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Dunlevie, fashion, art and mystery

By Thomas Leddy, Department of Philosophy, San Jose State University

Kathryn Dunlevie: Detectives of Fiction and Women of Mystery, Waverley Press, 2015

Fashion and art seem to move more together every year. The fashion-world parallels the art-world, and also draws on it to heighten its legitimacy and its charge. Kathryn Dunlevie’s recent photographic collages are not fashion, they are art. And yet they are fashion, in a fashion. The collage elements are from everywhere, but always present is some element from fashion. When I used to do some collage myself I wondered how to work with fashion magazines. The images seemed to have too much commercial presence to serve any other purpose. Dunlevie doesn’t let that worry her, and all for the best. An individual piece of hers could even be a fashion shot, of a particularly surrealist or innovative sort, one strongly influenced by art. Yet fashion shots are just so much material for her art, undercutting the ideology of fashion (“all is fantasy, and all mystery is for the sake of glamour”) while still drawing on it, ironically.


“Detectives of Fiction and Women of Mystery” is a series in which most of the titles have something to do with detectives, and also with mysterious women. Women who strut like models but are mysterious in more than one way. Fashion, too, makes women mysterious, perhaps glamorizing the world of crime to enhance the storyline, but there are other ways of mystery that art knows and fashion does not. When talking about her art, Dunlevie brings up the mystery cults of the ancient world. Her women may be goddesses or priestesses from a world that seems to hover in the background, chidingly, behind our own.


For example, ‘Khidr’ is a straight fashion shot at first, but then haunts us as the model’s reconstructed green hand disturbs the all-white right half of the work, her face masked by more green, as though she were the revenge of nature itself. ‘Archimedes and the Disturbed Circles’ appears at first sight to be just a statue of the ancient Greek scientist against a strange background, and then one discovers that he is a she, that his hair is her hair, purple hair - one goes back and forth as in one of those ambiguous figures of psychology experiments. ‘Inspector Saito’s Seaside Satori’ draws the viewer’s attention to the bright pink hand, the place, perhaps, for the concentration of the satori experience: mystery in both senses of the word; as enlightenment and as mystery story. Saito plays an electric guitar but faces a limpid harbor scene where shaky reflected mast-lines seem to match the energy of the hand about to strike a chord.  Similar mast-lines appear in ‘Terry McCaleb’s Dock,’ but this time dripping like elements in an abstract expressionist painting over an aerial photograph of a road-laced seaside community, which gives me the shivers.


My current favorite is ‘Cinderella,’ another goddess and mystery woman, for sure, but also a wild motorcycle girl with a Fragonard head. This photomontage is packed with formal qualities taken from several seamlessly collaged photographs; the scene is urban, but the moment is wistful, romantic, with its character ready to escape.


Dunlevie is an avid mystery reader, hence the titles that refer to detectives. Hence the often film noir-ish scenes. Yet, in ‘The Garden of Sergeant Carlos Tejada,’ what we get is a world that is lush, tropical, and infected by an invasion of abstract red riots of paisley-like designs, all bisected by a cactus and some fronds. Almost-disturbing excess. Dunlevie could easily be coopted by fashion, bought out, incorporated….I could see a spread in Vogue, where each montage introduced a shot:  fantasies for elegant women with a taste for the extravagant and edgy. ‘Rescue’ features a model whose head is obscured by a tangle of yellow garden hose.  Carrying chains, she is juxtaposed against a background of car headlights and book spines.  In “Ostara” the model’s face is covered with plant matter, and we are left only with her red lips, her handbag also transformed into a chunk of tropical vegetation, as though she were on a journey into the jungle, half Amazonian native, half 5th Avenue. ‘Siri Paiboun’s Bedroom’ strikes one with its baroque ferocity, in which high-end commodities such as pillows and sheeting from home magazines are placed with decorative shell motifs in a lush world of green banana plants, so that the bedroom is more an anti-room.


Some of the works are named after fashionable spots: places to strut your stuff. ‘Ipanema’ features the model’s boots, and then a collaged-in languid scene, all topped by a very high neck supporting a flower-head that seems to challenge our human-centeredness.  Similarly, in ‘Ibiza,’ the silhouette of a woman in high-heel shoes on a beach, gives off a squiggly shadow in the sand, while five wavy lines of soul-substance enter or escape her heart.


I am taken by these flower ladies, for example, by ‘Our lady of the Harbor’ where the model in a fetching checkerboard outfit has lost her head to a lush red rose that blends perfectly with her halo of auburn hair. She is holding a leaved branch in a way that makes me think of the followers of Dionysius, the maenads, and the Thyrsus, the Dionysian symbol. The fashion-world wants women of mystery, but, using their images and transforming them, Dunlevie takes this to another symbolic level. I can’t help but think that the harbor over which this mystery woman dominates was once an ancient town, perhaps like Rhodes, and she the Colossus, this time female: the angle of her body is the angle of a dancer on a Greek urn.  

‘Marlowe’s Mistake’ takes us to another place in the harbor where the collaged elements make up a lady who is once again our wistful Fragonard, this time grasping a phone and facing an unexplained male shoulder. The colors, lines, water abstractions, and vagueness of pointy-shoed feet, increase the ominous intensity of the scene. Underwater is the theme of ‘The  Long Goodbye,’ where the model wanders through a forest that also features a fish, and yet the water above is probably a photo of water from above, the object that takes over her head like a 19th century mask worn by sea-divers.

Maybe all of this can be summed up by ‘Escape from the Lab’ which features two creatures, one the model this time transformed into a kind of insect, the man behind her another alien insect whose head is a geometrical design paralleling the globe in the classroom on the left, a strange underground world where the red cross insignia on the bag signifies something 1940s. Don’t we all want to escape from the lab, from our postmodern world made up in equal parts of science and phantasy? And yet we want to revel in it too.


Thomas Leddy

Department of Philosophy

San Jose State University


KATHRYN  DUNLEVIE                                                                  CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLAGE

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