Magazine Review: W November 2007
Okay, as you may have gathered by now, Ac.Stet is jobless and struggling to make ends meet as a person-who-makes-art. As of last month, he has taken a vow – like some monk from some clothedom temple – to go on an austerity drive.
But Ac.Stet realized to his chagrin that November is really a demonic month to begin any austerity drive especially when it comes to his indulgence for fashion magazines.
Why? With Art Basel Miami (arguably now the most buzzy art fair over 50 states) revving up for its curtain call early next month, the magazines have abandoned their impassioned Green pursuits – a popular central theme in the preceding months – in favor of embracing the Arts as an editorial theme for their November issues.
Now, when you twin Arts and Fashion together – two of Ac.Stet’s most fevered passions – in one magazine, something’s gotta give in Ac.Stet flummoxing life. Predictably, he bought them up … and had to forgo a huge slice of his grocery money (not alot to begin with) and survive more on 3-minute noodles.
Previously, Conde Nast’s W has been a title Ac.Stet has consciously delayed reviewing. It is one of his favorite magazines, and he has been reading it since he was in his teens. But such familiarity mandates a certain distance in order to wean off whatever biases (good ones) he may have with this lovely publication.
But with this November edition – cover-lined “The Art Issue” and buffeted with a choice of nine Richard Prince covers – it is excruciatingly hard to resist not making an indecent pass at it.
It has an incredible line-up of contributors, the caliber of whom only a formidable fashion title can attract: Ac.Stet’s McDreamalicious Mario Sorrenti, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, M|M Paris and Juergen Teller, as well as resounding names in the art world, Kiki Smith and Matthew Barney.
So it was quite a minor dip in anticipation when the magazine opened with a trend story on Pg 100, “Trends: Wild Things”. The writer Venessa Lau reports on the resort trend of Africana, with Franco Rubartelli’s photograph of Veruschka-in-safari-lace-ups in mind. Now, Ac.Stet has read a couple of Ms. Lau’s work before and most of it consists of catwalk reports. Her style is insipid, a consequence – Ac.Stet prays – is only because of her youth. And it shows. Let Ac.Stet give you an example from this article:
“… Michael Kors channeled a jetset Veruschka-gone-to-Marrakesh (His girl is trading in that gun for a pair of shades and a cocktail) …”
Unfortunately, it reminds Ac.Stet of the Stone Soup bedtime story his Papa used to read him as a kid, where in the end, the pot of soup taste entirely of all the other ingredients and not of the stone. Look, if you take away Veruschka’s gun in the context of her safari garb, that iconic essence is gone, isn’t it? So why keep forcing in that Rubartelli image of Veruschka?
That is not all. From an initial springboard from the safari idea, Ms. Lau went off-point to talk about tribal influences from designers like Sigerson Morrison. So Ms. Lau not only thinks safari = Marrakesh, but also that safari = tribal. In fashion writing, one has to be focused and concise, otherwise, it becomes fluff, the stuff that people read for a laugh on a train-ride and then forget.
But the article is not entirely flawed. At the very least, the mentions of Meryl Streep’s Out of Africa (although it slipped Ms. Lau that her invocation of the term “blixen-babe” earlier in the text owes its birth to Karen Blixen, of which the movie was based) and … Cate Blanchett’s Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull caused Ac.Stet to be rather excited.
The Beauty Flash pages made Ac.Stet stop in his visual tracks. Now, Ac.Stet don’t usually read Beauty sections, since he is blessed with good complexion genes and has little use for things the fairer sex indulge in but when a paragraph in “The Acne Diet (Pg 174)” says dark chocolate may alleviate acne, Ac.Stet just about need that to justify his pralines diet while in Milan.
Sometimes, you really wonder if fashion magazines still used to be that know-it-all they profess to be, in the Age of fake-smart-fudge-all Yahoo-oogle-bility. On Page 178, the Travel Flash section recommends a list of hotels to stay in Miami for December’s Art Basel.
W may have the misfortune of having someone like Ac.Stet who knows the arts, fashion and travel (and many other fields also) to critique its publication. And he can tell you a couple of things wrong here. First of all, it is already too late to recommend hotels for Art Basel in November. Hotels have all been booked since October, some even by September. Second, even if there are vacancies, they are going to be at prices beyond the budget of your average W reader. Yes, a W reader could be a millionaire. But even millionaires don’t like to be ripped off. Third, W recommends The Albion Hotel for stays, which is an awful suggestion.
