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Abstract Art that isn’t so Abstract

Mychal Lopez

Artist Carolanna Parlato in the Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Artist Carolanna Parlato in the Elizabeth Harris Gallery

Carolanna Parlato sits at a table cluttered with her daughter’s high school science books and a vase carrying an arrangement of dying daisies. She stares off through the window to see a murky layer of mist lingering around her Brooklyn brownstone. Before she begins to speak, Parlato complains of a cold and apologizes for her congested voice.

Though she has much to say, Parlato needs moments of silence to consider what she is going to say next. For a painter who takes inspiration from nature, the gloominess from outside slows down her train of thought. Her voice becomes ominous, however, when she asks, “What are we doing to the landscape out there?”

With global warming and pollution effecting the environment, painter Carolanna Parlato captures the mood of the ever-changing landscape. Parlato and her paintings reflect the complicated reality of the world, making her a socially relevant figure. The inspiration she gets from nature gives her paintings significance in an environmentally conscious society.

Parlato is an abstract expressionist. Her paintings are layers of shapes that range from blobs to swirls. She uses a fluid technique, where she pours the paint straight onto the surface, picks it up, and tilts the canvas in different directions.

The Color Field painters—artists in the 1960’s whose works were characterized by minimal uses of solid, primary colors— inspired Parlato. But her use of bolder paints and her references to nature separates her from the abstract movement.

Parlato’s interest in exploring the organic world began early. As an undergraduate photography student at the College of Mount St. Vincent’s, Parlato snuck into biology labs to take photos of embryos.

When Parlato was an instructor at the Brooklyn Museum, she was introduced to non-Western art, specifically pieces from Asia and Africa. Seeing Chinese landscapes paintings and Japanese screens gave Parlato a fresh point of view and a source of inspiration.

Paintings from Parlato’s Perfume River series in 1999 are canvases full of swirling streams of colors, like multiple rivers flowing against each other. Art critic Barry Schwabsky describes Parlato’s paintings in the series as standing on two levels. Superficially, they are a “bird’s-eye viewpoint of topographical maps;” but metaphorically, they evoke feelings of poison, desire, and danger.

River Rouge

River Rouge

“For the 21st century, making toxic landscapes is something that’s interesting. It does call your mind to something more than just painting. The environment,” explained Parlato.

In a press release from the Museum of Modern Art about a current exhibit, In Situ: Architecture and Landscape, although Parlato isn’t an architect, she is placed in a context of environmentally conscious artists. They understand “the challenges of a threatened landscape,” and have to create “harmony between the spatial, social, and environmental aspects of human life.”

The problem is out there and “we’re obligated to recognize it” says Parlato. “My paintings can look scary and toxic, and it’s an environment you would choke in.”

For Parlato, at least, the source of the contamination comes from the consumer world. “I think I’m attracted to the artificial, which could be the problem with all of us. We’re all attracted to the artificial,” said Parlato.

This synthetic is represented in the strong paints Parlato uses Her color choices comes from a range of inspirations. From the bits of material she cuts from her daughter’s childhood dresses, to pixilated pictures of nature that are emailed to her, and to glossy advertisements, Parlato is inspired by these whimsical allusions and pop culture references.

Bubble Valley

Bubble Valley

“Her colors seem derived from the realms of advertising and consumer goods,” wrote Matthew Guy Nichols in a May 2006 review from Art in America. Her colors are “strongly reminiscent of toothpaste, cheese curls and bubblegum.”

“The environment inspires me to make color choices that are not just pretty or decorative,” said Parlato. “The color serves a good purpose.”

Ultimately, Parlato finds the inorganic and fake as important as the natural landscape. She chooses to depict our unstable world as a blend between elements of commercialization and the environment.

Sunspots

Sunspots

“In my art, nature and artifice juxtapose,” explained Parlato. “They come to a common agreement so they could support each other. It’s more of a conversation than an argument. I want the two not to fight each other, but to come together in a good way.”

“There is a light and spirit that comes from her paintings,” said Miles Manning, director of the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, where Parlato showed her series, Nature Games in 2008. Manning finds the harmony between the “hyper-active” colors and organic shapes as a “pleasing sensation for the viewer.”

Nonetheless, Parlato’s goal isn’t about finding a resolution to the environmental issues. “No one’s going to donate to Green Peace because they see my art,” interjected Parlato.

Instead, Parlato balances the synthetic, gleaming colors of commercialization with her interest in landscapes, biology, and nature. She exposes viewers to a “loosely poetic, not literal, interpretation” of the connection between the environment and the artificial.

“I’m not part of that pure abstraction, hard-edged, minimal, formalist thing,” said Parlato. Her abstraction of organic organisms and landscapes allows Parlato to stand out as an artist. Her paintings depict her reading of an environment that exists in a stimulating, synthetic world.

