What in the World, W?

The latest issue of W is flamboyant, mildly racy, quirky, creative and at times, articulate. The December issue is dedicated to modern art, both two- and three-dimensional, with an emphasis on fashion. No surprise then that George Clooney graces the cover. What is a surprise is that you can hardly see him, camouflaged as he is under layers of polka dots. Hand-painted dots of varying sizes cover his tux (or is it a suit? Does it matter?), his bow-tie, his shoes, the wall behind him, and inside the magazine, a vintage car. Gives you a serious case of amblyopia.

The art is fun and creative, albeit a nauseating example of a bad trip in the optometrist’s chair. To his credit, Clooney actually likes art, and his quotes are intelligent. He articulates the premise of his new movie, The Monuments Men, in a visceral sense to the point where I actually want to see it. And I don’t go to movies. “We question whether saving art is worth a life, and I would argue that the culture of a people represents life. When the Taliban destroy incredible pieces of architecture and art, or when American troops don’t protect museums in Iraq, you are seeing people losing their culture. And with the end of a country’s culture goes its identity. It’s a terrible loss, down to your bones.”

Polka dot perpetuator Yayoi Kusama, for all of her success and fame, is less articulate. “My idea is to send the message of ‘love forever’ to all the people of the world through the polka dots, which are all about the universe and human beings and living things.”

Really?

Voluntarily residing in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital, she unwittingly propagates the millennia-old concept that “real” artists see visions and cannot function in the real world. She is, however, functional enough to create an eye-popping body of work, hire photographers, arrange gallery shows, and pull off magazine interviews. She created a series of photographs where she inserted herself in layers of polka dots. The title: “Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.” Indeed. An art therapist would have a heyday with Kusama. Or run from the building in search of a pair of sunglasses.

I never played well with others as a student at Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the ‘70s. I didn’t sleep on bare cement floors, or cover my body with paint and smear my flesh across a huge roll of paper. I didn’t drop acid. Or even smoke. I was, in a word, dull.

Another thing that set me apart was my philosophy: you can make a living making art. 85% of successful artists (and writers and musicians, for that matter) are successful simply because they show up. Painful as that may be, it certainly holds true, despite the rancor of some “real” artists who continue to look down their polka-dotted spectacles on commercial art prostitution. How ironic, then, that such artists are often dependent upon commercial art for their art to be reproduced, advertised, and marketed. A necessary evil. And how ironic that artists like Julian Schnabel and Yoko Ono, whose core messages could take up a tenth of the space of a neon Post-It Note, are revered to the tune of millions of dollars. Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m looking at or listening to. This, coming from an artist who graduated cum laude.

I was taught that one of the tenets of good art is communication. If your audience walks away bewildered—worse yet, if they just walk away—you have not done your job.  Therefore, many artists and designers go for the jugular. Grab the viewer—physically if necessary—and don’t let go. Fine, you’ve communicated. But what?

If the perfume, purse, shoe, jewelry or clothing ads are any clue, you must dress in black, expose your cleavage from nipple to navel, and look very, very mean. Ergo, if you love this shoe, you are tough and worldly and sophisticated. Or, just very rich.

Later in the same issue is an 18-page spread (yes, 18 pages) featuring evening gowns and jewelry modeled by anorexic super model Kristen McMenamy—underwater. Or soporifically strewn across rocks. The copywriter insists that the gowns would make Disney’s Ariel squirm with envy. I disagree. The only thing she would envy is the paycheck. The gowns, most of which you can’t even see in the photos, look variously like barnacles, the ghost of Tudors past, and the remnants of a wet t-shirt contest. Mostly, you just want to stare at her bare breasts before you ferry her off to rehab. Kristen’s eyes and sclera are steeped in hideous rose madder. She is suspended lifelessly backward, with a pearl inserted into one nostril, another between her drowned, parted lips. Fishnet stockings (get it?) stretch over her ghostly white thighs. All of this further imparts the vital need for an immediate visit to the ER rather than a carefree shopping spree.

“Step and Repeat,” a 10-page fashion feature, is lighthearted and entertaining. Overly patterned model-mannequins prance in Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Gaspar. Faces are hidden beneath Maison Martin Magella Artisanal masks (no eyeholes or breathing apparatuses in those Christmas lights and retro-‘50s flower pins?). Thank God it was photographed on a white background. I wonder how many models can claim this shoot in their portfolios. After all, you can’t see their faces.

How then, did an ad with a raw, earthy close-up of a middle-aged Detroit seamstress end up in the center of this otherwise otherworldly scree? Shinola, “Where American is made,” reads the ad. Now they’ve done it: the company has stabbed us in the gut with a huge political statement. These are the people who actually sew many of the clothes these models wear.  These are the bespectacled, overly permed, wrinkled matrons whose arthritic and experienced hands craft reality from fantasy. 

I gasped when I first saw he photo.“How did Mary Whyte’s work get into W”? I thought. Whyte is the creator of “Working South,” a series of watercolors that feature on-site portraits of the individuals who make up a class of dying blue collar industries in the American South—textile mill workers, tobacco farmers, an elevator operator, a shoeshine man, an oysterman, a New Orleans style funeral band. Her steady hand creates portraits so real, you can almost smell the workers’ sweat, finger the grooves of their wrinkles. Yet her sense of composition and artistry allow her to leave the backgrounds and clothing unfinished, suggested merely by cobalt drips, sienna streaks, and avocado puddling. Now this is art.

 Artist/novelist Jonathan Santlofer, where are you when we need you? Gotta knock off some of these big-name stylists. But not until I buy the Chanel “Camelia Brode” diamond watch on page 24.