When Kipling tells us that “. . . Rosie O’Grady and the Colonel’s lady, are sisters under the skin,” he means that women are all alike. Yet his claim arises from an opposing pragmatic observation: the certainty that everyone in a culture can visually distinguish a lady from another kind of woman. Although many subtle differences of appearance and behavior contribute to our assessment of an individual, our primary way of identifying one person as a lady and one as not is by evaluating what sociologists call clothing tie-signs and tie-symbols. A tie-sign, such as a wedding dress or school uniform, identifies the wearer as a member of a specific group or category. A tie-symbol like cowboy boots, which are worn by many people besides cowboys, suggests an affinity with a belief, attitude or group.
Clothing is an indicator of roles and behaviors. For centuries, the restrictive character of Western women’s clothes, from stomachers, corsets, and crinolines to hobble skirts–even the dubious liberation of mini-skirts–has provided metaphorical evidence of social restrictions on women’s freedom. But clothing is also a canvas onto which the wearer projects a sense of beauty and personal identity.
In recent decades, artists have exploited the disjuncture between the meanings embodied in clothing and the individual identities of women. Contrary to Kipling’s dictum, women may be sisters in some regards, but unique–in ways that have nothing or everything to do with clothing–in others. The classical life-size glass sculptures of Karen LaMonte, a 2002 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of American, address this paradoxical zone–the space between individual being and constructed appearance– in a wonderfully literal way. With a specificity akin to Rachel Whiteread’s negative architectural castings, LaMonte records the territory between a woman’s naked skin and the surface of her clothing, a feminine swirl of draperies, ruffles and “bows on the butt.” Through its transparency, glass reveals the contours of the body and of applied couture simultaneously. Kipling’s putative subject, whatever lies beneath the skin, has vanished like a ghost or a cicada from its shell. The empty body is housed in clothing, perhaps imprisoned in it–just as it is housed within its own skin. LaMonte has said, “Apparel radiates its wearer’s physicality like a discarded shell or an outermost layer of skin. It is our second skin, our social skin.” By specifying the contours and postures of a real human body beneath the skin of clothing, LaMonte addresses age-old issues of ideal physical beauty and its relationship to other personal qualities. Distortions imposed by fashion and art are manifested at least through implication. The culturally and historically pervasive belief that perfect symmetry and beautiful proportions reflect beautiful inner qualities is challenged by these works which are beautiful, but do not conform to archetypes of beauty which LaMonte terms “absurd.”
Clothing is a kind of vessel or container. From the perspective of Western aesthetics, LaMonte’s work intriguingly, though probably not intentionally, addresses the vessel tradition, a conflicted topic for contemporary glass artists. Glass sculptors often feel defensive about making objects which might be functional because in the West functional objects are assumed to lack the potential to express serious ideas. However, LaMonte’s large-scale sculptures are literal vessels, hollow objects of glass. They could even be characterized as vessels for vessels (women). The reproductive female body has often been compared to a vessel, usually with the implication that the vessel is of less consequence than its contents. The punning relationship between glass vessel and maternal vessel suggests a humorous parallel between the relegation of the female “vessel” and the glass vessel to second class cultural status. Both categories are purposeful; they are perhaps decorative or aspiring to beauty but, alas, intrinsically incapable of profundity.
LaMonte’s sculptures might also be described as glass houses, fragile records of human dwelling. They make no pretense to be other than glass. Glass is intrinsic to their meaning. LaMonte loves glass because “it seems alive and flesh-like,” but she also feels that it tends to make the exaggerated subtle–so subtle that she must exaggerate the character and spatial drama of the fabrics she records. LaMonte casts in clear crystal which maintains a stable relationship to form. “I’m very sensitive to color so I intentionally avoid it in all my work.”
Each dress is a kind of portrait. In choosing dresses to cast, she says, “I’m looking for a hyper-feminine cliched look: rows of ruffles and bows on the butt. I try to make sure every dress has a bow.” In addition to understanding the sculptural possibilities of the bow’s butterfly form (narrow-waisted like a horizontal female torso) and trailing ribbons, she has internalized the cultural possibilities.
It’s no coincidence that LaMonte currently executes her large-scale work in the facility which produced what is often identified as the first studio glass sculptures, made by the team of Libinsky-Brychtova. LaMonte developed the complex techniques for her castings while on a Fulbright in the Czech Republic working at Pelechov, the glass casting facility of Zdenek Lhotsky in Prague. Libensky and Brychtova continue their relationship with Pelechov.
Together LaMonte and the skilled technicians at the factory developed techniques unique to her sculptures which weigh up to 600 pounds. The process, “a cross between cooking and plastic surgery,” incorporates refined improvised adjustments which LaMonte jokingly calls “czechnology.” Although she “enjoys the science of casting,” LaMonte says, “At the end of the day, I’m more of a creative thinker [than a technician].”
The figures are made in several sections which are later joined. LaMonte casts the bodies of real women, including herself. She places a mold made from real clothing around these human positives, invests the whole and fills the interstices with hot glass. The vanished female body in LaMonte’s sculpture is a “given” which determines the gross form of the completed sculpture–just as living bodies determine the gross forms of apparel.
For now, LaMonte must execute her major work in the only facility capable of producing it — in Prague. She came to CGCA with the intention of making small and medium-scale pieces in series and pushing herself to work with objects outside of clothing. She brought a collection of perhaps eight or nine hand mirrors to CGCA, asking herself, “How can they become messengers?” After completing only five large pieces in a year in the Czech Republic, in six weeks at CGCA, she made numerous rubber molds, an intermediate step in a lost wax casting process. She can easily ship the lightweight molds to the Czech Republic. She also cast several versions of each mirror in lead crystal, though she sees the entire serial project taking quite a bit of time to complete.
In contrast to the scale of a human figure, a mirror is a hand-size object. LaMonte feels that silvering the mirror surface would be “too perfect.” Instead, she seeks a low sheen in glass. She experimented with placing a ripple or wave like a gathered section of fabric on the crystal mirror’s non-reflective center panels. Perhaps these folds can be interpreted as references to clothing and drapery, which LaMonte has also cast. (“Drapery is like the cymbal crash at the end of a symphony: very rich feeling and peaceful.”)
There are human echoes are in the decoration of the frames and the handles. LaMonte would like to place an inclusion representing reflected lips inside the mirror and mimic condensed breath on the surface of the glass with opaque powdered glass. The relationship of visible breath to the trail of smoke from an extinguished candle causes her to recognize this as a memento mori. “I don’t think I’m particularly morbid but I find over and over that I use images and then find that they’re death images.” Similarly, the absent figures in dresses can be interpreted as ghosts. Death is ever present in life.
LaMonte collected a number of women’s dresses from sources such as a local Goodwill store but she saved these for later investigation. In terms of casting garments, at CGCA she confined herself to children’s clothing which she covered in wax. LaMonte is far from exhausting the expressive possibilities of clothing and her own technical audacity. She’s already made mono-prints and cyanotypes of clothing. She plans to cast men’s garments one day.
One afternoon, LaMonte spoke of climbing to see the world’s largest outdoor Buddha in Hong Kong. The figure was invisible, shrouded in mist until she was very close. Then “the outline became clear. It was a sort of visual epiphany, an ooh-aah experience. I think that’s the challenge to the visual artist: that for a moment the viewer is thrilled, puzzled or — .” She pauses contemplating a visual experience that defies language. Quite often LaMonte’s sculpture does achieve this transcendence, this sublimity, a moment in which technical and metaphorical issues dissolve into simple, overpowering recognition.