Two weeks after the rain drove Parlato inside, the late afternoon sun lingers above her home. Parlato smiles as she walks outside and basks, barefoot, in the warm, golden rays. “The world around me is what I see and what I’m inspired by,” she proclaims.

Whether there is a depressing downpour or a radiating sun, Carolanna Parlato makes the most out of our unpredictable environment to create art that has a globally conscious message for all.

Carolanna Standing in front of "The Kiss"

Carolanna Standing in front of "The Kiss"

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New Furs Brighten a Gloomy Economy

Mychal Lopez

Model Vlada Roslyakova saunters down Michael Kors’ fall 2009 runway in a sleeveless fur coat dyed in the same fluorescent orange used in producing traffic cones. The electrifying, exuberant fur makes Roslyakova stand out on the clean white stage.

Donna Karan’s first look, a basic black ensemble, is overwhelmed by the black and gray shaggy fur sleeves that cover the model’s forearms.

Donna Karen Fall 2009

Donna Karen Fall 2009

In a kaleidoscope of color and texture, Peter Som took a basic fur muffler neckpiece, dyed the hairs canary yellow, and brushed the tips in sky blue.

Fur is back in a bold way. Designers pushed the limits for how fur is used. Unconventional treatments were applied to the traditionally tame textile, as seen from the fur trim on dresses to fur sleeves being the newest accessory. The day-glow dyes and the quirky accessories are an escape towards an extreme, surrealist luxury, an ironic trend considering the current recession and the protests from anti-fur groups, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A).

“We need to encourage people to spend. We need to give them something different. The innovations in techniques have given the recognition that fur can stand alone as a luxury item,” said Keith Kaplan, Executive Director of the Fur Information Council of America.

In New York, designers consistently sent out a fresh variety of fur pieces. From the established, like Kors and Oscar de la Renta, to the young, like Thakoon Panichgul and Behnaz Sara pour, many reinvented the material.

Designers used different techniques to transform fur into the statement pieces of coming season. The treatments ranged from dying segments to create an ombre effect, where fur is tinted so that one color graduates from light to dark, to styling head-to-toe neon outfits, with matching fur layers.

Kaplan attributes the new fur to the innovations in techniques like tip dying the ends of the hair; to how an animal is sheered; to the way the raw material is knit; and to using intarsia, where different bits of fabric are woven together. According to Kaplan, designers have become confident in using fur to create an instant opulence.

New luxury became a key phrase for designers who released such daring fur this season. To meet the demand for luxury, designers tried to think about their customer and what they want to wear in the gloomy economy.

In discussing his powerful urbanite collection, Kors said that his cosmopolitan customer “isn’t giving up luxury, but wants the luxury to be pragmatic luxury.” But in an ironic moment, Kors sent out highlighter coats that were more vivid and crazy, then realistic or pragmatic.

Michael Kors Fall 2009

Michael Kors Fall 2009

But this is how the industry has worked. The fashion crowd is constantly looking for something new to look at and buy. Designers use fur as a way to provide a product that no customer has seen before.

“In the last ten years, we have seen a decline in the average age of fur buyers,” said Kaplan. “With the rise of the vintage concept, these young customers are looking to purchase garments that are unique and have meaning. They see fur as appealing for that reason.

Young designers, on the other hand, did not even attempt to classify their work as realistic, and instead embraced the unconventionality of the fur. Panichgul said that “birds and flights of fancy” inspired his use of fur. Panichgul looked at the surrealist movement, alongside ideas of perception and distortion, to create a play on texture and color. This was seen in longhaired Zhivago hats and plush coats that came in either blends or color blocks of silver, acid yellow, burnt orange, and emerald green.

Thakoon Fall 2009

Thakoon Fall 2009

While not all New York designers were obsessed with pure surrealism, this fur trend as a whole can still be characterized as being detached from the truths of the fur trade.

“The fur industry is shearing and dying furs now, attempting to make them look, in effect, like fake fur. The cruelty, however—neck breaking, gassing, poisoning, and anal electrocution—remain the same,” said Ryan Huling, Campaign Coordinator for P.E.T.A.

“Many unwitting consumers don’t even realize that the cheap fur used as trim or on accessories is actually real, and comes from animals who have suffered the most extreme abuses on filthy Chinese fur farms, where animals receive no protection from the law and conditions are among the worst in the world,” said Huling.

PETA Protests Fashion Week Spring 2009

PETA Protests Fashion Week Spring 2009

Huling, however, is expecting a new world of change coming. Besides the fact that P.E.T.A. is already working with designers from Parsons and other top fashion schools to reject fur, other fresh, young designers like Stella McCartney and Ben Cho refuse to use any fur.

But as Linda Wells, editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, notes, “Fashion can’t change the world or the situation that we are in right now; but it can make us feel good.”

In a recession, people want to make sure that the objects they buy are worth the money they spend. Designers attempted to appeal to the need for luxury by crafting unconventional, extreme fur.

