adults, $8 seniors/military, and $5 students. Call 954/525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.