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A coat of paint: how contemporary fashion and modern art collide

Harriet Quick
April 22, 2024
6.5 min

“Vestis virum facit”, or" clothes make the man", has never rung truer in an Instagram fuelled era of self-presentation. What’s more, the powerful signalling of our clothing is increasingly a subject of fascination in contemporary portraiture. Artists globally are exploring the language of dress in arresting paintings that embrace the culture of fashion, and the potential poignancy of individual style.

Examples of this in the art scene right now are as diverse as Japanese visual artist Tomokazu Matsuyama’s psychedelic tableaux that blend fashion and interior style in palimpsestic layers; Indian artist Joya Logue who creates lyrical canvases featuring women in delicate saris; and British artist Olivia Valentine who resurfaces love-worn clothes in portraits that play with personal style lineage. What unites these artists is a fascination with the codes of dress, and the complex relationship we have with brands and designers as we try to define ourselves and our identities throughout the different chapters of our lives.

For Matsuyama, the connection between men, women and their clothes is something to be celebrated in his hallucinogenic, intricately detailed works. “Incorporating fashion has become a very valid form of expression for me. We don’t walk around naked (after all)”, he says, “so it represents us. We all say, ‘you are what you eat’, but you are also what you wear. “If you look at any culture, clothing really represents where you are from – your locality – but also the time you are in,” the artist continues. “I think my interest within the work is to really talk about our own identity living in our times.”

Tomokazu Matsuyama, This is What It Feels Like, 2023, FRP, wood, steel, epoxy-polyurethane, acrylic, plastic, and gold leaf, 120 x 110 x110cm. Copyright: the artist. © The artist. Photography by Melissa Castroduarte © Almine Rech

Viewing Matsuyama’s works – as one could at his first European solo show at Almine Rech, on Grosvenor Hill, earlier this year – you enter a swirling labyrinth wherein you might spot a Sacai pleated skirt, or a Dior Bar jacket placed within an opulent interior that could be confused with an Architectural Digest spread. His subjects are as highly stylised as the worlds they inhabit, and he shines a light on the glorious frivolity of fashion and the decorative arts.

“I think there is a lot of sampling, a lot of appropriation, a lot of incorporating different influences, but as a whole we absorb those different influences to become a (total) design. I think that’s our generational voice,” he says of our current compulsion to blend and layer elements of style. In his own lexicon, as he darts between historical and modern tropes, those influences might include Japanese woodblock prints and William Morris wallpapers as much as contemporary luxury brands and logos. “Ultimately it comes down to a global language. I think that’s what designers are doing right now, and so am I.”

By contrast, Joya Logue embraces style through a romantic lens that feels reminiscent of the intimate social vignettes of Eduard Vuillard – the 19th-century French painter who relished in decorative patterns and delicate colours. Logue’s subject matter is women, community and friendship, and her airy way of painting saris is as intimate and nuanced as the conversations one imagines these women to be having.

Joya Mukerjee Logue, Meditation, 2021, Watercolour on cold pressed, 75 x 56cm. © The artist and Gillian Jason Gallery

“To me the sari is timeless, ageless and versatile. It is both historic and contemporary, and I feel that about my paintings and the figures within them,” says the Ohio-based painter. “I grew up surrounded by different generations of women in my family wearing the sari. I was fascinated by it then, in terms of textile and drape. Now I realise, by routinely wearing one myself, how practical it is. It’s become a staple.”

Logue’s painted saris in delicate blush and apricot tones project the nuances of femininity and personal gestures that populate day-to-day experience. “The beauty and emotion of everyday life can be easily overlooked in its simplicity,” she explains. “The familiarity of many scenes in my work, such as gatherings at home or picnics in the garden, bridge various cultures and backgrounds in their universality. The women in my paintings often don their saris in a simple manner as well. In my work, there is a greater focus on the movement of the composition and the moment they are experiencing,” Logue says, adding, “much like I feel about life.”

There is a long-standing relationship between how we dress, and how we have been painted. Paintings made during the Second French Empire borrowed gestures and poses from contemporary fashion journals and illustrations; artists like Ingres, Tissot, Manet, Monet, Renoir and Klimt revelled in the sumptuousness of fabric, embroideries, and lace with, often, greater exactitude than the painting of individual faces. The dialogue between the sitter and those bone-corseted grand gowns became a long-term study in itself, presaging the art of contemporary fashion photography by a century.

In the 21st century, artists have often preferred to distance themselves from such codes of sartorial luxury. British artist Sara Berman, a former fashion designer who went on to study on the Slade’s MA course, brings the intimate relationship between self and style to the fore in her stripped back self-portraits: she paints herself in a Fair Isle tank top worn by musician Paul Weller, leopard print boxer shorts, or a buckled jacket and boots, to defiant effect.

Her stark etched lines recall Egon Schiele, while the clothes recall something we ourselves might want to wear. “I like to use clothing as a tool for directing the gaze, metaphorically speaking,” says Berman, whose new series will be on show at Art Basel Miami Beach with the Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery. “I think less about style and more about the semiotics of dress – style is something other than that.”

In Berman’s paintings, the fashion becomes a signifier of our sense of self in the world. “It is like using a secret language – the viewer might come to different conclusions than my intention,” she says. “That’s the antithesis of what I am trying to achieve, and it is such an important part of being a woman. We are not ‘lovely’.”

This September will see Olivia Valentine presenting her first solo show of her idiosyncratic portraits at Gillian Jason Gallery. The London space, run by mother and daughter team Ellie and Millie, was established by the latter’s grandmother and specialises in female-identifying artists, with feminist politics running deep through its curation.

“Fashion is a means of bringing the viewer into their world, communicating what you want to say,” says Millie Jason Foster. “Olivia works in the traditional genre of painting from life in the school of Velasquez and Gentileschi, and she asks her sitters to wear what they want.” Valentine’s subjects range from herself, portrayed in her grandmother’s vividly patterned 70s flounce-sleeved dress in Studio self-portrait (2023) to Fred In Boots (2022), a cross-legged man wearing a poetic neckerchief, black trousers and Dr. Martens boots. Asking her subjects to self-style, the painter might add a few tweaks along the way; her only caveat is that they wear the one thing that makes them feel most confident.

Dress can also be a form of armour. The subjects of South African artist Cinga Samson, who is from the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape, feel like they are grounded in the real world and simultaneously exist somewhere more nebulous and spiritual. In his solo show “Nzulu yemfihlakalo” at White Cube Mason’s Yard, Samson explores the ritual of funerals in densely painted, mesmerising tableaux. The protagonists of these scenes, with blank, white eyes, are dressed in identical outfits of jeans, white shirts, and bomber jackets.

Cinga Samson, Emembe Ya Nioka, Esilaka Somote (Detail), 2023, oil on canvas, 240 x 310cm © The artist. Photography Nina Lieska © White Cube

A logo might be spotted, a rip in a jean, a crumple of a puffer, but Samson wants his players to appear closed off, in their own world, and focused on the pain and trauma of a burial. Shockingly, the corpses are wearing that very same uniform, implicating the viewer in the raw truth of our own mortality. “Art that takes the soul’s struggle for liberty and dignity is all too poignant,” says Samson.

More than just a comment on our consumerism, the fashion that we recognise in contemporary art offers its own kind of magic – helping, not hindering, in the process of capturing all the individuality and grace that makes us human.