Cover Story: Sew Cool

Cat Chow's CAM show explores women and their clothing as three-dimensional art

Sew Cool

Take a tape measure. Actually, take about 200 tape measures. Or a zipper. A 100-foot-long zipper. Or some dollar bills. Maybe a thousand of them.

If you're artist Cat Chow, you make something unanticipated from any or all of these materials.

Cat Chow — her first name is a mischievous shortening of Catherine — makes art for the most basic reason. She's devoted to the process and to her quirky materials.

What she makes is often clothing, technically — although she herself sometimes wears her work, most of her collectors don't.

They show Chow garments like any other three-dimensional works of art.

Chow considers herself a sculptor. Her work has appeared at numerous art institutions, including New York's Metropolitan Museum, but this rising artist's first solo exhibition is at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) through March 5.

"Cincinnati isn't always 20 years behind," notes CAM curator Cynthia Amenéus, organizer of the exhibition.

Take that, Mark Twain.

Medium with a message
Cat Chow, in the museum's first-floor special exhibition gallery, neatly summarizes what this artist has accomplished and suggests where her ideas will take her. The most recent works are off the mannequins and on the walls, a more expected location for art. But in them Chow continues to explore her essential concepts like a stride piano player moving up the keyboard.

Nifty concepts. She likes to shake up our idea of precious materials, she has a slyly feminist take on love and marriage and traditional women's roles and she thinks that sheer visual pleasure is no mean end.

Two works in particular play fast and loose with "precious." "Flapper Dress" (1999) could make a shimmering appearance at a cocktail party, although it's constructed of small brass jump-rings and left-over plastic scraps, uniform in size and color, that would have been in the garbage if Chow hadn't intervened.

The golden appearance of "Trophy" (1999) is cunningly misleading. It suggests high cost and a general sense of exclusiveness but, in fact, is made from the plastic price tags used for jewelry, which actually does have high cost and an exclusive market. "Trophy" sharply expresses Chow's opinions on women as trophies and the artificial values and costs of fashion.

Moving on to specific thoughts on marriage, in 2000 she created an installation titled "White Dress Series" to comment on the white wedding dress. Two from the series are in the exhibition. "Tied," like all her works stunningly labor-intensive, uses cardboard bobbins and plastic twist ties to construct a simple, elegant floor-length gown. The title tellingly suggests both the act of making the dress and possible restrictions of a union.

The other, in the form now widely known as her "Zipper Dress," is made from a single 100-yard length of zipper and titled "Bonded." The one on view at CAM is the original; a second is in the Met's collection, and two or three brides — accepting "Bonded" in a romantic sense — have commissioned copies for their wedding dresses.

What about those dollar bills, a thousand of them? They're incorporated into "Not for Sale" (2002), an ambitious project that required the cooperation of "1,000 people — friends, acquaintances and total strangers" who each donated $1 toward the making of the dress. The bills were shredded and painstakingly joined in loops assembled in the method used to make chain mail to construct a sleeveless, plunging neckline dress so long that several inches at bottom pool on the floor. Conspicuous consumption indeed.

Chow uses vintage dress styles to explore traditional women's roles. "Ivory," commissioned specifically for the exhibition and the CAM collection with funds from the museum-affiliated Friends of Fashion, is made entirely of Procter & Gamble Ivory Soap labels. The labels, donated by P&G, are a contemporary reissue of an 1880s design and make an even earlier vintage reference than the dress, which Chow calls "1940s housewife-style."

The full skirt of "Ivory" suggests to me late 1940s, post-WWII, when fashion shed wartime limitations in fabric. At that time the women who had taken on men's work during the war were abruptly sent home and advised to limit themselves to wifely and motherly roles. Cleanliness became a domestic watchword, so the labels speak to the message.

Learning to love chain mail
Although Chow says "Measure for Measure" (2003), her iconic dress made from tape measures, is patterned from "a typical 1950s house dress," it seems to me to look back further, perhaps to the 1930s, and to carry a hint of her Chinese ancestry in its lines. Ingeniously constructed of variously colored measuring tapes stitched with fishing line and set off by a decorous row of buttons down the front, the artist says the dress refers to women's struggles to measure up to society's standards.

Asked why she often references mid-20th century fashions, she cites their simplicity, which doesn't compete with the intricate construction of her work. She is now applying that intricate construction to works that can't be worn, that are meant as purely visual objects.

" 'Hourglass' was my first non-wearable zipper sculpture and a huge breakthrough," Chow says of the 2003 work.

It relates closely to "December" of the same year, one of a series of wearable two-tone zipper skirts shown partially on the CAM's wall and partially on the floor. "Bouquet" (2005), a recent continuation of these ideas, is formed from a single zipper. It's not for wearing, although it has a certain hat-ish quality.

A close understanding of chain mail — or chain maille, which is underwear for armor — informs much of Chow's work. You can see it in the dress she's made from Band-Aids, the dress made from metal washers and copper jump rings and the dollar bill dress in "Not for Sale."

Her interest springs from working at a theater store specializing in medieval garments after majoring in costume design at Northwestern University. At the theater store Chow learned to make chain mail and to enjoy the lengthy, finicky process. This delight in process coupled with a fascination of materials put to unexpected purposes drives her as an artist.

If you wonder where Chow gets her materials, it's useful to know that, as an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she took her students on field trips to hardware stores. And 100-foot zippers are available direct from zipper manufacturers, she says. The product is produced that length or longer before being cut into shorter pieces.

The CAM installation, in keeping with the works, blends wit and ingenuity. Clear plastic disks mounted on the wall are partially filled with the raw materials of this art — plastic strips, metal rings and the like — and some of the mannequins stand on bases crammed with the components (tape measures, Band-Aids) of the work they display.

"I was impressed by the space and delighted with what was done with the text for 'Not for Sale,' " Chow says. "The list of people who contributed are like a travelogue of where I was. Some of them were just people I met when I was out on my bicycle. The work couldn't have been made without them."

Some of the dollars, no doubt, came from contacts made during her part-time gig as guitarist for a Rock band.

"Music is a great outlet," says Chow, who spends countless hours at her sewing machine.

A film loop runs outside the CAM gallery, with the welcome sight of some of the dresses being worn and Chow herself at work. But it's hampered because the film's speed has been fiddled with in an effort to be jokey.

It's a truism that until you see garments being worn and moving you can't really understand them — the glimpses here are all too short. Chow is a meticulous artist and could be watched at work much longer than this film allows.

When we talked, she had only just lighted in New York, where she has a residency through the Artists Alliance Studio program. Although her professional life has developed well from her Chicago base, the 32-year-old artist feels ready to make her move to New York permanent.

She's thinking of her next work, a great flat disk to lie on the floor.

"New York materials knitted into a long scarf," she says, "(an effect) something like tree rings, a metaphor for time passing." ©

Sample Cat Chow
The Cincinnati Art Museum's Cat Chow exhibition is on view through March 5. Chow will be in Cincinnati on the final weekend to conduct a workshop, "Ordinary Materials, Extraordinary Creations," at 9 a.m.-noon March 4. It's $30 for CAM members and $60 for non-members. On March 5, "A Conversation with Cat Chow" will be moderated by CAM Curator Cynthia Amenéus. Admission for that event is free to CAM members and $10 for non-members. Reservations are required for both events; call 513-721-2787.

CAM Director Resigns: Cincinnati Art Museum

Director Timothy Rub is leaving town to head up the Cleveland Museum of Art, effective in April. Look for art writer Jean Feinberg's analysis of the future of Cincinnati's visual art institutions in an upcoming issue of CityBeat.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.