Such perspective comes less as a surprise since the difference between high and low art is irrelevant for contemporary artistic practices, and thus discloses a fresh prospect for the nature of fashion and art exchanges. The artist photographer Mustafa Sabbagh finds fashion as a medium of inquiry, but with a practice that taps into classical photography or art history seen through a conceptual lens. His photographic series of bodies ‘in covers’ are explorations that emerge out of the relation the body entertains with beauty and gender, all wrapped around the idea of the grotesque.
The fascination for the grotesque lies in a state of in-between, a tension it creates between the familiar and the different degrees of distortions it can play. Victor Hugo stated that the grotesque, unlike the unique standard of ideal beauty, holds limitless variations and sequences. Thus the grotesque becomes a sophisticated means to achieve visual seduction in a tonality that confuses approaches to beauty. Much of the strangeness that lingers in Sabbagh’s photographs comes from the duality of classical beauty and the handling of ornaments, in the way they exaggerate and intensify the body’s form, while simultaneously hiding it.
The imaginarium of dressed bodies created by Sabbagh is in part tributary to Leigh Bowery’s provocative dress-ups and unconventional manner of styling himself. The performer and art muse of the 80’s used to conceal his body through elaborate costumes, flamboyant masks, from tutus or leather coverage to thick make-up and pouring paint. Such body expressions managed to obscure gender and beauty normativity giving its wearer a glittering aura or transforming him into an ‘appearance.’ Yet, it was less a masquerade and more of personal disappointment over ruling perceptions towards his body. Mustafa Sabbagh’s series deal with this obscuration and address gender by dressing up the body, cave it in materials or objectifying it to such a degree that it comes to resemble clothing, seemingly sexual, but nevertheless a mere costume. The fetish and the erotica are a key note to such an endeavor, particularly because both of them are in a game of hide and seek, staging the body and expressing it as a double.
The artist focuses on the encapsulation that art or fashion representation along with fabrics can create for a body, playing on the fine line between structure and subversion. The sexual significations are combined with representations influenced by Northern European painting and Renaissance portraiture of XIV and XV siècles, but they also trace connections to Spanish early baroque painters, notably to Zurbarán. It’s a connection that comprises representation statements and techniques of composing images. Zurbarán has painted an entire series of female saints dressed in ordinary costumes of the period, rather than the classical veils used to depict holy figures. Giving them only the symbol of their martyrdom, while dressing and adorning them in exquisite embroideries and fine fabrics, the result was in fact an empowerment, contradictory to the modesty of suffering stigmata. The pictorial compositions sustain the impetuosity of portraits through an austere background and a good knowledge of light renderings that produce a trompe l’oeil effect, which often got people confusing them to sculptures. The connection the photographer shares with the Spanish painter is relevant in the already mentioned fascination for light as it is in the attention to exposition and the power it holds. In bold and luxurious stylings, Sabbagh’s imagery turns sexual drive and lascivious bodies into saints or nobilitas portraiture. In a similar way to Zurbarán’s reverse representation, it renders them in full power rather than in the submissive role some of the accessories signify or the hidden space they were supposed to belong. Morphing bodies, materials, textures, jewelry, black paint or rubber, the photographer gives the covers a tactile nature and creates nearly sculptural forms due to the effects of soft and warm light against a one-tone simplified background.
However, the technique Sabbagh uses to create spatiality cannot be reduced only to art history analogies. As a former assistant of Richard Avedon, he makes use of a similar light set-up technique which he chooses to dim and thus generates a softened texturized image, where both materials and bodies converge. Light is mysterious and shrouding, while bodies dissolute in structures and textures. Nevertheless, the carnal presence is reified by cracks into these juxtapositions, exposed through the red of the mouth, skin and hairless stitched or bruised patches. They hold the beautiful of the form combined with the fear of an inner monstrous yet soft, fleshy body.
In Fetishism in Fashion, Lidewij Edelkoort underlines the revival and the long lasting fascination for noir. This can be extended from the monochrome tone to dark fantasies, including the elements the photographer adopts from la diablerie. This fascination, she concludes, is because of black’s ability to absorb and speak at the same time. It can engulf all the fears, but also can express anger or mourning, revolt and avant-garde, elegance, as well as ugly. Through such a power, the appropriation of black becomes a new form of romanticism. Black could thus be seen as an escape from reality and a plunge into the enchantment of dreams. Darker as they might get, dreams however tend to reverse reality, norms and, most importantly, crack borders, make freedom openings. It is between these dark dreams and the materiality of the textures that Sabbagh draws his beautifully grotesque photographs.
Text by Edith Lázár, December 6, 2014