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This World Is Not Enough

Melissa Webb explores alternate universes through her fiber creations

Melissa Webb's "Grassman"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/9/2009

In a Material World . . .

Gallery Imperato through Sept. 12

The seven Melissa Webb designs currently installed at Gallery Imperato's In a Material World . . . form an incomplete exhibition for the local fiber artist. That's not to imply that the pieces aren't visually alluring, impishly creative, or engagingly accessible. Far from it, in fact: Webb's imaginative work is inviting and pleasurable, offering instant entry points into her colorful, sensual vocabulary. This show feels incomplete because Webb doesn't make sculpture or installations: She makes clothing that becomes truly activated when animated by the living human body.

At the Aug. 14 opening, models wore a few of Webb's designs, and the exhibition includes photographic documentation of Webb's designs in action from her solo and collaborative performance projects (photographers include Lisa Dietrich and City Paper contributor Uli Loskot; Webb herself has been a participating model in many a CP special-issue cover shoot). Some of those collaborations include costumes for aminibigcircus, the performance troupe in which Webb has participated since its 1997 founding.

"Costumes," though, inadequately represents Webb's work, even though she has worked professionally in the industry at A.T. Jones and Sons Costumers, as Everyman Theatre's costumer and assistant designer, and teaching theatrical production at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Historical plays and period-piece movies require clothing that approximates another era using the tools and things of this one. What Webb does is altogether more wily and seductive, and she articulates her enterprise in the very title of the show. The key word isn't "material" but the noun it modifies: Webb is a world creator, an explorer of cultures whose beliefs and ideals become manifest in the way these cultures choose to clothe the body. Her material choices--feathers, cargo netting, sea shells, tulle, taffeta, silk, lace, etc.--matter, primarily in what they communicate about the people who wear them.

The exhibition's installation strategy subtly expresses this idea. Many pieces aren't merely hung on mannequins, but posed and placed in complimentary environments that feel like ethnographic museum displays. For "Grassman" and "Swamp Nymph," Webb's fiber designs are placed in front of improvised ladders of tree branches, which become a backdrop that suggests another place, another culture. The "Swamp Nymph" stands with her back straight and her arms relaxed and slightly raised, as if extending a hand waiting for an attendant. On the floor a ring of colorful flower buds skirts the circumference of her floor-length gown. Right next to her sits the "Grassman," looking like an aggrieved leader. His right hand rests on his right knee; in his left he holds a scepter of serpentine trellises of fabric. His head is slightly tilted, as if in deep consideration of some pressing topic from which he shouldn't be distracted.

No idea if "Grassman" and "Swamp Nymph" were created as a pair, but they become a regal dyad in Imperato's gallery. Their palettes--the eye-catching blues and greens of the sea, which often combine to form the soothing aquamarine hues of tropical fish, tidal pools, and bathhouse tiles--compliment each other, as do their execution. The garments appear formed by long strands, as if inspired by beds of kelp. Besides, they look like a couple--emissaries from some forgotten land under sea.

Don't assume such whimsy belongs purely in the realm of the escapist make-believe of cosplay or some other role-playing fantasy. Webb's seriousness is manifested in the quality of her work. "The Messenger" is as much an example of exquisite craftsmanship as it is a stylistic peacock of ideas. Webb somehow takes a handful of earthen colors--the sort of ochres, burnt siennas, glossy beiges, and other approximations of arid soil and wet clay Dutch painters used to approximate candlelit interiors--and turns them into a vibrant bouquet. The design looks like a uniform--presumably worn by the messenger for whatever court that needs its missives messengered--and it's achieved with deft precision. Feathers form ruffles in bands along its sleeves and up the front. It's held together with buttons that look formed from antler slivers. And its headgear--a public fountain of feathers and silk--is as much an architectural marvel as an eye-catching accessory. Putting these delicate materials--which also includes silk, brocade, and crochet--together is no easy feat; making them do so elegantly is impressive and ingenious.

Webb the world-creator is especially evident in her 2009 Transmodern installation, "The Temporary Nature of Ideas," which appears here only in a computer slideshow presentation but which convincingly demonstrates that Webb isn't merely making wearable art, but artifacts for larger, imaginative creative universes with evolving cultures and belief systems. And those other cultures can often comment on ours: The four dresses Webb includes here from her 2007 Transmodern Festival collaboration with M. Jane Taylor (an erstwhile CP contributor) uses fabric for satirical purposes. The "Uppity Ladies" performance combined elegantly clad, stilt-wearing women with a small army of gobbledygook-spouting gnomes. The performance explored class with the wily sense of absurdist theater, and though the gnomes quickly became flogging-a-dead-horse annoying, Webb nailed the idea in the Victorian-era-riffing dresses worn by the stilt-walking women.

These gowns combine the high-neck and leg-of-mutton sleeved gowns of the prim and proper with clashing patterns and almost garishly colored fabrics. Gold crushed velvet runs into white floral patterns and carnation-yellow sleeves or hot coral belts, colors more associated with tarts than vicars. And just in case you're not getting the cheeky commentary, Webb makes their skirts ridiculously long--pragmatically to cover the stilts, sure, but in the process making them a hyperbole of modesty. Through clothing alone, Webb pokes holes in the idea of clothes defining a woman, visually turning these so-called uppity ladies--you know, those assuming airs beyond their proverbial station--into champagne flutes of effervescent insouciance. ?

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