KIMBERLY BROOKS: The Stylist Project
The history of portraiture is in many ways a history of influence. Most portrait subjects held a certain degree of influence over the church, the state, and the cultural climates of their times—fashion trends of course among the latter. From monarchs to wealthy arts patrons to courtesans lying languidly on chaise lounges, the figures rendered by painters throughout the history of art have served as veritable cover models. To view their portraits hanging on the walls of the Academy was not only to behold the work of the masters but also to check out the latest style trends.
Maybe it’s a stretch to think of the Academy as a proto-Vogue, but the art world has certainly maintained an open flirtation with the fashion industry since long before even Andy Warhol trotted his wacky wigs around Studio 54 with the likes of Diane von Fürstenberg. And while these days there is more collaboration between the two fields than ever before, the most compelling form for illustrating this interplay remains portraiture.
With The Stylist Project, Los Angeles-based artist Kimberly Brooks gives us the contemporary answer to this portrayal by painting the those whose newly minted power holds great influence on today’s fashion culture: the stylists.
In her series of oil painted portraits, Brooks shines a spotlight not on fashion’s cover girls but on the industry’s most iconic tastemakers. These are women and men who, while famous by name, rarely find themselves in the limelight: after all, theirs too is the work of the artist rather than the sitter, styling models and celebrities for editorial spreads in high fashion glossies and prepping them for flashbulbs that fire at red carpets. At the end of the day, they influence the trends because they control the fashion world’s visual message.
An avid student of form, Brooks’s work draws heavily on the historical tradition of fine art portraiture. The regal positions of some of her sitters call to mind Renaissance royals, and the sprawled poses of others, such as Emmy Award winning Mad Men Costume Designer Janie Bryant, can’t help but conjure the seductive early Modernist masterpieces of Manet. In this way, The Stylist Project creates a dialog between the editorial and the art historical, between what Brooks calls “the ephemeral nature of the fashion cycle” and the enduring power of oil paintings.
While glamorous on the surface, Brooks’s work also captures an underlying tension that exists between the luxuriousness of the world where these stylists and creative directors work and the suggestion of at least a few of the figures’ unease at being thrust for the first time into starring roles.
In the case of longtime Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington—whose face has recently become as familiar to the public as it’s long been to fashion industry insiders thanks to the popular documentary “The September Issue” and her own recently released memoir—the allure of the portraits lies in their intimacy. Here we have Grace Coddington, not of Condé Nast’s frenzied 12th floor, but as a quiet creative. Painted in her own Prada, she appears as unembellished as she does in the raw photographs that Brooks captured during their one-on-one session at Ms. Coddington’s apartment.
In every piece, Brooks handles the paint with generosity and with restraint. There are moments of vivid realism: the texture of the leopard print rug upon which Grace Coddington lays is as richly rendered as any luxury textile, and the colors are as vibrant as any seen on Fashion Week runways. Other details she’s chosen to soften to an almost impressionistic gesture—especially her handling of this subject’s famous and otherwise unruly red hair.
Each subject in the series has styled herself. And each poses not in the artist’s studio but in the comfort of her own home, taking a cue from the Northern Renaissance trend toward depicting a more authentic tableau. In the same way, each object on the sitters’ bookshelves and console tables reflects the iconography of our time, so that the wedding photo behind New York Times fashion editor turned top celebrity stylist Elizabeth Stewart informs her portrait as much as the ankle wrap sandals she has chosen to wear. The result is an honest look at a fleeting moment in the life of somebody who traffics in the equally as fleeting fashion industry.
Brooks conceived the idea while working on her series Mom’s Friends — an intensely personal project about her mother and her mother’s friends in the 70s. Pursuing fashion as a language within portraiture, she attended lecture at LACMA about the influence of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli’s fashions on the paintings of Matisse. Surrounded by unimaginely dressed women of the costume council, it occurred to Brooks to explore fashion’s influence as a subject in and of itself and the people who influence fashion from the top.
As it has developed, The Stylist Project has become both a celebration of, and a study in, the influences that fashion and art continue to have on one another. The work is a time-stamped look at the fashions and tastemakers of the moment, and it is also an addition to the timeless tradition of portraiture.