On the day of our studio visit painter Kimberly Brooks was just back from Paris and eager to show off a stash of vintage fashion drawings she had unearthed there – the kind with cascading heaps of tailored pink satin and elaborate salon interiors in the background. Also, she was about to host a cocktail party to unveil a just-completed wedding portrait of a friend – a ceremonial monument to youth and surreal beauty in which the bride’s voluminous red dress takes up all the room and tells the story of the picture. Although rendered with a crisp Asian-inflected symmetry, it was also reminiscent of those old Renaissance pictures of nobility where the richly made clothes were overly the focal point of the portrait, even more so than the sitter’s face sometimes. Garments have functioned as indicators of social and/or economic status in fine art just like in real life since long before the modern era of the glossy magazine-fueled, label obsessed lifestyle. And visual art and fashion can be described using a lot of the same words: pattern, movement, volume, structure, texture, palette, story. But in the art of Kimberly Brooks, fashion is a whole language unto itself, in which garments are occasions not only for encoding meaning into stories, but also for executing some really rough and tumble, melodramatic, and increasingly abstract painting. “It’s a way for me to crawl into abstraction that hasn’t been done in art, not the way it could be.”
Before her post-graduate art studies at UCLA and Otis, she’d been an English major at UC Berkeley, so it makes sense that she’d be interested in the narrative potential of fashion as a visual language. For the record, she never actually wanted to be a fashion designer, but through grad school and beyond, her personal love of fashion has endured. “I secretly paint people I see at cocktail parties!” Attending a talk hosted by the LACMA Costume Council on Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel’s influence on Henri Matisse’s Post-Impressionist paintings, Brooks was blown away by the fabulous aging couture-creatures in the audience.Those women became the instant inspiration for “The Stylist Project” – her first solo show with Culver City’s Taylor de Cordoba Gallery, in which famous professional stylists like Grace Coddington (Vogue), Janie Bryand (Mad Men), and Arianne Phillips (Madonna) were asked to dress themselves so Brooks could paint their portraits. “Stylists help people interpret themselves for the public; I was asking them to instead use all their powers to express who they themselves were, for me.”
The paintings in the fires iteration of “The Stylist Project” (a new series of her subjects’ NYC counterparts is currently underway) were provocative and haunting, and often featured great swaths of finely detailed fabrics and riotous color. There was a lot of emotion and intimacy, as Brooks remained conscious of her role as portraitist even as she willfully began to unravel the perfection of the staged scenes with loose brush strokes, awkward perspectives, and broken poses, all in the service of exploring the overlap between fashion and modern art. By her second show with Taylor de Cordoba, “Thread,” her paintings had gotten weirder and more broken down than ever. The runway-ready theatricality and intensive detailing of earlier work was becoming increasingly loose and unraveled so to speak – like someone who can paint well but has chosen not to. Those paintings were smaller, emptier, and darker, featuring barely resolved figures, architecture, and clothing. And she says her next show in 2013 will be her most abstract yet. “The most exciting place for me is in between abstraction and figuration. And is is just me or are more women painters moving toward the abstract?” There’s some truth to what she says, as the current moment in painting isn’t really about either – it’s about a fusion of the two. And what Brooks is up to with the way she deploys her disparate ideas about fashion, deconstructing it to be reassembled in a new way, is right on trend.