Irma Sofia Poeter
Building Bridges Art Exchange, Santa Monica
Through October 23, 2022
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
If you’re a fan of historical soap operas like Versailles then you know that luxurious, decorative, sartorial flourishes, flouncy lace, gold brocades, bright silks, capelets, and kitten heels were once equally the province of courtly men and kings as they were of posh women. And a brief flare-up of men in full dandy mode resurfaced briefly in the 1970s. This is not to say that fashion has not been used as a tool of the patriarchy from materialist propaganda to hypersexualized objectification to physical oppression — corsets, Louboutins, no pockets in anything. But in recent history it’s been only women who’ve had access to all the fun of makeup, couture, and self-expressive fashion statements — although this also comes along with the pressure to make use of them whether we wanted to or not. In short, like everything, gender-based fashion codes are complicated, but the best way to fix that is to give every person access to all of those codes to engage with as they see fit.
While not a project about de-gendering clothing choices per se, in Irma Sofia Poeter’s textile-based and social practice work, she treats garments as signifiers and enforcers of the false binary that is at the heart of so much personal and cultural dysfunction — specifically with regard to constructs of maleness and masculinity that suppress and punish any expression of deviation from the toxic norm, whether that’s in clothes or in displays of emotions. In New Man: A Human’s Gaze, which grew out of the artist’s BBAX residency New Man: A Woman’s Gaze, Poeter trains her multidisciplinary eye on works that exist in an art historical continuum of Renaissance and Baroque ostentation in the fine and decorative arts. Like the fancy dress at Versailles, her works often feature heavy brocade, embroidery, historical scenes of performative wealth, references to tapestry and weavings, and other signals of power whose “feminine” aesthetic performs macho flexing in a way modern men might not recognize. Except, for clarity of message, many of Poeter’s works are additionally festooned with comically large fabric dildos. So there’s that.
Along with Poeter’s inspired, impeccably crafted, witty and moving works in the main gallery, the project rooms share the result of community workshops Poeter conducted in partnership with the Santa Monica Repertory Theater. Urging participants to rethink and propose a new conception of masculinity, one that’s more vulnerable and stripped of what Poeter calls, “the violent gender binary,” the idea was to address the problematics of traditional gender roles by inviting participants to deconstruct the patriarchy, literally. Taking apart the boring, staid, unimaginative uniforms of maleness and using the craft of sewing and embroidery to build something else — something more personal, more expressive, and completely fabulous — proved a cathartic and meaningful exercise for all involved. Photographs of the workshop participants wearing these joyful pieces breathes real life into the concepts behind the program and the entire exhibition.
With her fractal patterns of quilts and the supercharged palette of Pop and Op art; in the use of gently draped camo as the backdrop for a portrait of queer, wizardly beauty; in building new cosmologies from the literal scraps of the old order; in the languid, bedazzled unfolding of sculptural petals on the rare giant penis lotus — in all of this and scores more finely detailed gestures, Poeter finds a corrective balance that dissolves gender binaries in a solution of exuberant theatricality, in which personal expression is seen to triumph over narrowly enforced identities — first in our clothes, and then, perhaps, in our whole world.