In 2011, a retrospective of work by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen became one of the most visited exhibitions of all time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Only time will tell whether the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes” — no relation to the Met show, and only partially devoted to McQueen — will prove as popular here. But judging from the crowds that packed its galleries on its opening days last week, it’s off to a promising start.
Featuring more than 100 objects from more than 30 designers, including several by McQueen himself, “A Queen Within” is the first major exhibition at NOMA devoted to the art of couture.
Curated by Barcelona- and London-based Sofia Hedman-Martynova and Serge Martynov, the show is divided into sections corresponding to various feminine archetypes: The Mother Earth, Sage, Magician, Enchantress, Explorer, Heroine and Thespian.
As provocative as they are, the categories don’t end up meaning much in this densely packed and visually overwhelming show. In fact, several pieces could be put into any number of categories with little appreciable difference to their individual effect or to the show as a whole.
Any concerns about the curatorial framework of the show, however, immediately disappear the moment you enter the exhibition. Without a doubt, “A Queen Within” is one of the most visually striking and inventive installations ever to take place in NOMA’s history — even in New Orleans as a whole.
Diorama-like displays of the type more often seen in natural history museums vie with mirrored platforms, free-standing environments and a handful of video projections for attention — not to mention the rich selection of fashion photography on the walls, itself worth an exhibition in its own right. It’s almost too much to take in on a single visit.
And while the curators attempt to contextualize the pieces on display, titles and explanatory texts tend to get swallowed up in the visual excess of the show. (The dim lighting, which favors dramatic spotlights over a consistent ambient illumination, doesn’t help matters.)
Then again, excess is fitting for an exhibition that takes as its starting point the work of the British designer who continually blurred the boundaries between art and fashion.
McQueen is literally front and center in “A Queen Within” in the form of a display at the entrance to the exhibition, where visitors are greeted by a rotunda of his most iconic designs arranged around a stunning ensemble from his 2008 collection “The Girl Who Lived In A Tree.”
While McQueen and a handful of other artists like Vivienne Westwood and Martin Margiela are the most famous names in the show, pieces by lesser-known designers make a convincing claim for visitors to become better acquainted with their work — and once you’ve gotten your bearings in the show, it’s worth seeking out individual works for closer inspection.
Iris van Herpen’s sinuous snake dress makes Lady Gaga’s infamous carnivorous couture look like so much dead meat by comparison. (And speaking of dead meat, Maja Gunn’s cast silicone assemblage of male breasts, like a savage high-fashion battle trophy, strikes a chord as fascinating as it is grotesque.)
And some works, like Charlie Le Mindu’s surreal headpieces — one made out of cascades of artificial hair, another that looks like a captured piece of cloud — evince a captivating sense of humor.
With so much to see, definitely make some time to watch the videos, especially Arvida Byström and Maja Malou Lyse’s piece that makes a convincing case for selfie sticks as an aerobic exercise tool — as well as the acceptance of different body types and beauty standards in the fashion world.
In the end, “A Queen Within” is simultaneously absorbing and bewildering, inspiring and frustrating, superficial and profound — much like fashion itself. And it’s like very little you’ve seen in New Orleans before.
“A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes”
WHEN: Through May 28
WHERE: New Orleans Museum of Art
INFO: (504) 658-4100; noma.org
ADMISSION: In addition to standard admission, entry to “A Queen Within” requires a surcharge of $5. The exhibition is free to NOMA members, and free to Louisiana residents with ID on Wednesdays courtesy of The Helis Foundation.