Nicky Bird's Work-in-Progress, The Fitting,
Leeds City Art Gallery, April 1-7, 1996
This review was published in Women's Art Magazine, June-July, 1996.
The completed exhibition, The Fitting, is at Leeds City Art Gallery, September 19 - Novermeber 8, 1998.
See Nicky Bird's electronic artword for The Fitting, 1998, Red Herrings.
Nicky Bird's gaze is slipping, sliding closer to the margins of the image and ever farther away from the Hollywood goddesses who have constituted the ostensible centre of her work for the past several years. Or rather, this eccentric gaze is redefining the centre, 'pivoting' it, as Bettina Aptheker has said, asking increasingly difficult questions about how and who defines the focal points of western popular culture images.
In a 1993 exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery, Absent Bodies/Present Lives, Nicky Bird confounded any linear trajectory of the gaze by displaying her masquerade paintings of Hollywood screen goddesses from the 1930s-'50s in a triangular 'dressing table' setting that entrapped and interwove the viewer's image with that of the 'goddesses'; the viewer, positioned in the locus of the image much as the masked and costumed artist herself had been, re-enacted the process of production of the painting. This unpicking of the fabric of the painting's creation was pushed further by subsequent work, "Dressed to Paint", also exhibited at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1994. Here, assisted by Tony Clancy, Nicky Bird restaged the painting of the 'goddess' works in elaborate photographs that triangulated the 'original' painting with the artist 'dressed to paint' in the costumes and masks of the actress, and the watching eye of the camera/viewer. With the scene of Nicky Bird's art production thus mapped, it was probably inevitable that her next step would align the space of the gallery with that of the art-making process itself in The Fitting: Work in Progress.
In a New York costume shop in 1955, the photographer Ed Feingersh is outside the fitting room, taking photographs for a one-month assignment on Marilyn Monroe in the city. In one of his photographs, we see only a sliver of Monroe's reflection through the fitting room door as she tries on costumes for a Barnum and Bailey Circus Gala to benefit the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation. But the photographer has also captured a group of spectators - marginal and out-of-focus - in the left edge of his frame. Four 'ordinary' women, probably shop assistants or aids to the costume fitter, are transfixed on the threshold of the fitting room by the image of Monroe around the corner, and are divided from the reflected 'Monroe' half of the photo by the back of a suited man. The photographer's own image is strikingly absent from this maze of reflections.
As Nicky Bird recognised, the right-hand side of this photograph (published in Marilyn Fifty-Five: photographs from the Michael Ochs Archives by Ed Feingersh, text by Bob LaBrasca, Bloomsbury, 1990) is over-identified, burdened with the mythologies surrounding the figure of Marilyn Monroe - an image so over-determined that "... put a blonde wig and lipstick on anyone - even a man", notes Clare Duffy, "and they become Marilyn Monroe". But in this project, what Ed Feingersh originally framed as an incidental joke contrasting 'ordinary' women with the star has been pivoted across the male figure's enigmatic back, as it were, to serve in Nicky Bird's reconstruction as an 'archaeological' interrogation of the nearly-absent female audience that composes the other half of the photograph.
Recovering the out-of-focus, marginal female audience, Vicky Anderson, Clare Duffy, and Louisa Ashly have assisted Nicky Bird as performers who inhabit the positions of the watching women in a series of photographic reconstructions that range from individual, period pieces to contemporary group translations of the original women's roles and costumes, while Graham Robinson plays the male figure. Jo Morris collaborated on the design and produced the Monroe corset costume, and Tony Clancy has once again provided photographic support.
In the gallery, the right-hand side of the fitting room image is reconstructed as a life-sized stage set, with mannequins, Nicky Bird's collaborators, and visitors to the gallery taking turns throughout the week to inhabit the positions of the watching women. A group of young girls giggle as they try on the 50's wigs and spectacles, posing for the camera and each other. An adult education class recalls the fashions of their high-school years, working in the dance halls, and dancing in the aisles in local cinemas as Hollywood spread the new rock-n-roll. During the exhibition's "Memory Days", both The Fitting room's set and Nicky Bird's extensive library of '50's' Hollywood publications transform the gallery into a studio for the reconstruction of that imaginary category, "the 50's".
"Are you a portrait painter?", one visitor asks Nicky Bird. While the artist acknowledges the currents of both painting and portraiture that run through her work, from Las Meninas to Warhol's reworkings of the Monroe publicity shots, there is something more complex going on here than nostalgia for Monroe and the early feminist critiques of female spectatorship. Rather, Nicky Bird's Fitting strategies translate the artist's space of production into a 1:1 scale simulacrum of the site of the image's construction - and dissolution.
May 1, 1996