Home is Where the Digital Heart Is

Photo by James BunoanIn a recent New Yorker article, fashion designer Miuccia Prada said she's interested in the way computers and digital-imaging technology have blurred distinctions between the real and the virtual, blurred them so much that Prada's latest advertising campaign (shot by Steven Meisel) features a gaggle of waxen automatons with what could only be regarded as suspect DNA. Since when, we might ask, is it the prerogative of the fashion designer to raise questions about representation and the colonization of the real by advanced technologies?

But then how many fashion designers were onetime members of the Communist Party? Or have stores designed by the likes of Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron?

Who if not Miu Miu?

It may be that the advertising campaigns of Prada and Diesel have already and provocatively mined this terrain. Which shouldn't—and doesn't—stop Tyler Stallings from doing the same.

Stallings' new paintings, on view at Peter Blake Gallery in Laguna Beach, are divided neatly into two groups: six small oil paintings depicting residential interiors in various stages of construction, and six small oils derived directly or indirectly from the kind of fashion photography you'd find in glossy mags and print ads.

The paintings are derived from photographs. The interiors, Stallings says, are a product of his trespassing on Orange County building sites, documenting homes under construction with his camera, and using the resulting photographs, often manipulated digitally, as the basis for his paintings. At times, they're hauntingly beautiful, the best describing ambiguous spaces traversed by raking sunlight and cast shadows so that the exposed, unadorned walls of Sheetrock and dry wall appear to dematerialize before our eyes. We can imagine all too well what these houses will look like when completed, which makes these paintings all the more poignant. In all their “modernist” purity and self-evident functionality, they appear as untimely—and uncanny—elegies, mindful of a loss or a crime they have not yet suffered. I like to think of the painting Hallucination, showing a ceramic bathtub with exposed plumbing against a knotted wall of plywood, as a sly homage to Marcel Duchamp, who once remarked that America's greatest contributions to world culture were its bridges and its plumbing.

The fashion works are derived from photographs first published in the likes of Vanity Fair or Cosmopolitan. Even if you didn't know that, their studied naturalism and, indeed, hyperrealism point in the direction of the photographic.

Taken together, the architectural paintings and the fashion portraits conjure up a strange new world inhabited, at a remove as it were, by even stranger beings. The pictures aren't new or strange except that Stallings has given his fashion figures the anatomical features and eerie mien of sci-fi aliens with insectoid eyes, oversized heads and a predatory gaze. Perhaps we're meant to make some connection between extraterrestrial life and the denizens of, say, the House of Versace or Galliano; alternatively, and far less fun, maybe he's telling us that our identification with the unearthly rich, thin, glamorous and otherwise fabulous alienates us from ourselves.

Whatever the answer, Stallings' engagement with consumer capitalism and private property may end up affirming both. Reading the New Yorker, you could even make the case that “avant-garde” fashion has outpaced Stallings—and on his own ground, too.

It's often pointed out that the fashion and culture industries have little difficulty appropriating the most radical gestures of advanced artistic practices—think Surrealism or hip-hop—that they transform and then brand the mere appearance of transgression, that they make the dangerous safe for consumption. It's possible that artists can still appropriate that process (of transgression and branding and consumption), but it's possible that Stallings is too late.

Ever since artists like Ed Ruscha (Real Estate Opportunities, Some Los Angeles Apartments) and Dan Graham (Homes for America) turned their attention to vernacular architecture and the built environment, the private home has been seen as ripe for artistic interventions of all kinds. For Stallings, though, the art-historical precedent is more likely to have come in the form of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose physical sundering, piercing and shattering of domestic architecture is readily recalled by a painting titled Occupation, which shows a wall with a gaping hole and shards of broken dry wall fragments strewn across the floor. As Matta-Clark once wrote somewhere:

A response to cosmetic design completion through removal completion through collapse completion through emptiness

Between his fashion figures and his denuded homes, Stallings appears to have taken, provocatively, a page from Matta-Clark, or perhaps from Wallpaper: one wonders, however, if Miuccia Prada and the Irvine Co. didn't get there first.

Tyler Stallings shows with Laurie Mendenhall and Wess Dahlberg at Peter Blake Gallery, 326 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-9994. Call for hours. Through April 22.

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