On Thursday evening, more than 700 spirited souls turned up at the Museum of Arts and Design to celebrate the opening of Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle, which runs from September 10 through February. And what a party it was! Warmth, joy, and connection exuded from the museum, highlighting the importance of this exhibition to the LGBTQ+ community.
Indeed, it was a far cry from the sedate Dior luncheon on Wednesday where women, many dressed in subdued black Dior Bar jackets and elegant New Look silhouettes, feted Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Artistry in Fashion Award. What do you expect with a guest list that includes Dirty Martini, Tabboo, Kitty Sparkles, and Sister Rosetta Stoned?
Other notable attendees were Amy Fine Collins, who told me she is walking in the Elena Velez spring 2022 runway show, Jean Shafiroff, Freddie Leiba, Michele Gerber Klein, Nicole Fishelis, and Patrick McMullen, who was enjoying himself as he surveyed the scene and captured it with his camera.
I saw MAD Chair Emeritus Barbara Tober, board member Marcy Mittlemann, and board chairman Michele Cohen. Also on hand were Michael Musto, Taylor Mac, Mx. Julian Vivian Bond, and Elissa Auther, the museum’s Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator. Elissa curated the exhibition with Machine Dazzle.
The unspoken dress code for the evening? “In your face”! As you can imagine, every manner of dress (or undress) was on view. There was a smattering of nipple-baring guys, and a few stripped down to their skivvies. Twice during the evening, the Dazzle Dancers, who reunited for this event, performed a colorful dance with a provocative finale of no clothing – just glitter. In the late 90s, Machine began doing costumes for them and then joined as a dancer.
Of course, nobody could top Machine, the 6’7” “Man of the Hour.” Over the past few decades, Dazzle has fought traditional costume design and aesthetics with a fistful of sequins. The genre-defining self-taught artist, born Matthew Flower, is a downtown legend, innovator, and Pulitzer Prize, finalist. The 49-year-old has a body of work beyond the scope of what many accomplish in their lifetime.
“The higher the heels, the closer to the goddess,”Machine Dazzle.
Machine Dazzle’s living sculptures are excessive in scale, color, surface, texture, and movement. They constantly transform as the designer combines the familiar embellishments of drag and burlesque, such as sequins, glitter, and feathers, beads, with common everyday objects, such as ping pong balls, hoop skirts, slinkies, soup cans, twinkies, plastic turkeys, fake fruit and more, to build and deepen the work’s narrative intent. “You name it, you can probably find it on one of his costumes, observes Elissa Auther. The result is an explosive “queer maximalism” aesthetic that values different body types.
Ms. Auther told me she conceived of the idea for this exhibition after her initial meeting with Machine right before Covid-19. The actual presentation was postponed three times. “Many people know Machine Dazzle as a costume designer for queer icons of the stage like Taylor Mac and Justin Vivian Bond, but this exhibition is taking him from backstage to center stage as a sculptor and an artist,” observes Ms. Auther.
“I find Machine Dazzle’s confidence to be inspiring. He is engaging the mind, and that is brilliant to see!”Elissa Auther, Chief Curator, The Museum of Arts and Design
Located on the 4th and 5th floors of the museum, the 80-plus pieces of costumes, related objects, and ephemera span Machine’s 25+ career from his arrival to NY in 1994 to the present. Together they chronicle the metamorphosis of Flower, a closeted suburban kid from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, into “Machine Dazzle,” the queer experimental theater genius.
The Costumes for “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” are on the 5th floor. They are a single production and collaboration with Taylor Mac. Also in the exhibition is an entire section of costumes for a production called “Treasure.” This large-scale musical production was Machine’s breakout as a costume designer, singer, and songwriter, initially debuting at the Guggenheim Museum.
Elissa told me that Machine does not consider himself a fashion designer; though he loves the runway, he views it in a performance context. On Thursday night, Ms. Auther spoke with many people who told her they hoped Machine could get young designers to come and see the exhibition. They thought it had a lot to say about fashion and a lot to say about how one uses their imagination in that commercial fashion realm.
Imaginative and creative indeed. As I walked around the exhibition, taking it all in, I kept thinking that Machine must have some really interesting dreams. When I mentioned this to him, he admitted that many of his designs come to him in his dreams.
When I asked Ms. Auther what she thought the key takeaway from the exhibition was, she remarked, “Sometimes things that are very spectacular and surface-oriented can be dismissed in the contemporary art world as too frivolous. But I think Machine Dazzle is very smart. These are brilliant and sensual costumes, but I think he also engages the mind, which is exciting to see!
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