Playing with clothes: Closet Artists: Art to Wear at Florida Craftsmen

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Most people who play with Legos (and by "people," I mean pre-adolescent boys) use them to build fortresses and spaceships. When San Francisco-based artist Emiko Oye brings her hand to bear on the plastic blocks, the results look like something from the jewelry box of a futuristic fashionista: chunky necklaces and bracelets made of Legos and dotted with tiny gems and silver. Her unusual habit began seven years ago, when Oye — who was trained as a metalsmith and fashion designer (and who was not, for the record, a Lego buff as a kid) — first picked up the toy for jewelry-making purposes. By 2006, her pieces had taken up residence in SFMoMA and Smithsonian museum stores.

"Everyone, and I mean everyone, from the bank teller to the grocery line bagger, was responding to this work," Oye says.

Some of her pieces — cuff bracelets in vibrant colors — lend themselves to frequent wear, while others — epic, oversized necklaces designed to evoke priceless crown jewels — seem more suited to the pedestal. Are they art? Or are they jewelry? That's the question (more a teasing provocation than a literal query) behind Closet Artists: Art to Wear, an exhibition at Florida Craftsmen in downtown St. Pete. The exhibit features work by more than 30 artists, both local and from afar, made of such unusual materials or with such surprising craft that it elicits consideration both as art and as something more functional.

Oye, who is at once an Etsy-leveraging entrepreneur and a conceptual sophisticate, occupies a variable position at that divide.

"Her use of Legos just blows me away," says curator Elizabeth Kozlowski. "It takes the idea of jewelry to another level. There's humor in it and also a lot of innovation."

More than jewelry, the exhibit includes full-blown outfits — most more like costumes than conventional dresses, though several cocktail frocks made the cut — by students and alumni of Tampa's International Academy of Design and Technology (IADT). Then there are dozens of accessories, including scarves, hats, belts, handbags and painted shoes. A few non-wearable items — e.g., wire sculptures meant to evoke garments — round out the offerings. That's a lot of stuff, and it's arranged chock-a-block in the gallery. A handful of artists like Oye, though — fierce crafters with smart ideas — are clear best-in-shows.

Anthony Tammaro's necklaces show off pendants made with cutting-edge technology: three-dimensional printers that spit out forms designed on the computer in laser-sintered nylon (a nylon powder melted into solid form by a laser). The small, bulbous pendants, which resemble tiny gourds or the skeletons of sea creatures, hang from fiber necklaces. (Though only two of his pieces are on view at Florida Craftsmen, you can see more, including his fantastic bangles and cuff bracelets, at anthonytammaro.com.)

At the opposite end of the technology spectrum, some pieces gain their ingenuity from repurposing old materials. The humble zipper comes in for loving treatment in the work of two different artists. Israel-based Mona Catrinel Zigner makes necklaces from them — one stunning piece fuses a handful of vintage green zippers into a necklace that falls down the collarbone in a v-shape; another loops indigo and aqua zippers into cones that drape around the neck. In both, the brass or aluminum teeth of the zippers suggest glittery bits made of a more precious metal.

Ioulia Svyatogor, a recent graduate of IADT, turns dozens of red zippers into a strappy dress that looks like something Lady Gaga or Madonna (back in the day) might sport in a music video. With metallic ribs that crisscross a bared torso and bra cups studded with pointy metal spikes, the dress is at once a feat of engineering and a badass ode to woman as dominatrix. Another of her outfits improbably deploys flexible metal tubing and black plastic buckles to similarly sexy effect. Because of both Svyatogor, who threatens a bit to steal the show, and other students/alums like Rogerio Martins, whose "cyber matador" dress adorns a different mannequin, IADT comes off looking very good.

St. Pete artists Scott Durfee and George Medeiros win the prize for most unusual material. Their dramatic purses are made of palm spathes, the woody husks that protect palm tree blossoms. Durfee and Medeiros sand the spathes and coat them with an epoxy finish that yields a wonderful metallic-yet-organic texture. The finished handbags, made of spathe sections hinged to create a functional enclosure with metal straps and clasps, look like sculptures made of driftwood and mother-of-pearl. These aren't purses that you'll want to stuff away in the closet after a special occasion.

Some of the most original works on display, however, are some of the most traditional — in a sense. Erin Lee Benson, a recent transplant to St. Pete who also paints and sculpts, makes hats. Faintly surrealist concoctions of feathers, netting and vibrant fabrics, her dainty ladies' chapeaux exude a certain old-fashioned propriety, spiced with a saucy wink. Benson describes her hats as Dr. Seuss meets Yayoi Kusama meets Martin Puryear; she wields a painter's eye for color and a sculptor's attention to three-dimensional forms, but calls the hats a break from the conceptual pressures of her other work. That carefree sentiment is particularly visible in one specimen: above a demure veil of black netting, a cluster of miniature yellow bulbs sits atop the head of the wearer, sprouting dangly leaf-ettes that look like elements from a pint-sized Calder mobile.

"They're a nice cathartic thing," Benson says. "I don't have to worry about what they mean or the history of it."

Maybe that's what's so fun about the work in Closet Artists — it's art without the pressure of having to get it. After all, the way to really "get it" when it comes to these works is to wear it.

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