Artist Erica Spitzer Rasmussen's ivory-colored corset reveals the hourglass curves that are so often celebrated and coveted — a narrow waist indented by a wave of hips. But bordering the voluptuous figure lays a pelvic fringe of long, real human hair, a halting sight meant to spoil the fantasy. Rasmussen also encrusted the corset, called “Spoiler,” with dozens of buttons as if bracing the body from touch. This body is not inviting you in.
"This kind of asserts and subverts that intent [of making a female body desirable] because it does kind of hold the body in and have the form, but it also incorporates some unsettling elements as a way to repel sexual advances,” says Beth Conrad McLaughlin, chief curator at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.
Rasmussen’s corset and some other 74 objects are on view in the exhibition “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” at the Fuller Craft Museum until April 21. The show brings together examples of costume and craft jewelry that challenge sensitive cultural norms or illustrate the complicated relationship between vexation and fashion. These are pieces that hurt, scratch, weigh down and make demands on the body and mind.
Ira Sherman’s “Chastity Couture” line features an imposing undergarment made of steel, brass and cast bronze that looks more suited to be worn as armor before a battle than underwear. A riff on the chastity skirt used in medieval times to literally lock up a woman’s virginity, Sherman upends the contraption. In his version, the chastity skirt goes from restraint to anti-rape device. He reclaims the chastity belt as an accessory not imposed on women but recycled and improved to address sexual violence.
There’s also a tiny plastic baby at the opening of the bottom of the underwear. Art must be playful sometimes — even in armored rape-repellents.
The exhibition moves beyond the female form. For her piece “Sins of Our Fathers,” artist Angela Gleason crafted a massive rosary necklace, nearly 6 feet tall, replacing rosary beads with pastel-colored silicone molds of children praying. There’s a whimsical aesthetic to the exaggerated necklace — perfectly symmetrical molds of praying children in lavender, ballet pink, baby blue and yellow.
But linger and the giant necklace halts you. The plastic children as rosary beads, made with silicone that feels fleshy and has much of the same tactility of the human body, are meant to be groped during prayer — a sobering, complicated confrontation of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse of the most vulnerable.
Organized in conjunction with Mass Fashion, a partnership of eight Massachusetts cultural institutions celebrating fashion in the state, “Uneasy Beauty” provides a quintessential craft art experience. It’s at once a chance to admire the materiality of expertly crafted, sculpted objects while also challenging aesthetic notions with rigorous conceptual frameworks symbolized in each piece.
Ted Noten’s acrylic handbag, encasing cocaine and a rosary reflect on human duality while adding a touch of surrealism to the show. His other acrylic handbag encapsulates an uncooked pork chop, referencing our innate carnality and in dialogue or at least in the same lineage as Lady Gaga’s 2010 MTV Video Music Awards meat dress.
A brooch by artist Heather White features black flower petals in the shape of human lips, hearkening Mexican milagro charms. The “Murmuring” brooch is part of her “Botanical Fiction” series, which sets cast anatomical appendages, like navels, nipples and lips, back on the body as form of adornment and statements of mourning.
The symbolism and conceptual nature of each piece in “Uneasy Beauty” blooms through detailed craftsmanship. These are objects that are often both physically and emotionally heavy, or dark ideas embodied in beautifully crafted materials. Conrad McLaughlin thinks some visitors to the museum may be at once allured and provoked.
"Nothing was done just for shock value. Everything here was rendered for beauty and for allure and to really communicate the messaging with just stunning articulation and the utmost craftsmanship.”
“Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” is on view at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton until April 21.
This segment aired on January 3, 2019.