The Evolution of the Suits
Richard Metz 2007
Some difficulties creating Postmodern artwork can be clarified by an explanation of the evolution of my Painted Suits. Postmodern visual art has a high standard. The work must challenge an aspect of contemporary bourgeois society. Both content and style must reference and supercede Modernism.
Since I left art school in 1980, I have been trying to reconcile my creative and the political needs.
As an aware human, how can we not take a political stand? My views have been to look at the deeper problems with authority. Gender relations, racial and economic inequality, and the environmental crisis have been some of my specific concerns. One difficulty as an artist is how to create relevant work that still employs imagination. I am not interested in illustrating a political cause, but it is crucial to be aware of the ideology of ones’ work. Modernist painting, (and most painting today is still modernist in one way or another) takes the position that art can and should be a beautiful and sometimes spiritual commodity. To be a Modernist artist, is to plunge into the material and content of painting, and hang the results in a white walled gallery for the public and collectors to view and purchase.
This tempting role for artists is ideological surrender. In 1912, Marcel Duchamp first began to consider how to reorder the place of visual art in society. His Dadaist vision of art as a vehicle for changing society was revolutionary. For Duchamp, art did not have to be a precious commodity. It did not have to be the spoils of the wealthy capitalist victors of our economy. Today, in the art world, especially in New York, sometimes stunning visual art can be purchased for great sums of money. The titans of industry and finance destroy others and the environment to attain their wealth. Then they can purchase not only beautiful art works, but the art world’s praise as a benefactor. The art world thus becomes complicit in the destruction of our society and our planet.
The difficulty then is how to create visual art that ideologically supports a sustainable, just, and peaceful world. The course work and professors at the Maine College of Art’s MFA program helped me combine my artistic and political ideas with a thorough history of Modernism and Postmodernism and a strong push towards figuring out an individual solution. My work ranged off the canvas, because canvas seems to be inextricably bound with Modernism and the salability and digestibility of one’s expressiveness and perception. I know many artists who make some of their income selling their canvases. For me, I cannot ignore the history of painting. Canvas pretends to be a blank slate, but it has been the caterer, the silver platter to the moneyed class.
At the end of my days at Maine College of Art, I had taken a few characters from a Dr. Seuss book, and had re-imagined them, setting them free to explore race, class, and gender issues. I was painting on bricks, bark, and rocks, each with their own fascinating history and ideology, and creating performances, and the costumes and masks needed for those events.
The first suit I created was in 2001 for a costume party. It was paper and I glued saltines to it, to create a “cracker jacket”. I recreated this idea on a thrift store suit (recycling as an ideological stance) a year later. I coated the saltines with matte medium and painted a creature on it. After a few months, I started to paint creatures on the back of many thrift store suits. I liked the reference to the painted leather jackets that motorcyclists sometimes wear. The black business suit, to me, was an emblem of capitalism and patriarchy, and I used it to explore the damaged men that our society has produced.
First, I put the painted suits on the back of some chairs I found. I placed these in a circle to represent a boardroom table. The first showing of them was in Philadelphia’s City Hall, on the backs of suspended chairs.
The installation “The Suits” grew from a vision I had of dancing suits. With the help of my wife Cecilia Dougherty, I created a second installation of the piece. The suits would now be viewed in the round, and needed an inside, with further exploration of the damaged male characters. Protestman is overwhelmed by the news and protesting becomes his complete identity. The Sharkman has fish lures on the inside to trap his prey. The Bruiser has a burned log, because his mind has been destroyed by anger. Inside The Addict, a large mallet hangs, with which the user can destroy himself. Under Big Egohead is broken glass, the result of his fragile sense of self. Desirous has bagels or large holes to constantly fill.
The resulting installation while exciting, was still just an art piece with passive spectators in an art gallery. With my growing interest in masks and Carnevale, I organized “The Parade of Creatures” in 2003, for the Philadelphia Fringe festival. Costumed participants musically drummed and paraded their way through Old City in Philadelphia one night.
I created “ Traveling Show” in 2004 to first put the suits in action, and bring the work out onto the streets, and to combine the suits with the parade idea. A dozen friends volunteered to wear the suits as we walked through the Chelsea, New York City art gallery area. We had many impromptu ensembles and shows in almost all of the galleries. I wanted not only to blur the boundary between fine art and fashion, but to challenge the way artists are made through the king makers of the high art world of moneyed New York. The results were exciting and the viewers intrigued.
I had begun to work on a series of painted creatures on dresses, looking at ways that women had been damaged and reduced within capitalist culture. I saw the opportunity to create another installation for the large front window space of the Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine. I had begun working on a painted wedding dress, and saw some connections with Duchamp’s “Large Glass, the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even”.
Duchamp’s point in the piece was that 20th century technological society and Modernism had reduced our gender relations to a mechanical dance. My 2006 piece “ Suspended Desire, the Bride and her Bachelors” paid homage to him and continued this societal critique. For this piece, I wanted a more participatory aspect to push through the idea of passive spectators. I created a soundtrack of early 60’s love songs to create the feeling and performance of a wedding reception. The stereotypical gender relations in the songs set up a humorous satirical edge to the evening. In addition to the installation of seven suits and two wedding dresses, I set out 25 more painted suits and dresses for people at the opening to try on and dance to the music. I recreated this piece in a larger space in Philadelphia’s Icebox gallery in 2007. It made a lot of sense to have the opening be a dance party, combining the movement of the parade, with the subversive fun aspect of dancing, rather than polite art world talk.
The most recent incarnation of the Suits idea was to give away the originality of the idea, in the “Free Trade Parade”. We performed this in September of 2006, for the Philadelphia Fringe festival, on the streets of Old City, Phila. For this collaborative event, I gave out 20 thrift store suits and had fellow artists and musicians create their own costumes. We focused on the theme of corporate dominance in our lives. I worked with several artists and musicians to create a larger event. Chris Dippolito created a sound track of commercials that were played on hand held boom boxes. Eric Joselyn created political paper fortunetellers that were given out to onlookers during the parade. Cecilia Dougherty created a more elaborate choreography for the paraders.
The individual suits still have their evocative power for me but the journey they have taken me on has been to a greater relevance and involvement with the big world out there.