The role of fashion in our sense of identity could not be a more fitting theme this month for two shows that just opened at PEM.
Both Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel and Valerie Belin: Made Up pose questions about how what we wear informs our sense of self — certainly a reoccurring theme in Salem every October.
Apfel, the 88-year-old fashion icon, is being celebrated through 80 dramatic ensembles from her personal collection, a conversation with world-renowned designer Isaac Mizrahi in November and a December fashion show with Salem’s Modern Millie. The exciting member opening brought out a finely dressed crowd in search of personal creative expression and they found it in the tiny Apfel’s creations, in the film made by a PEM crew and in her very spirit, which seems to have taken over the museum.
Meanwhile, Belin, another tiny and graceful lady, recently visited from Paris and spoke to members of the press. Belin’s 20 large format photographs explore a photographer’s ability to manipulate perception of artificiality and reality. Which beautiful, made up faces belong to a plastic mannequin and which are real, she asks.
“I’m always interested in the ambiguity of an object,” said Belin, whose show is part of PEM’s ambitious new program for fine arts photography that includes Richard Avedon: The Kennedys – Portrait of a Family next spring.
The dull, anonymous look on a cabaret dancer’s face in a series of Belin’s photos is juxtaposed with a basket of fruit. Are these actual portraits or is the dancer also still life like the waxy grapes? Belin flagged down similar looking women on the Paris metro and shot them gazing away, completely removing her and the eye of the camera from the situation. The photographer’s subjects have also included showgirls and Moroccan brides.
“They’re living without me,” she said, adding, “Photography is not about life. It’s about death and memory.”
Belin’s work asks us to examine the surface of things, said PEM photography curator Phillip Prodger, and consider what’s inside.