Whether filled with concrete or crotchless, the depiction of fabric in David Rimanelli’s exhibition, “Denim,” at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery extends well beyond the bounds of the material. Using the blue jean as a platform to clothing as a uniform, as a means of expressing social or sexual identity, the exhibition also highlights our ability to rebrand ourselves depending on our attire. Complicating the reading of literal materiality with abstraction and metaphor, Rimanelli curates a show of artworks by 11 artists created over the last 40 years. Here he explains the bias against exhibitions on fashion, and how to get more action out of your pants:
SARAH STEPHENSON: What sparked your idea of bringing denim into the realm of “high art”—were you initially thinking about the material itself or were there specific artists that you had in mind?
DAVID RIMANELLI: I was asked to curate the exhibition at this space, which has been newly refurbished, and I’d been thinking a lot about VALIE EXPORT’s image, from the Action Pants series, where her crotch is exposed and she’s holding a rifle. The performance piece she’d done, which subsequently led to those pictures, is so important in the late-60s, early-70s feminist performance art practice and is still so relevant today, especially since we just had the WACK! exhibition at MOCA in Los Angeles. I think that people know of her but very little of her work is actually seen and perhaps even in our jaundiced, jaded, over-evolved era they are still provocative and maybe, to some people, disturbing.
STEPHENSON: How did that work lead to the idea of denim?
RIMANELLI: Initially, I was drawn to the gun and the idea of artillery but I thought maybe that was too obvious and I didn’t want to make an overt statement about war. When you consider the female performance artists of EXPORT’s period, they’re all very pretty women in a conventional way, even though they’re challenging that beauty. I was riveted by what she was wearing – her insane wig and her “action pants,” which are customized jeans. From there I started thinking about other artworks, like Rob Pruitt’s sculptural blue jeans. His is the only piece in the show to actually incorporate denim. Otherwise, denim only appears in photographic representation such as Hanna and Klara Liden’s collaborative photograph Untitled (Hanna and Klara)—or not at all, but as allusion or metaphor, as with much of Karlheinz Weinberger’s work here. It’s a very sexed-up show, without being overtly erotic, particularly because of our reception of denim through fashion, as opposed to viewing it as work clothes for laborers – which is what denim was initially made for.
STEPHENSON: I didn’t realize that denim originated in France and Italy as work wear for sailors during the Renaissance.
RIMANELLI: Right, and it’s evolved to the point where this show must involve style and fashion. But it’s not a fashion show and that’s why it’s important to have these works that are abstract or, again, allusive. My interpretation of the the way denim has flooded fashion, from Levi Strauss to Chanel Couture Denim, is through Hollywood in the 50s, and the figure of the rebel and outsider: from Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean, or a depressed Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits. Then of course Andy Warhol did all those images of Brando in jeans, creating a different transmission of hotness. When you think of Warhol’s Blow Job film from 1963, one of his first films, there’s no denim but there’s also no depiction of the activity promised in the racy title. I’m assuming, according to the guy’s leather jacket, his hairstyle and the cigarette, that there is a pair of jeans around his ankles or thrown into the corner of the room.
STEPHENSON: How do you see other works fitting into the show?
RIMANELLI: Then there’s Tom Burr’s three panels of T-shirts, which reference the color and distressed look of old work clothes. Wearing denim or T-shirts is eroticized by its intimate contact with someone’s flesh, while providing a sense of identity in the uniform quality of the clothes. Warhol’s book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, ends with “Just think of all the James Deans out there.” We’ve bought into it at some point in our lives.
STEPHENSON: But even though we’ve all been seduced by the fashion industry it’s not something that you’re knocking in your exhibition…
RIMANELLI: Not at all, if I were I would have to disrobe right now and put a big white sheet on! But I’m also not invested in it. This is more of an investigation of fashion and the way in which its a giant conduit, as with Hollywood, of our fantasies and desires; how we choose to be individuals by wearing the same thing as everyone else: jeans, T-shirt and Nikes.
DENIM IS ON VIEW THROUGH MARCH 13. 80WSE GALLERY IS LOCATED AT 80 WASHINGTON SQUARE EAST.
UNTITLED (HANNA AND KLARA LIDEN), ROB PRUITT, BENCH. COURTESY THE ARTISTS