On Objects: Jessica Craig-Martin’s Pillars of Legs

Untitled. Jessica Craig Martin. Courtesy of Winston Wachter Fine Art.

Untitled. Jessica Craig Martin. Courtesy of Winston Wachter Fine Art.

Several weeks ago, a new Zara opened in downtown Seattle. Leading up to its grand, public unveiling, a set of preview events marked the occasion, much in the spirit of a well-funded museum exhibition– or just an average night at the latest Las Vegas night club. A strict guest list on iPads and tiny silver bracelets for the admitted marked the store’s entryways. Four-inch heels, faux-leather leggings and voluminous knitwear outfitted a self-consciously fashionable crowd, who consumed the tiniest of tray-passed bites and flutes of champagne while mingling awkwardly around a local singer-songwriter, who performed in the center of the room, between clothing racks and pillars surrounded by dressing mirrors. The wandering gazes of the onlookers floated a general sense of uncertainty in the air– most appeared undecided on whether to stand and listen or join the winding lines leading into the dressing rooms, with piles of pastel dresses, tunics and pleated skirts for potential purchase in hand. As the night wore on and the store’s narrow aisles became increasingly impenetrable, the shattering of a glass against the sparkling white, tiled floors emphasized the precariousness of leaving a beverage around the edge of a sweater shelve or pant display tables, lest we forget we were partying inside Seattle’s latest mass market retail outlet.

While a small cohort of local fashion professionals, magazine editors and arts- and design-minded individuals seek to change the course, Seattle as a whole can still be considered less fashion-oriented than the country’s larger urban centers. In New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or even Miami and San Francisco, the opening of a “fast fashion” chain that has existed in Spain since the 1970s and has, like its many competitors in this arena, suffered multiple ethical challenges in regards to toxic materials and unacceptable labor practices, might not garner such enthusiasm. Maybe it was just the massive banner’s blaring promise of Zara’s opening in the center of downtown Seattle that made the anticipation so great that people could not contain themselves when it finally opened its doors months after the promised fall season had passed, but in a city of relatively few see-and-be-seen moments, the Zara party was clearly one of them, despite its persisting awkwardness.

The pillars of legs in platform stilettos and leggings in Jessica Craig-Martin’s Answered Prayers at Winston Wachter, in Seattle, brought the Zara party back to mind. The photographer’s distinctive cropping of anonymous celebrity and socialite gatherings is instantly recognizable for the overbearing accessories that comprise her subjects –a Mondrian-inspired platform heel, pearls wound upon pearls wound upon pearls, multi-tiered chandelier necklaces dripping with stones from clavicle to cleavage.  In BOMB Magazine, Bob Holman describes Craig-Martin as wearing her camera “like a piece of jewelry,” the candid, yet carefully edited results of which imply her simultaneous roles as peer and paparazzi.

The paparazzi half of the sentiment takes the form of flesh.  Tanned, stretched, and sun-spotted flesh that visibly aches within her shots: the weight shifted to a single, five-inch stiletto, the red-tan shoulders, the unhappy smiles.  The business of uncomfortable, unpretty sacrifices in the name of fashion and beauty is hardly a new topic (see Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” for another recent treatment), but the inherent overlap between Craig-Martin’s art photographs and press coverage for publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue make these Answered Prayers memorable for being as much about the image consumer as they are about the subjects. The pain-pleasure complex of being repulsed by the spectacle of superficiality while being drawn to the humanness of someone else perceiving his or her own self-imperfections and remedying them in a way so visible that the process can be photographed still sells grocery store aisles full of magazines, in an era of declining print publications.  We want to see the parties, and we want to see the crashes, the downfalls, and the seams between the performance and the person.

But, rather than provoking the desire to yet again assign blame for this state of culture, Craig-Martin’s point of view more makes me wonder more about the nature of beauty–because the photographs are undeniably beautiful, as were the people at the Zara party, and neither was simply a tease. The realness and the fakeness, mashed together into silk charmeuse dresses that don’t quite fit, luscious lip glosses starting to bleed, a falling apart updo, a crashing champagne glass inside a sparkling scene, a completely tasteless but beautifully executed cheetah print platform shoe–there is something very human about these things that try so hard, and this is where the truthful beauty of the fanciest parties resides.