Chicagoans’ survival depends on clothes. From October to April, puffy coats and goofy hats are all that keep us from flu, frostbite and really dry skin. But in “Dimensional Lines: Art + Dress,” clothes serve a startling function: Though the natural world encroaches on the Evanston Art Center, threatening its structural integrity, eight artists and designers use fashion to invite the elements into the building.
The EAC has been located in the former Harley Clarke mansion, completed in 1926, for more than 40 years. The city of Evanston owns the property and is supposed to maintain its exterior; the EAC is responsible for the interior. But the recession has postponed various repairs. The first-floor galleries that house “Dimensional Lines” suffer from peeling paint and a general air of decrepitude.
This summer, Evanston announced it would consider other uses for the Clarke mansion, as part of the city’s efforts to trim its budget. According to the EAC’s executive director, Norah Diedrich, the exhibition’s timing is coincidental. “We were just responding to the fact that this was a historic home that looked rather dilapidated in some areas, and we thought it would be an interesting space for the work of these fashion designers,” she told me by phone. “It had no tie-in with the fact that this may not be our home forever.”
Curated by Gillion Carrara, director of SAIC’s Fashion Resource Center, with artist Fraser Taylor, the show’s site-specific installations evoke the soil, vegetation and animals outside the EAC’s walls, as well as its crumbling architecture. Katrin Schnabl’s Untitled (Acrobats), pictured, literally links the outdoors to the building’s interior. Anke Loh displays her garments on racks that incorporate tree branches. Nearby, the mannequins wearing Melissa Serpico Kamhout’s dresses have dirt smeared on their feet and scattered over their metal bases. Artist and embroiderer Beata Kania’s Veins of the Leaves Ran Dry could be an outfit for a dryad. The strands of its beautifully crocheted brown bodice, which look exactly like a leaf’s veins, and its collar of brown, rust and gold muslin flowers make the garment seem like something recovered from the woods.
Kania’s three exquisite dresses are so fragile and revealing that they would be almost impossible to wear. These conceptual pieces demonstrate that art can be wearable, and that fashion can embody complex ideas. Her work reflects the poetry and creativity underlying “Dimensional Lines.” But except for designer Kristin Mariani’s Records of Use, a wall drawing executed in rickrack, thread and other fashion-related materials, few installations generate much dialogue between the show’s two disciplines.
Artist Conrad Hamather creates the exhibition’s most indelible image: a torrent of wool fleece that emerges from a fireplace to engulf antique dolls, moth-eaten taxidermied animals and other found objects. Dead ivy hung throughout the exhibition echoes the living ivy creeping over the windows, adding to the sense of decay.
At press time, Diedrich didn’t know what the EAC will do, but the nonprofit must propose a plan to Evanston by early October. Via e-mail, city manager Wally Bobkiewicz promises Evanston won’t end the EAC’s lease until the nonprofit “is able to relocate to a new facility.” Diedrich says the center hopes to stay in Evanston, if it’s forced to leave the Clarke mansion. She isn’t sure what the city hopes to do with the building, either. “Sell it? Lease it? Turn it into something else? The one thing I don’t think they can do, because it is a landmarked building, is to raze it.”
Stuart Dybek reads fashion-related poetry and Sandra Michels Adams speaks about the EAC’s architecture and history October 6.