Opened on the 8th of October at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand, the Intellectual Fashion Show 2016 brought to life artist June Black’s idea of an “intellectual fashion house.” Black’s original exhibition in March 1959 explored the expression of “the self” and brought together her ceramic wall sculptures and paintings as offerings in an imaginary fashion house, complete with an imagined director, M. Henri Folli. June devised a wardrobe of metaphorical costumes to wear against the perils of daily life, social expectations and cultural pressures. Costumes included “a costume to wear over a heavy heart”, “a hat for elevated thoughts”, “a costume to get onto ones high horse” and “a costume to face the world of the common place”.
The New Zealand Fashion Museum and Blikfang Gallery revisited June’s original idea and brought together over sixty metaphorical costumes from her exhibition and journals in the recent exhibition at Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland. Working with leading New Zealand fashion designers, milliners, jewellers, visual artists, poets, ceramic artists and other creatives, the exhibition curators invited them to select one of June Black’s metaphorical costumes and bring it to life from their own imaginations.
Doris de Pont, Director New Zealand Fashion Museum explores the exhibition in more detail in a short Q&A and explains how it came into being.
Q: How did the exhibition come into being?
A: Last year I curated an exhibition of ceramics at Objectspace which included The Poet, one of June Black’s ‘Longbods’. He was a remarkable figure adorned with marvellous medals, jewels and a timepiece. I was enchanted and went to find out more about June Black. At Blikfang in Northcote, Auckland I met her daughter Sheridan Keith and encountered June’s paintings, her passion for words and her engagement with the possibilities inherent in what we wear through her metaphorical costumes. She always had a love of clothes and she noted her thoughts and ideas in her journals.
Why do I love handbags so much? she asks herself in a journal entry. Because they go everywhere with you like a friend who seems to pay for everything. Scattered throughout these note books are references to costumes, unillustrated they are meditations on the power of our sartorial choices to armour us to face the world. Sheridan gathered and collated more than 60 and imagined that some day there would be a ‘fashion show’ of those costumes. She asked if I would like to help make it happen.
Q: Who was June Black and what is her background?
A: Born in Auckland in 1910 June Black clearly had creative talent and spent some time studying at Elam before marriage and children took her attention. In her early 40s, now living in Wellington, she once more began to pursue her artistic interests taking pottery classes with Helen Mason at the Petone Polytechnic. She acquired a small electric kiln and it was working with the size limitations of this that led to her unique and innovative creation of her ‘longbods’ and the unleashing of her imagination in clay, paint and language. From 1958 June had a decade of gallery exhibitions with her work also included in significant national and international showcases. The 1970s and 80s were dark years for her with bouts of depression and self doubt but as she entered her 80s and in spite of failing eyesight she once again found her passion for paint and produced ‘The Lemon Tree Lover’ series and a series of portraits. She died in 2009 just short of a century.
Q: June’s ideas seem very contemporary for her era, and would have caused quite a stir! Do you think her ideas would be much more accepted today?
A: June Black’s first exhibition at the Architectural Centre Gallery in Wellington in 1958 was The Search for the Fabulous Idea and brought to life in paint and ceramics a cast of characters on an expedition to search for meaning and value in the world. Her second in 1959 was entitled The Intellectual Fashion Show and considered the expressive potential of clothing to fashion the body and the mind and to explore the rich complexity of the real-self. Both of these exploration were powerful challenges to the status quo and again are completely current as we seek to find truth and meaning in this multivalent digital age and value in a global world full of fast everything including fashion.
Q: I love the idea of wearing a costume to protect oneself from the perils of daily life, do you think in some ways people already do this subconsciously?
A: In our daily lives we can and do make choices that both take into account how we might be seen by our audience and give us the armour necessary for that social engagement. Academy Award winning costume designer Edith Head famously said “You can have anything you want if you dress for it”. We are well aware of the truth of that when we are selecting what to wear when we go to see the bank manager to ask for a loan. What we choose to wear is finely nuanced to communicate confidence and reliability; we wear our strong and steady boots and our upright suit. And while a visit to the dentist might be equally as challenging emotionally and physically, what we choose to wear is likely to be quite different. In this scenario we do not need a clear cut exterior but rather to encase ourselves in something soft and protective of our vulnerable selves. In contrast, what a joy it is to party in the company of friends and loved ones where we can give unconstrained expression to the colour and flow of our inner selves.
Q: If June’s “intellectual fashion house” were to exist today do you think it would be a popular idea?
A: Absolutely and I think the popularity of this exhibition (it was the best patronised exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery) is clear evidence that while our society and its cultural expectations have changed and diversified over that last half century plus, June Black’s deep understanding of the transformation power of clothing to fashion our bodies and minds in order to face the world, is as contemporary and relevant as ever. Her vision chimes with the Fashion Museum’s engagement with the complex language of our wardrobes and the potential of clothing to communicate ideas visually, intellectually and emotionally.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the creatives invited to create a costume and the different types of pieces that came out of that?
A: Initial discussions between Sheridan Keith, Janie van Woerden, who wrote her Masters thesis on the life and work of June Black, and myself projected that we would achieve an exhibition with some 20 – 25 ‘costumes’. To that end we set about compiling a wish list of some 60 artists across a range of practices; fashion, jewellery, painting, photography, sculpture, ceramics, poetry, music, multi-media, etc. We invited them to participate in the project by selecting a ‘costume’ which resonated. There were no conditions as to medium or method, in fact we hoped for as wide a range of interpretations as possible. The response was staggering with virtually all invitees saying yes and others requesting the opportunity to join in. Many participants found the ‘costumes’ liberating and delivered an interpretation in unfamiliar material, so there is a garment from a painter, a sculpture from a fashion designer and a poem and installation from a ceramic artist.
Q: The imagery and photographs marketing the exhibition are stunning, can you tell me a bit about that work?
A: Because a physical exhibition has such a short life it was always the intention to record it in a published catalogue. In keeping with the idea of a fashion show we decided that it should take the form of an offbeat large format fashion magazine. Designed by Alan Deare and printed by Print House Ltd it is a chic publication of editorial photographs styled by Karen Indebitzen-Waller. Photographed over two intense days at Kingsize Studios in Grey Lynn by Fraser Chatham, who’s mastery of lighting created images full of drama; bold, dynamic, moody and poignant. Each image is accompanied by its costume title and artist statement and the publication also offers some literary interpretations, reproductions of original art by June Black, the original Intellectual Fashion Show catalogue (1959), essays by the curators and social photos from the Gala Opening of the exhibition itself.
Head over to the New Zealand Fashion Museum website to check out more images, videos and further content relate to the Intellectual Fashion Show.