Although the day-glow orange coat from Kors, the conspicuous black fur sleeves at Karan, and the surrealist fur hats and gloves from Som and Panichgul can seem overwhelming for the average wearer, they strengthen Kaplan’s assertion that “fur is the versatile luxury fabric that is a must have for the season.”

New York Fashion Week: “Movin’ On Up”

Mychal Lopez

On the final day of Fashion Week, 15 minutes before the Chado Ralph Rucci show, the last collection of the fall 2009 season in New York, the Fifth Ave. entrance of Bryant Park is packed with throngs of excited bystanders waiting to catch a glimpse of anonymous fashionistas walking up the steps.

Among the commotion within the tents, the daily activities of Bryant Park go on. Businessmen sit down to a quick lunch from the local ’wichcraft stand. College students concentrate on their reading on the small side tables. There are even children riding a carousel.

The same carousel stands next to a crowded entrance where models, photographers, show organizers, and assistants stand around for a five-minute smoke break.

It is clear that Bryant Park is small. With the white tents cutting through the middle, there is little room left to hold both the fashion crowds and the park goers.

New York Fashion Week at Bryant Park

New York Fashion Week at Bryant Park

After 16 years and 32 unique seasons, New York Fashion Week is leaving its small home in Bryant Park and moving to the larger Damrosch Park. Designers, buyers, editors and spectators look forward to a larger space.

A phone interview with the public relations spokesman for IMG Fashion, Zach Eichman, revealed that although organizers have no specific agenda for the future Fashion Week, the space in Damrosch Park will accommodate the numerous shows that are regularly held at Fashion Week.

On Feb 3, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week will move from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, beginning September 2010.

The agreement on the new venue came out of collaboration between the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), IMG Fashions, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

The decision was based on Fashion Week’s exponential growth. According to a press release from the Office of the Mayor, when Fashion Week began in 1993, there were only 35 shows presented. Currently, about 70 runway shows are being held per season.

To keep up with the rising number of fashion shows, the CFDA, IMG Fashions, and New York City officials felt it was best to move Fashion Week from the 70,000 square feet at Bryant Park, to the 85,000 square feet at Damrosch Park. The venue switch will allow a 25 percent increase in space. This is an upgrade when it comes to accommodating the many professionals and viewers who flock to Fashion Week.

Main entrance to the tents

Main entrance to the tents

Eichman said that Fashion Week requires a blank space that allows organizers “to do as many shows that are physically possible.”

“Damrosch Park has the additional square footage to have more space for designer presentations, where either real models or mannequins can wear the clothes. Instead of just having the traditional runway shows,” Eichman said.

CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg said in a press release that the extra runway space will be perfect to house the “250 designers who show in New York City.”

The possibility of bringing together the fashion community is why fashion-goer Cavanaugh Cutler believes the decision to move to Damrosch Park is positive.

“A lot of the other big name designers, like Marc Jacobs, have left the tents. Maybe this move will bring all the other designers back. You want as many of them as possible under one tent.”

The move to the renowned Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts would also bring further publicity to Fashion Week.

“The proximity and visibility of the Lincoln Center ensures the industry remains at the forefront of worldwide fashion,” said Furstenberg.

A group of Fashion Week attendees stand in front of an entrance

A group of Fashion Week attendees stand in front of an entrance

Tania Metti, a friend of Cutler and a fellow fashionista, said, “People are already talking about it. Even our friends who aren’t into fashion are interested in the changes that are happening.”

Since Bryant Park has long been associated with Fashion Week, however, some in the fashion community are sad to see the white tents leave.

Mami Dufka, a freelance photographer who has worked at New York Fashion Week for two seasons, expressed his fondness for Bryant Park and its perks.

“I have had a nice, beautiful time shooting here. Bryant Park has the cleanest toilet in all of Manhattan and the entire park has wireless Internet. Bryant Park in the summer is a beautiful place.”

Korto Momolu, a season 5 finalist on Bravo’s “Project Runway,” reminisced about the unforgettable experience of showing her line at Bryant Park. “It was a beautiful moment that I have played back in my head many times. Bryant Park set the standards for our careers as designers.”

Although Momolu shares the sentiments of Metti and Dufka, she is also excited at the prospect of having a revitalized Fashion Week. “I believe in change and in moving forward. The organizers [of Fashion Week] have a great vision and I have a lot confidence in them. I’m sure it will be just as fabulous as it was in Bryant Park.”

Damrosch Park

Damrosch Park

Damrosch Park is a sprawling location. At the moment, the white tents of the “SCOPE NY 09” Art Fair are being erected in the middle of the cemented plaza.

Although this will be a drastic switch, the construction-heavy site stands as a testament to how ready this park is to housing Fashion Week.

As Eichman said, “At its core, Fashion Week is an industry event and the tents play a major part in this. Damrosch Park is a flexible place to execute the future vision of Fashion Week.”

A sign marking the end of NY Fashion Week

A sign marking the end of NY Fashion Week