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ART : WIT WE WEAR : Out of the Closet, 'Lun*na Menoh's Boutique Mystique' Gets at the Fabric of Humor

October 06, 1994|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County.

Fashion has had an intriguing relationship to cutting-edge culture in this century, from the outrageous costumes the Russian Futurists paraded in the streets in the 1910s to English designer Vivienne Westwood's flamboyant punk rock-style outfits of the 1970s.

Fanciful garments by Lun*na Menoh--at the South Coast Plaza satellite of the Laguna Art Museum through Dec. 4--flirt with the tradition of shock-apparel in beguiling ways.

* "Indoor Game I"--a life-size velvet-covered outfit lined with floral-printed cloth--has the hourglass silhouette of a Victorian dress, with ruffles and lace-up sides. But there's a twist: The box format resembles a girl's vanity case and a plastic panel in front with visible garters serves as a sly form of "window dressing." (A companion piece, "Indoor Game II," is based on the swelling outline of an 18th-Century hoop skirt.)

* "Peking Bra" is a ruffled, pearl- and button-trimmed creation grafted onto the metal curlicues of an ornamental side table. The bra top of this unlikely outfit with a punning title looks like a giant pair of eyeglasses.

* "Silhouette Dress," a ruffled gingham design that's as flat as a board (i.e., model-thin), contains a cutout of a woman in the traditional arms-akimbo model pose.

Such cleverly crafted pieces are partly about the sexual tease of fashion, from the peek-a-boo glimpse to the hint of bondage, from the ruffle as a distant relation of the froth of pubic hair to the plump, covered button as nipple. They are about Woman as Theater--women as the eternal object of men's gaze.

They also are about fashion as a curiously aggressive and non-functional branch of architecture, rearranging bodily contours--hiding or revealing, enlarging or diminishing--as if they were as malleable as empty space. And they are about fashion as play--a socially acceptable game of dress-up for adults.

Menoh frankly acknowledges the tyrannical idealism of haute couture , made expressly to suit the thinnest and tallest, as well as the seemingly infinite adaptability of the female form to suit the "look" of a given season or a given designer.

Refreshingly, however, "Boutique Mystique"--which also contains numerous other items--is not yet another critique of the objectification of women in contemporary society. Menoh, who clearly relishes working with fabrics and trimmings, seems more interested in investigating the multiple meanings of fashion in a witty way.

Trained as a fashion designer in Tokyo--where she lived until moving to Los Angeles five years ago--Menoh (nee Atsuko Shimizu) is able to view Western style at a certain amused distance.

While traditional Japanese culture has elaborate rules of dress and a deep distrust of nonconformity, Western fashion appears to be about rampant individualism. In fact, of course, it is heavily conformist but always in flux, forcing its "slaves" to keep nervously au courant .

In Menoh's "Articulate Cap," a text printed on a roll of plastic serves as a veil on a rudimentary piece of headgear. This Constructivist-style piece playfully suggests the extent to which clothing "speaks" for us without our having to open our mouths.

Menswear gets equal deconstruction time in "Gentlemen's Closet," a rack of shirts cut away so that they are no more than a skeletal outline of collars, button plackets and cuffs, and trousers reduced to waistbands, pockets and cuffs.

Held together by mere traceries of fabric, the garments suggest a visual conceit, like a bravura drawing made without picking up the pencil. By stripping men's clothes down to their prime components, Menoh underlines the sternly utilitarian nature of men's clothing. A wall text in the show likens the piece to "a limp instrument of torture." If (as the cliche has it) clothes make the man, they are oddly pathetic when they aren't engaged in bondage.

Hip and flip and worldly-wise, "Boutique Mystique" sometimes walks a thin line between cute and clever, but Menoh's visual inventiveness and unexpected cultural juxtapositions give her work a compelling edge.

* What: "Lun*na Menoh's Boutique Mystique."

* When: Through Dec. 4. From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

* Where: Laguna Art Museum's South Coast Plaza satellite (carousel entrance), 3333 Bristol St., Costa Mesa.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Street and head north. Exit to South Coast Plaza.

* Wherewithal: Free.

* Where to call: (714) 662-3366.

MORE ART

IN ORANGE: ECO-ART

At Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery through Oct. 8, "Urban Artists and the Natural World" features sculptures, photographs and installations by 17 artists who deal with ecological themes in engrossingly diverse and open-ended ways. (714) 997-6729.

IN LAGUNA BEACH: ECOLOGY

At the Laguna Art Museum through Oct. 9, "Fragile Ecologies: Artists' Interpretations and Solutions" offers work in various media by artists collaborating with scientists, engineers, architects and environmentalists to implement public projects in major cities. (714) 494-8971.

IN LOS ANGELES: PURE BEAUTY

Conceptual art intersects with vernacular culture in "Pure Beauty: Some Recent Work From Los Angeles," at the Museum of Contemporary Art (through Jan. 8). Painting, sculpture, photography and video blur the lines between art and craft, advertising and furniture. (213) 626-6222.

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