Karen LaMonte’s sculptures explore how clothing defines cultural identities and acts as our “social skin.” Eschewing traditional portrayals of the nude, LaMonte’s work reveals the female form through hollow garments created in a variety of materials: bronze, glass, ceramic and rusted iron. This exhibition brings together two series of her works, Floating World and Nocturnes, to examine ideals of beauty in different cultural contexts.
Early in her career, LaMonte worked mostly with Western styles of dress, depicting lavish drapery and sensual curves. In 2007, she travelled to Kyoto, Japan, to examine how clothing defines beauty across societies. She immersed herself in the process of making a kimono, studying its embedded symbolic meanings, ceremonial significance, and the role it plays in Japanese culture. Returning to her studio in Prague with hundreds of kimonos, LaMonte began work on her series Floating World.
Using life-size mannequins she built with biometric data from Japanese women, LaMonte produced kimono forms in rusted iron, bronze, ceramic and glass. These sculptures suggest an absent wearer, employing the same formal treatment of the body as in the artist’s earlier works. However, the portrayal of beauty embodied in these sculptures is in contrast. LaMonte incorporated the kimono’s traditional padding and binding, which masks the figure underneath, and each sleeve length, fold and bow expresses an aspect of the wearer’s identity within the context of her community—imparting an iconography of beauty distinct from Western conceptions.
In titling this body of works, LaMonte looked to 17th- and 19th-century Edo woodblock prints of the “Floating World,” pleasure quarters devoted to Kabuki theater, poetry and arts that enabled visitors to disengage and “float above” the mundanity of everyday life.
LaMonte returned to her focus on Western dress following Floating World, this time through the lens of “Night” as concept and metaphor. Nodding to the atmospheric portrayals of night by painters such as James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and the Nocturne compositions by Frederic Chopin and John Field, LaMonte devised life-size sculptures of female figures, some standing and some in repose, and all wearing evening dresses she herself designed and sewed. In white bronze, rusted iron and shades of blue glass, these works evoke twilight and deepest night, conjuring the social behaviors and feelings we associate with nighttime.
As in her other works, the Nocturnes show the female nude through impressions of an absent body, addressing historical representations of the nude and the odalisque. Discussing her reclining Nocturnes, LaMonte says, “I subverted the tradition of the Odalisque—the idealized recumbent female nude—by taking away the body.”
LaMonte’s Etudes are another element of the Nocturnes series. Though these works are studies in one sense, they also refer to Théâtre de la Mode, a collaboration of fashion designers, ballet dancers and artists who created fashion mannequins in one-third life-size scale in Paris following World War II. Dressed in haute couture, these mannequins were staged in miniature theater sets with the objective of helping re-establish the French fashion houses and by extension revitalize the French economy. The Etudes thus represent the sense of optimism and renewed hope that emerged as the shadow of the war’s horrors lifted. They also highlight some of the ways in which fashion – and ultimately the way it portrays women’s bodies – has mediated between art, society and commerce throughout history.
Karen LaMonte graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1990 and created her first major work, Vestige (2000), during a Fulbright scholarship in Prague. Her works are included in important public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the de Young Museum, San Francisco; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. LaMonte's works have been exhibited at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, and at Glasstress, an exhibition of works in glass held during the Venice Biennale, in 2017 and 2019. Last year, her largest museum exhibition to date was mounted at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee. LaMonte has received the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennale Award and the James Renwick Alliance Master of the Medium award, and recently completed the Corning Museum of Glass Incorporated Specialty Glass Residency.