Structuring Charm: Tony Reade

Earlier this year Tony Reade exhibited at First Site Gallery with an exhibition that explored the language of and societal associations attributed to dress. CRITICAL writer and visual artist Melissa Hamlyn responds to Reade’s exhibition, musing upon the relationship that exists within fashion, identity and art.


Image Credit: Sarah Lay

When it comes to songs that use fashion as a central theme, my mind plays an eclectic and disparate soundtrack. Beginning with Fashion by Bowie, then switching to Baggy Pants by Madness- it then wanders off into Rewear It by M.I.A as my eyes scan the works of Tony Reade. The artworks are high-end fashion garments – POLO by Ralph Lauren – the clothes are creased, folded, bunched and stuffed into vacuum sealed plastic bags – the kind you see on infomercials being championed by optimistic and friendly housewives swamped by cushion covers, blankets and teddy bears.

A striking feature of the artworks are their arrangement; each bag is grouped into what appears to be colour-coded compositions: vibrant floral motifs are paired with soft and muted pastels – lush and punchy yellows, greens and blues jostle with optic whites, faded pinks and wilted citrus hues. Nearby sits a painting – the only one present in the show. It depicts a young man – late 20’s- posing for a magazine cover, the emblazoned header reads POLO by Ralph Lauren – he is confident and attractive – or so I assume. The painting has an unfinished appearance, as if made in a great haste – features and details are faint and the colours are washed out and vague – my mind is forced to re-create the familiar scene in the signature finish of a high end glossy advertising magazine. He poses in front of a luxury car, hands in pockets, his wrist reveals an expensive watch face -silver, mounted onto soft brown leather. His short auburn hair is carefully combed to one side, a crisp white collared shirt and tie appear briefly before being covered by a bright yellow jersey,  framed in a fawn coloured waist length autumn jacket..


Image Credit: Sarah Lay

The painting is paired with the unusual vacuum sealed bags work in unison to create a complete ‘look’. Reade’s work deals with fashion and style as a way of crafting an identity that triggers speculation on status, demographic, geographic and vocational markers.  Fashion provides a syntax that comments on self perception and dress. Ralph Lauren promotes certain attributes that are linked to social mobility, idealized lifestyles, and material wealth – according to the Ralph Lauren website they aspire to ‘timelessness’, ‘enduring quality’, ‘style’, ‘elegance’ and ‘sophisticated luxury’. A quick google image search reveals celebrities such as Kanye and Lil Wayne posing in the signature shirts as well as notable tennis and golfing figures. Generic models are coupled – textbook renditions of an idealized nuclear family.  Reade’s work displaces these garments from the idealized space of the runway and the glamorized facades of magazine covers and recreates them in the confines of the galley revealing their use as a festishised commodity.

The clothes are presented as artefacts or specimens – their airless encasements pinned to the walls in static pose is an intention of the artist. Each bag reminds me of a pictogram similar to those found in Egypt, Greece and Rome. This feeling extends into the architectural space of the gallery –  it is evocative of a catacomb or the underground entrance to a shrine.  The hermetically sealed  bags line the walls and lead your eye to the painting which hangs alone and central on the back wall of the gallery – a dead end. You reach the painting and are forced to turn and walk back through the other gallery rooms. Spotlights create a soft glow giving a reverent and hushed ambience. The space acts as a third party in constant feedback to the works and the viewer. Elements of fine art, found objects and contemporary textiles site the works in the everyday but also reference the studio and runway. Spiritual and utilitarian Structuring Charm uses fine art sensibilities to filter the interpersonal relationships one has with one’s own body and clothing plus that of others.


Image Credit: Sarah Lay

In the assemblages, each garment is dependent upon the other to form a dialogue, they are a pictographic account of the wearer’s experiences and also that of those who desire them. Isolated in their airless baggage, sealed off from exterior influences such as power and the environment they are static and silent. Yet in this inertia they become polemic and emphatic gestures. They activate a script that runs subliminally  in the background, subconsciously evoking  desires, assumptions and attributes.

‘There is much support to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we them’, mused  Virginia Woolf in Orlando (1928) attempts to show how the clothes we wear create a dialogue between  wearer and those that view  them plus  alluding to  a vibrant life between garments.   Reade’s exhibition emotes the complex personal relationship one has with their physical body and mind in relation to another’s unworn clothes and their own. Clothes become active conduits of the wearer’s psychodrama – they absorb feelings, thoughts and actions and can evoke memory, imagination and nostalgia. I am transported back to Brisbane suburbs of the late 80’s seeing myself as a 7 yo old rifling through my fancy dress box containing my mother’s unwanted evening dresses,  tangle of glow mesh purses,  cheap costume beads and oversized heels.


Image Credit: Sarah Lay

These imaginings and experiences are often used in advertising to inspire people to buy the clothes in order to ‘buy into’ the lifestyles they promote. The spectacle of the runway ‘performance’ is choreographed to highlight movement, line, gesture and texture of fabrics aided by the ceremonial  way of wearing and walking. Reade abandons this in favour of an artist’s gaze that utilizes a two dimensional picture plane, stasis, light, drawing, gesture, and abstraction, Reade manifests the expressive and conceptual language of luxury sportswear  and recreates the the experience of rifling through a magazine  using fine art as a filter.

 As I contemplate this exhibition, Lady Gaga’s  Fashion of His Love drifts into my subliminal radio station  and I am wrenched back into the now, away from the catacombs of exotic lands and the glamour of unobtainable brand name handbags, t shirts and urban wear.

There is energy in garments, they have a physical lifespan but achieve longevity through a potent and immortal sense of nostalgia,  attachment and eternal longing to ‘be what you wear’.  I am uncertain if the clothes before me are genuine or bootlegged, I can’t tell if they are fakes sometimes a copy can be good enough- so good it can still create a desire in others. Garments are more than just bits of cloth sewn together, they contain complex emotions, meanings and experiences that bind them to us and us to them.


Image Credit: Sarah Lay


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