For many of us, the most artistic thing we do is get dressed in the morning (and thank goodness we don’t have art critics perched outside our closets). The three artists whose exhibit “Dress Code” opens on Wednesday, February 21, at gallery of the College of New Jersey, have turned the concept of what people wear on its head.

According to the show’s curator, Liselot van der Heijden, a tenure-track assistant professor of art at TCNJ, “The projects in Dress Code use clothing to examine the construction of identity within specific cultural frameworks like consumer and corporate culture, gender stereotypes, and a location where fears and anxieties are both a personal and a collective experience. The artists use humor and irony to communicate these complex social issues to audiences mostly unaware that they are part of an artistic project.”

Van der Heijden was born in Haarlem, Netherlands. Her parents were artists — her father designed jewelry and her mother was a textile artist. She came to New York in 1988 and studied one semester at the School of Visual Art (in New York), and then was accepted at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a private, full-scholarship college, where she received her BFA in 1992. She earned an MFA at Hunter College in 1999.

Van der Heijden has exhibited her own work internationally, has lectured on her own work, and has been awarded a fellowship and multiple residencies. She produces installations, videos, and photographs.

She says “Dress Code” came about when the art department asked her to curate a group exhibition. “When I started I wanted to make an exhibition that would fit well in our gallery and would be relevant to our art students and institution, and hopefully interesting to a broader audience,” she says via E-mail.

She currently teaches Three-Dimensional Design, Sculpture 1, Advanced Sculpture, and Conceptual Art, and the latter inspired the exhibit. “I wanted to include artists and works that use some of the artistic strategies that are discussed in the course. I wanted works that are relevant to contemporary art practice, and that are intellectually challenging. I also wanted to have work that reflects upon ‘the familiar’ and that raises questions about how we perceive things.

“I have been familiar with the work of several artists that use clothing and thought this could be a compelling and accessible topic that would allow some more challenging art forms and nontraditional media practices.”

She says that for “Re-Bagged: First Collection,” “German artist Elke Lehmann shopped at mega-brand stores including H&M (a popular mid-priced high-style fashion emporium in New York), Puma, and GAP to select materials for her clothing/packaging hybrids. Lehmann then employed various strategies to incorporate each shopping bag (sometimes even the receipt and change) into the garment it contained, creating pouches, sleeves, skirts, hoods and adjustable design elements.”

In the exhibit, some of Lehmann’s garment hybrids will be on display as objects, accompanied by a slide show of the garment hybrids worn by models in urban settings. In one example we see a woman in a red turtleneck, and what appears to be a white miniskirt with a large, red H&M logo. The skirt is actually the shopping bag from H&M, from where the turtleneck was presumably purchased. The handle of the bag peeps through the turtleneck at the waistline, cleverly incorporated into the “buckle” of the belt.

In the exhibit’s brochure Van der Heijden writes, “Dissolving the boundaries between container and contained, ‘Re-Bagged: First Collection’ collapses the effectiveness of seductive marketing displays.” When I ask van der Heijden to explain how she feel’s Lehmann’s work “collapses” marketing, she says, “I used the term ‘collapse’ because it implies the collapse of a structure, i.e., the structure of seductive marketing. I don’t think Lehmann’s intention is to show an example or simply celebrate packaging. In her work the use of packaging is rather a subversion, an absurd exaggeration and critique of our culture’s total emphasis on branding and packaging and ultimately of waste and recycling.”

‘Seams,” by Canadian artist Jillian Macdonald, van der Heijden writes, “is part of her ongoing series of performance interventions in public spaces that attempt to wrest everyday activities from their usual associations. In a downtown Manhattan storefront, one year after September 11, 2001, Macdonald invited passersby to lend an article of clothing of personal significance, for the length of the exhibition. When participants agreed, she asked them to speak with her about their personal fears and anxieties. Macdonald translated each individual’s fear into a personal protection message, to counter the fear.

During four weeks, Macdonald was present in the storefront, hand-embroidering into the seams and and inverted places of these clothing items the individual messages for each owner.”

A video documenting Macdonald’s project will be shown at the exhibit. “We will also have several articles of clothing on display. It has been difficult to track down the garments and their owners. I have requested responses from the owners, but so far have I haven’t received their statements, so I am not sure if this component will be included in the exhibition.”

As for why the messages of protection were placed in hidden places, she says, “The messages are placed in hidden/non-obvious places because they are private, personal, and intimate. The messages are only directed to the person who wears the garment. It is about a way of being with oneself, and not about communicating to the public.”

The third artist exhibiting in “Dress Code” is Japanese artist Momoyo Torimitsu. In Torimitsu’s performance project, “Miyata Jiro, “she wears a nurse’s uniform and leads a robot (for which she cast body parts and designed the original robotic system) around city streets. Torimitsu says, “I made a life-size crawling robot (in the guise of a businessman) as a corporate soldier to let him crawl on the streets of big cities in the world. It provoked a variety of different responses showing how people react to the stereotype and revealing their own cultural preconceptions.” Video documentation of “Miyata Jiro” will be shown at the exhibit as well as documentation of mainstream media reactions to the project specifically made for the exhibit.

Of the reactions to the project van der Heijden explains, “Some people reacted with worry, wondering whether the businessman was OK. Others became upset, maybe because it is not dignified to crawl, or maybe because they identified with the businessman, or maybe because the performance symbolizes the hierarchical structure within corporate culture. Many people smiled. There were a lot of media reactions: often making silly jokes and not addressing some of the more sensitive issues the performance raised, including the economic crisis in Asia at the time.”

“Dress Code,” opening reception Wednesday, February 21, 5 to 7 p.m., College of New Jersey, Art Gallery, Holman Hall, Ewing. On view through March 28. www.tcnj.edu/~tcag or 609-771-2198.

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