Surfing along New York Harbor on the Staten Island Ferry, a fairly tranquil experience were it not for the tourists snapchatting the Statue of Liberty, can still cause a bit of anxiety. What if there were an accident? What if we had to abandon ship? Is “women and children first” still a thing? And what would my corpse look like in one of those ghastly orange life jackets?
Form and function have long butted heads in applied arts and design; some combine them seamlessly, like an Eames chair, while others are derided, like Philip Johnson’s “chippendale” Sony Tower. In particular, fashion usually has to play a balancing act between looking resplendent and actually fitting and moving on a human body. More utilitarian fare — hospital scrubs, firefighter uniforms, and the aforementioned life jackets — typically eschew the tenet of adornment and focus purely on getting the job done. At the Staten Island Culture Lounge, artist DB Lampman is bridging these turbulent waters with her solo show, Flotation Devices.
Through a mix of sculptural objects — all buoyant both in aesthetic and utility — paintings, and video pieces, Lampman is exploring the relationship between our bodies and the garments designed to save them. The works also articulate a more metaphorical message, as Lampman puts it in her artist’s statement: “Do the things that I think identify me as a woman, a mother, an artist, or whatever, serve to define me or drown me?”
This combination of practical, political, and metaphysical themes is most apparent in “The Wetting Dress,” a satin tank with overgrown tentacles made of strips of netting and shower pouf appliqués. The sculpture is accompanied by a surrealist, Esther Williams-esque video piece of the artist drifting along a body of water, the tentacles of the dress becoming tangled in a sort of deconstructed, cathedral-length veil behind her.
Connotations of Ophelia, Hamlet’s betrothed who drowned herself during her descent into madness, can be read into “The Wetting Dress.” The piece seems superficially jubilant, and truthfully much more equivocal, like a woman putting on a performance as part of the pomp and circumstance of her wedding day — joyful, of course, but maybe too joyful to be wholly authentic. The tension between performed and essential femininity is encapsulated in the object and, more importantly, the video. Do your identities make you sink or do they keep you afloat?
Much in this show doesn’t warrant so much thought. The centerpiece is an abomination, an apparent costume design for a production of The Little Mermaid depicting Ursula the Sea Witch as a humanoid wire frame decorated with voluminous pool noodles to round out the makeshift Cecælia. Childlike and unrefined, it doesn’t merit its central installation, despite there being no other spot for it in the gallery. The other objects in the show merit more attention but unfortunately recede into the background. Studies for the larger sculptural pieces and paintings of abstract, echinate figures are more aesthetically sophisticated and compete for visitors’ eyes.
In the grand scheme of this show, the pool noodle octopod relates to contemporary sensibilities, at least in the fashion industry. Below-sea-level chic has surfaced in the past five or so years, with neoprene becoming the fabric du jour in the collections of designers including Ohne Titel and Robert Geller, trickling down to the mass-market lines of Nasty Gal and Clover Canyon. The use of unconventional materials can be seen as creativity stretched to its limits — chiffon has been done a million times, why not neoprene or cardboard? But it can also be read as a Dadaist gesture to make the nonsensical seem logical and the inelegant look elegant. Maybe that’s all Lampman’s work can achieve in the end, but it still floats my boat.