Now Ac.Stet knows Miami Beach rather well, and The Albion is located at the ghetto end of Lincoln Road, the default main tourist trawl. And let Ac.Stet warn you, it is not pretty. Check in at your own risk.
And then you wonder why places like the Hotel Victor is left out. But then again, W is traditionally weak in its travel writing. This should be considered a minor surprise.
W’s half-tome dedication of the issue to the arts begins on Page 188 with a story on million-dollar art mishaps, and ends on Page 392, Suzy’s paean to Nicolas Sarkozy, liberally lifted from L’Aube Le Soir ou La Nuit by Yasmina Reza.
In-between, there are stories on big devils who teach little devils to wear Prada (Pg 126: “Underage Fashion”), and the devils too busy fighting to wear Prada (Pg. 239: Kevin West’s “No Country for Old Men” actors’ story).
But what this issue of W really does is to teach Ac.Stet a lot about art. You know how sometimes you don’t really know what something is until you figured out what it is not? Well, W’s Art Issue is this way.
Flipping through the pages of where artists such as Richard Prince and Sara van der beek create pages and pages of art-like images, you realize that it is not art.
The worst kinds of art are those created when you are conscious that you are making art. Ms. Van der Beek’s series of images is inspired by the history of photography and collage begins on Pg 370 and runs on for eight leaves. It is a series of flat, uninspired, pretentious works that keeps saying “Man-Ray-Man-Ray-Man-Ray” over and over in Ac.Stet’s head:
In the same vein, the phototextual installationist John Baldessari is poorly used by W in a series of photographic manipulation using archived portraits and images shot by Mario Sorrenti. Sure, editor Julie Belcove explained in her Editor’s Letter (Pg 92) that Baldessari is making art because he stripped the telling facial features of models’ faces and replaced them with acid-colored blobs. But looking at it, Ac.Stet cannot help but be reminded of the bastardized Whistler’s Mom in that Mr. Bean goof movie.
Sadly, works of fashion-as-art are not art. They are mimicry, reproductions of projections of shadows on Plato’s Cave. No doubt some are good pictures, but when you slap on a loaded word like “art” on the series, you expect more. You expect something that lifts you from the humdrums of reality and change the quality of your day, not something you look at and say, oh yes, that looks like art. Something that resembles art is not art. Something that resembles art is that tomfoolery of a practice they christened “design”, so the masses can at least grasp the concept of aesthetics. Fashion suffers from an inferior complex within the socio-cultural domain it operates, in the same way that, say, interior design operates under architecture. It is a minor discipline that could. But surely, for a diamond to be formed, it takes time. Not to mention lots of critique-cal pressure.
Unfortunately, Fashion – fueled by its inherent ego and natural proclivity for showiness – likes to piggyback on hype and leapfrog into something bigger, and of which it is not properly prepared to assume. Fashion, when unchecked, becomes an expanding bubble. The air density inside remains the same but fluff and indifference expands its volume, giving the illusion that it is grander and bigger and higher and fuller, but in essence is only spreading itself ever so thin without filling itself up with the substance to keep pace with its lofty promises.
It promises Art, but no matter how many mirrors, bells, whistles and how much smoke, it delivers essentially the same thing: chiseled lines, painted faces and expensive clothes. It is a different brew of soup, no doubt, but using basically the same ingredients.
Industry players like to say fashion is an art because it offers an alternate universe. True, but Ac.Stet would like to point out that they are talking about Clothedom, not fashion.
Fashion belongs to a fantasy realm, most definitely, but like what Lacan says, fantasies are something that can be approximated but never realized, that is their paradox. It is something that drives fashion people forward, but to declare that they are already there, that fashion has become art, is ridiculous. Ac.Stet can only name a handful of magazines, people and events that have truthfully aspired toward clothedom perimeters of art (i.e. i-D, Kawakubo, Bowery, McKenna, Chalayan). While Clothedom is Art, it is difficult for fashion to be art because it is helplessly tied to clothes and commerce. How can you change the bodies and mercenary greed of men (and women) towards a realm where such human attributes has no relevance?
