I love blogging because of the places I end up and the people I meet. So on a Friday night I find myself, not at home on the sofa or doing the ironing, but in a private members club in Soho, glass of bubbly in hand talking about fashion, photography and sculpture. It is fun and exciting, but I am out of my comfort zone and I have brought a friend with me for backup.
We have already had a hurried conversation on the phone about what we are going to wear, us ‘busy Mums’ struggle to get out of the jeans and trainers, tonight we agree to go with cool and elegant with ‘big’ jewellery. I get on the train and laugh when I see we are wearing near identical white and black outfits, but by the end of the night she has pulled pork on her top and I busted my belt and had to ‘hoik’ my trousers up all night so perhaps we failed on the ‘cool and elegant’ vibe.
To be honest though it is hard not to feel a fashion failure when you look at the photographs of Norman Parkinson. Fashion photographer for over 50 years, his Vogue shoots are iconic and even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the photos will. It is these photos we are drawn to first of all when we head upstairs at the Union Club. They are stunning: Audrey Hepburn; Jerry Hall; an effortless, stylish, cool other world. Some photos so evocative of a time and place, whilst others are fresh as a daisy, they could have been taken yesterday.
Artists Kathy Dalwood and Alice Mara were given access to the Norman Parkinson Archive, but with 750,000 negatives and over 3000 original photographs in the archive, it must have been a mammoth task to sift through such a wealth of material. This access proved to be the inspiration behind their work, a 3D sculptural response to high fashion, and graceful style. But when you look at Parkinson’s photographs you realise they are so much more than fashion photography, they’re sculptural and architectural in their own right. There is symmetry and angles, soft curves and fine lines, they are quite mesmersing. I wonder how the eye can see, comprehend and capture all this in one picture. In fact not in just one picture but again and again and again.
Alice Mara has produced ceramics, my friend eyes the lamps with envy, the hotels make me think of stories waiting to unfold. Who is the the chap with his back to the window? What are the moments being played out in rooms away from prying eyes? I love the detail of the swimming pools on top of the lamps with iridescent swimmers forever frozen in a watery moment in time.
Kathy Dalwood, known for her sculptural work in concrete and plaster, large and small scale, has created two busts for the show and her ‘Secret Society Banquet’ is laid out before us. I feel quite out of my depth on this one, contemporary art and I are not particularly familiar with each other and I can’t deny I don’t quite know what to make of her work. My friend and I stand there and talk about what we can see, just as we have with the Norman Parkinson photographs. We spot the familiar and everyday, the odd and the confusing. We debate how the installation was created, some objects dipped in plaster perhaps others are painted. The busts with their striking similar faces must be a kind of ‘stock face’ used every time with the creations adorning them varied and different.
There are small pyramids, lego bricks, telephones and eccentric headgear that remind me of Philip Treacy or Stephen Jones millinery. I dimly recall Marie Antoinette’s penchant for fantastical wigs and head gear. It seems the echoes of the past are all around us, I feel this reinvention is intriguing. We look closer at the textures trying to make out fabric, polystyrene and plastic. Whilst I am not sure how I immediately feel about the work, there is no doubt it provokes conversation and debate between us. Then I am very lucky to get a chance to meet Kathy and ask her all the questions that are bubbling up in my head.
How are they made? What is the process? What became the inspiration? How did Parkinson’s photos inspire? Where have the objects come from? Why work in this way? Kathy told us of a visit to the Sir John Soane’s Museum and being drawn in by the busts exhibited there. She explained how she creates the sculptures and makes silicon moulds from them. She talks us through one bust, a camera key ring, the cord from a blind round her neck, the net from a bag of oranges, here there is corrugated cardboard, there is a British Museum gift shop replica.
Kathy is playing with the everyday in her installation, it is objects you know, objects familiar but presented in a different way. They are taking the lines of fashion, of architecture, of Norman Parkinson’s work. Echoed and subverted they confuse me, but I can’t deny I am drawn in. Kathy’s passion is infectious, it is why I am so glad I came and why I dipped a toe in a slightly different world to one I am used to.
Too often we struggle to engage with what we don’t understand, but sometimes we don’t have to understand everything we see. If it provokes conversation and makes us think, then it is doing its job. It is definitely worth a trip to the Union Club, seeing Norman Parkinson’s work side by side with Kathy and Alice’s sculptural response is memorable, a night I am not likely to forget and if you get there I doubt you will forget it either.
After Parkinson is on at the Union Club, Greek Street, Soho. http://www.unionclub.co.uk/after-parkinson-ehibition-norman-parkinson.php
The exhibition runs till 2nd October and is part of the London Design Festival, free to visit from 11am -8pm every day, a must see for fashionistas and architectural enthusiasts alike.
For more on fantastic hairstyles and wigs this blog has some excellent examples –