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Branding a decade, fueling a rage: The indelible style of Tony Viramontes

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It’s no secret that I review fine art and serious music, and on occasion, dance. It’s also no secret that I like fashion illustration. As far as I’m concerned there’s no conflict between the former occupation and the latter enthusiasm. Both are concerned with form and gesture, the capture of a certain defined set of events or actualities in real time. The only difference really is a degree of spontaneity or editorial control. Do I look at them exactly the same way? No – which is not to say that great fashion illustration (or photography) cannot approach the level of fine art. (Avedon anyone? Or Lillian Bassman? Or for that matter, Warhol.) And fine artists have been mining fashion and more specifically, fashion illustration, for some time. Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, John Singer Sargent, the entire Surrealist movement -- all influenced by fashion. (Within the last year in fact, there was a show by Cathy Daley at Edward Cella Art + Architecture.)

I used to love the design sketches of Geoffrey Beene and Yves Saint Laurent; and to watch Karl Lagerfeld turn out a design drawing is truly breath-taking. My favorite fashion illustrator (for at least the last decade or so) is probably Mats Gustafson; and even here, the term is too limited. Gufstafson’s mastery of medium (mostly pen-and-ink, pastels and watercolours) and form – far beyond design and gesture – approaches the sublime.

It’s impossible to think of the 1960s – and certainly the look of New York streets and society – without thinking of the illustrations of Joe Eula (and probably a number of cartoonists and caricaturists impossible to list in a single post); or the 1970s and even 1980s of both Paris and New York without the work of Antonio Lopez. (Somewhere between Eula and Lopez, floats an aesthetic domain that probably belongs to Halston.) Just as the best fashion and its exponents – its muses, models and the style-setters (not to be confused with ‘stylists’) who best articulate its look, its message and aesthetic -- express something of the spirit of the time, the historic epoch, so the best illustrators capture the essential gestures, the Zeitgeist, both in the fashion silhouettes and the lines of their illustrations.

Tony Viramontes was one of the fashion illustrators (if not the illustrator) to capture the spirit of the 1980s – in gesture, silhouette, and movement; also in sheer graphic style. We don’t necessarily jump on the nexus between movement and silhouette – something we experience in three (if not four) dimensions – and something perceived as only two (to say nothing of the actual print, that dominated that 2D landscape as recently as the 1980s). But of course it exists. You can ask Franz Kline. Or M. C. Escher or maybe Victor Vaserely. Oh that’s right – they’re dead. Well how about any Warner Bros. animator? Rorschach test anyone? It’s the old cliché about the duck or the rabbit; the shortest distance between a configuration of points or lines; the positive/negative or polarized spaces of optical illusions. The best of Viramontes’ work has a graphic quality that is simultaneously ideogrammatic, animated, and expressionistic. They translate as an idea – really the brash, bold, aggressive spirit of that time – as well as capturing the expressive, gestural aspects of the clothed body, whether still or in movement. Consider his girl gangs of Halston-clad models (in red or black) – ready to trot athletically off the page in their nimble sport-silhouettes. Or a clutch of street-smart gals in Sonia Rykiel coats and dresses. (Okay, they were models, too.)

The models were important to Viramontes. Even in a runway line of models, he was clearly interested in translating an energy, the swing, the forward thrust of the moving body. You can see how a strong personality – whether an actual model like Janice Dickinson or Naomi Campbell, or a celebrity like Janet Jackson – inspired his line. He could veer from a sinuous line of Cocteau-delicacy to hard, bluntly graphic and slashing strokes; from smudged or ink-washed passages or colored flecks and feathering to contrasting sections of black and white or vivid blocks of color. Always a very specific energy pulsed through his drawings, specific to the subject, the design, mood, presentation. Viramontes was about making something larger than the presentation directly in front of him: an image, an attitude. In a way he was branding his subjects before they necessarily had a clue what their particular brand was.

Which brings us back to the strong graphic design sense at the heart of his work. In some drawings you, see him lay down a bold squeegee of line or color over the underlying drawing, either emphasizing the essential shape or outline or insistently tearing a boldly contrasting graphic scheme or rhythm into the subject or the overall composition. Viramontes understood the design message of these clothes and personalities. In later work (what might have been an extension of his jewels and accessory illustrations, which frequently feature neon-colored lines over mostly black backgrounds) – really his most mature work (he was only 31 when he died) – he began drawing directly over photographs, isolating essential lines, sifting color into passages, heightening the details he thought important. Had he lived, he might have merged the two crafts into a kind of fashion animation.

The potential is there – as writers like Dean Rhys Morgan have clearly understood for some time. He’s written a book – Bold, Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes – alongside which he curated a show of his illustrations for the FIDM Museum downtown, already closed alas after a five-week run. But the rage lingers on.

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