W certainly can be Art-like, but why should any fashion magazine want to go down this road of pretension? Magazines like POP, Bon, i-D and recently Wonderland (notice they are all European) do fashion spreads that are transcendental, but they don’t soil the atmosphere of their images with a “This Is Art” declaration; conversely, Vanity Fair and New Yorker write fashion as if it consists of a string of existential axioms, but neither label their work as “This Is Fashion”.
Even if Ac.Stet cut W some slack, it should be pointed out that W is only interested in the visual arts. And to push the dagger in deeper (and Ac.Stet is only killing with kindness here), we can say that it narrowly focuses on the most visual of the visual arts: photography chiefly, painting, collage, sculpture (under which Ac.Stet groups installation).
But dance? Performance? And where is Video Art in this issue? Where is this one salient form of the visual arts that Ac.Stet feels will revolutionize the arts in the next century? Where is Aitken, Oursler and Viola? Where’s the address of the democratizing effect of YouTube on video and filmic art?
Oh for sure, W makes a feeble attempt of acknowledging Video Art by yanking some obscure Chinese artists in your face, and an 18-page indulgence on Matthew Barney with a double-fold extension page that would make any advertiser emerald with envy. Ac.Stet attended the Matthew Barney documentary by Alison Chernick last year at Art Basel Miami at Lincoln Road’s Colony Theater and he is not convinced. Mr. Barney is not a video artist. Yes, he makes moving pictures and he makes beautiful films, and he is a performance artist in lieu of his Drawing Restraint projects. His films have a ambiguous mainstream quality of beauty and narrative to them, even though his film language is arcane. Ac.Stet don’t have the seniority in the arts nor the experience in the practice to know for sure (then again, ultimately, who can?). But certainly, Ac.Stet can tell you that Mr. Barney is hardly representative of Video Art. Ac.Stet much prefers his drawings than anything else:
He is definitely interesting, enough for W to develop a soft-spot for. But so is the pretty but vacant Mr. Orlando Bloom on the red carpet at the Cannes, but what does he do, really?
Granted, since the days of Tennant, Warhol and the reign of Weber, beauty (in place of talent) has always been fashion’s obsession. Reminds Ac.Stet of something he once read on a T-shirt: Not Talented But Connected.
Where W fails in its fashion and photographic spreads, it succeeds tremendously in its profiles of seminal movers and shakers in the art industry.
This is an unfortunate irony for a fashion magazine but one that is fitting for W’s effort for November. Not so unfortunate if W is counting on non-fashion and non-targeted people to pick up a copy just because it is an art issue. And not so ironical if you remember that parent company WWD actually has its roots in society. It cut its teeth on profiling the crème de la crème of society, falling back only on fashion as its bread-and-butter, only to evolve gradually as a fashion magazine when the world turned its back on class demarcations. You won’t find information like this anywhere anymore on the Googleverse, because most digital footprints of W Magazine’s history had been * cough * mysteriously erased. But trust Ac.Stet.
For its art stories, deputy editor Julie Belcove continues to build on her reputation as an arts writer functioning in a fashion world.
Giving her two-pence in her two piece on Charles Ray and Marion Goodman, Belcove struggles with a kind of fortitude and industry you would associate more with a college sophomore angling for some sort of favor with a grading professor. She seems to want readers to know she has some kind of upperhand in her interviews and her writer’s voice is somewhat too audible:
“The piece, [Charles Ray] insists, was born of a desire to fashion a compelling multifigure sculpture, and nothing of his true self was revealed. But if there is no connection to his own identity, why did he give each figure his face, and why on earth did he name the thing after himself? Now he’s stumped. “No …”
And again, anyone who thinks Matthew Barney is a great artist is immediately and credentially suspect. Though Ac.Stet concurs that it is a fact that Ms. Belcove writes extremely well, she is no Roberta Smith, but then again, neither is W an ersatz The New Yorker.
W forms that group of nomenclatured magazines that pride themselves with a letter for a name: O, Q, T and V (and of course, then now-defunct M). Perhaps by that minimal gesture of a typesetter’s brushstroke, they seem to say, a whole word is too much and too unnecessary to address what we have to say. So a symbol will just have to do.
Certainly, W is a symbol of fashion insider status, having found its niche as that publication that straddles society and ready-to-wear bordering on luxury.
But for an art issue, reading this month’s W is like taking an art tour in Chelsea but only perusing the goods at the Marian Goodman and no where else. It is hardly symbolic.
Instead of such onerous double duty, it could have just focus on being double-U.