Saturday December 8, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Kate Hamilton turns clothing into art -- not art as in fashion, but art as in objects of.

Her current exhibition in Berkshire Community College’s tiny Koussevitzky Gallery looks like windstorm in a walk-in closet, with shirts, dresses, blouses and trousers blowing all about. Well, not blowing, actually, but suspended, erected and framed to avoid a display-rack look.

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Hamilton, who is a costume designer, tries in this show to separate clothes from their utilitarian function and consider them as objects that have attributes, even beauty, of their own.

"Can beauty be found in such ordinary things?" she asks in her exhibition statement. "Can gold be spun from straw?"

Made out of translucent glassine paper and nylon sail fabric, the garments in the show have been cut, stitched and assembled into jackets or suits or dresses with tailored precision.

The paper/fabric is stiff enough to hold wrinkles and a shape, so the clothes have the gossamer quality of shed insect- or snakeskins --imprints of the living creatures that shrugged them off.

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Hamilton spins straw into gold most convincingly with a series of translucent cuffs, collars and other garment pieces, framed behind clear glass and displayed against the bare, white gallery walls. Deconstructed and displayed as "art," each becomes an abstract drawing.


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A tent-size man’s shirt and a woman’s slip that allow a viewer to creep inside, also push boundaries, forcing us to experience them as shelters.

But Hamilton’s life-size clothes, even in glassine and sailcloth, would look equally at home in a department store window. And her decision to include four orange life jackets, and two constructions that defy easy identification is more distracting than challenging.

Translating everyday objects into objects of art is both harder and easier than it looks -- as Hamilton’s exhibition illustrates. Put a collar or cuff in a frame and hang it on a gallery wall and it’s sanctified. Blow up a shirt to gargantuan size and it’s an installation.

Simply recreate a garment in a different, but allied material, in this case paper instead of cloth, and it’s hit or miss. Is it art or a dressmaker’s pattern?

The reinterpretation hasn’t the surprise factor and tension that engages and compels.

Hamilton’s show raises many such questions about the nature of art and in an academic setting, what more could one ask of it?