In the International Center of Photography’s third global survey of photography and video, known as the Triennial, the focus is on fashion and “its relationship to art and other cultural and social phenomena.”

Mickalene Thomas “Portrait of Qusuquzah” (2008)

Titled “Dress Codes,” the exhibition includes work by 34 artists and it is an ambitious look at a topic, which is interpreted to include a wide scope of topics, including personal and corporate identities, consumer consumption and politics.

If some of the choices are a little predictable (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger) and some seem almost unrelated (Olga Chernysheva, Cao Fei), the show overflows with curatorial passion that challenges the viewer to see something fresh and provocative.

There’s a heavy presence of African diasporan artists (Stan Douglas, Kalup Linzy, Wangechi Mutu, Grace Ndiritu, Lorna Simpson, Hank Willis Thomas,  Mickalene Thomas, etc.) and their work is some of the strongest in the show, but, like much of what is on display, they contain a heavy dose of nostalgia which evokes an archeological tone that permeates–and bogs down–the whole show.

German artist Thorsten Brinkmann’s photographs of himself in various costumes are one of the exhibition’s strongest assets. Simultaneously bizarre, classical, jarring and surreal, they are installed in a room-like setting, which amplifies their discomfort with conventional ideas about fashion.

Mickalene Thomas is another major talent on display. Her portraits are bold and they effortlessly marry the paintings of Henri Matisse and Gustav Klimt with the photographic aesthetics of Seydou Keïta. Her subjects seem at once trapped and liberated, it is a tension that energizes each image.

A major surprise for me was David Rosetzky “Portrait of Cate Blanchett” (2008) for the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia. Rosetzky transcends Blanchett’s celebrity persona to render a humanizing video portrait of the Hollywood star who talks about the “constant pull between wanting to be seen and not wanting to be seen.”

Dress Codes closes January 10, 2010 at ICP, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, NYC

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Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.