East Village crackles with creativity The Fashion Institute of Technology showcases the unconventional works of Manhattan's East Village artists and designers, who often make their statements of style with whatever materials happen to be on hand
THE young people who have moved into the low-rent section down below Manhattan's 14th Street (the area that stretches from Third Avenue on toward the East River) are a hardy band. They paint, they sculpture, they make furnishings, they invent startling accessories, and they devise unimaginable sorts of clothes. Some of them also make music, and when not doing any or all of these things, they like to dress up. They don't have much money, but no matter, most of the materials they employ come easily to hand. They are the free-spirited colonists of the East Village who have migrated there since the early 1980s and made it a place that crackles with creativity. Their world is now the subject of a serious exhibition, ``The East Village,'' open to the public through May 3 at the Galleries of the Fashion Institute of Technology. It is the first full-scale exhibition to cover the district's artists and designers, whose wit often goes hand in hand with chilling social comment. Since few of them are known quantities outside the avant-garde community, the show is something of an eye-opener.
Their works are usually deliberately outrageous. A case in point: the exhibition's ``Arms Chair,'' a 1986 sculpture by Paul Ludic -- an otherwise ordinary upholstered piece but for its spike-like rim of plastic handguns. Other such unorthodox concepts have been spotted and snapped up by trend-seeking visitors from abroad. They make a practice of checking out the East Village territory, which has lately replaced the higher-rent, more southerly SoHo district as New York's center of artistic ferment.
On the qui vive for innovative expressions from America's counterculture, foreigners have tended to be more receptive to heretical ideas than the home-grown variety of talent scout. That situation has begun to change and is apt to change further as a consequence of the new exhibition.
Discovery is in fact under way, according to F.I.T.'s Harold Koda, Richard Martin, and Laura Sinderbrand, the show's three curators, who spent nine months combing the East Village in their hunt for items which would convey a sense of the area's excitement. ``At first the streets were filled with Europeans going in and out of shops and galleries. Later on, American fashion magazine editors were everywhere, setting up photographs,'' recalls Mrs. Sinderbrand, who with Koda is responsible for the costume and accessory content of the exhibition.
At least two of the young designers -- Susan Backus and Eva Goodman -- are being hailed as rising stars since the show's recent opening. Backus uses inexpensive felt for an engaging group of garments. Hats, coats, pants, skirts, and mitts are appliqu'ed with scrollwork and T-square tops with tic-tac-toe symbols. Her approach is unconventional, but the results could meet the demands of the most exacting woman of fashion.
Goodman's prisoner ensemble of jailhouse stripes with buttons shaped like numbers are shown with clothes by Nick Nix made from dish towels obtained from communist societies and featuring portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Propaganda is a leit-motif of the exhibition, but so is patriotism. A designer called Bayard has ``God Bless America'' fashions emblazoned with Old Glory stars and stripes.
When not hitting a protest note, Goodman can turn out novel and practical contemporary outerwear: her cheerful ``Beach Ball Raincoat'' of rip-stop nylon, for instance. Both Goodman and Backus have been offered jobs by Paris ready-to-wear designer Jean-Charles de Castlebajac, who is currently the subject of another, smaller exhibition at F.I.T. (As a whole, ``The East Village'' struck Castlebajac as ``having more ideas than all the French pr^et-`a-porter showings put together.'')
Curator Martin's input of photographs, paintings, and sculptures includes some scene-setting documentary stills in black and white. There is a series of portraits of gallery owners which were featured in the Italian men's Vogue. To illustrate the East Villagers' proclivities for ``Dressing for the Event,'' as Mrs. Sinderbrand expresses it -- i.e., ``shopping, creating, putting clothes together and then presenting themselves at the clubs every night'' -- there is a wall full of street fashions by photographer Amy Arbus (daughter of Diane Arbus).
Among them is a picture of artist-cum-designer Lari Shox wearing ``Eye Can See,'' a thrift-shop suit over which he painted a striking pattern of eyes. An example of the way art and fashion overlap in the East Village milieu, Shox is also a rock performer. ``He gives you a record when you buy a suit,'' says Koda.
Whether they are doing paintings or fashions or both, the East Villagers are good at dealing with the available in making their statements. Surgical gauze dyed a sooty gray, then given low cowl draping, becomes an elegant mini-dress in the hands of Cynthia Parker, a.k.a. Sinful Sley. It's shown with a hat composed of Rastafarian locks. Tinfoil, plastic bubble wrap, fiberglass insulation, Lucite, and broken crockery are among the found objects put to work in creating accessories and clothing as well as art objects.
If conventional materials are used, the concept is unconventional, as in Douglas Ferguson's leather cape and kilt which he handpainted with a lighthearted version of the Ferguson clan tartan. The '60s stir the imaginations of the East Villagers, although most are too young to remember that tumultuous decade, and peace symbols, Zen motifs, and takeoffs of Pucci prints are popular expressions. A few of the artists represented have gone on to fame and fortune. The apr`es-'60s mini dress painted with irreverent remarks is a collaborative effort by graffiti artists Kenny Sharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others whose canvases now bring big prices.
Whereas some people may find all this iconoclasm appallingly off the wall, others will see its exposure as an energizing release from the stultifying standards of commercialism. As one Seventh Avenue manufacturer who looked at the show concluded: ``You can't make a living out of this stuff, but I think we'd all better pay attention.''