The 12-week exhibition of Future Beauty at Seattle Art Museum captivated the city with fashion and wearable art of Japanese designers who have a profound and innovative understanding of material and shape. The works spanned decades and were placed in context, revealing just how influential these garments have been and remain—indeed justifying the title of the show. The over 100 exquisite outfits imported from Kyoto are now being packed and shipped for their next show in Massachusetts, but their influence here may persist.
Future Beauty facilitated an inspiring experience for countless artists, and introduced many to concepts that are sure to find a home in future works. I toured the show shortly before its end with one such artist, who not only found inspiration from the precious garments but staged an intervention—more of a happening, really—when he was invited to lead a tour of the exhibition space. Paul Kuniholm Pauper is an artist of many mediums, gallerist at Form/Space Atelier, and now a Certified Fiber Artist, having recently completed University of Washington’s fiber art certificate program. He took me through the show to highlight his favorite pieces and illustrate how it has affected his own work this past season.
Pauper often produces work week-by-week in serial runs. Last year it was copper hats, this year it is skirts and hats incorporating hand-weaving techniques. Just prior to the opening of the exhibit, Pauper had started on his newest body of work, which includes large and playful hoop skirts inspired by traditional Northwest native spruce root hats. As we walked through the rooms of avant-garde ensembles, Paul explained how he was particularly captivated by the work of designer Junya Watanabe. When conducting initial research for this body of work, he was unaware of the work of these Japanese artists. During his first run through the exhibit, he was surprised and somewhat taken aback when at the very end of the show an innovative hoop skirt appeared in the Watanabe collection. This gave Pauper the impetus to delve deeper into his take on the hoop skirt, choosing wicker work and parting from metal hoops, such as the one he noticed in the show. Aesthetically he has found some resemblance, but conceptually and narratively his work stands apart.
The wicker in Pauper’s work is his way of investigating his own heritage. It’s a physical tie to the wickerwork of his great grandfather, whose wicker furniture is in the permanent collection of Ballard’s Nordic Heritage Museum and an inspiration to him in creating objects that last the test of time. However, this leads the artist to wonder if wearable art is indeed meant to last the test of time. So far, Pauper’s ‘Wearables’ have been used twice and are now on display in the windows of an unoccupied retail space of the Panama Hotel in the International District, somewhere between art and relic of past events.
Pauper’s wearable interventions have not been scripted or formalized. He draws inspiration from performance art pioneer Allan Kaprow, whose mid-century ‘happenings’ incited spontaneity and redefined the genre. Pauper explains that “once you formalize it, then it becomes a piece of theater and a costume.” Paul admits that his work is not practical. The wearables make it nearly impossible to get into a car and they create a physical space around the wearer that can limit interaction depending on the wearer. At the recent city Arts Art Walk Awards party where Pauper was nominated for his intervention at Seattle Art museum, his model Ashley Komoda wore Pauper’s hoop skirt design and did an outstanding job of electrifying the space while weaving through the crowd with a performative and playful nature.
Many of the pieces presented at Future Beauty will stay vivid in one’s memories, such as Akira Naka’s 2009 graduated gray knit wool blazer, which Pauper compared to where land meets the sky on a foggy day. And in total, the clothing—or wearable art—was the paragon of production value, a standard to aspire to. All these things show the depth and breathe of inquiry of the designers featured.
After touring Future Beauty, on our way out of the museum Pauper let his imagination soar and wishfully dreamt aloud that he might get dielectric welders and design his own synthetic fabrics. However, if logic were to prevail, he would use the utilitarian materials that have been the signature of his work, which has long been about up-cycling and re-imagining materials, even if they were sourced from the dumpsters of certain cultural institutions.
So what exactly is the idea of “Future Beauty” to Pauper? He defines it as providing the thoughtful, antithesis—nay, antidote—to the negative aspects of futurism in our culture, including conceptions of how the future will look that have become conventional or cliché over time. These in turn may codify our expectations about the future itself, the future we come to expect, for better or for worse. “Future Beauty” defies those preconceived notions in favor of a spiritual solution that enriches and enlightens through sheer original beauty—a beauty that will stand the test of time and inspire those to come.
Paul Kuniholm Pauper’s work can be seen starting September 12 at The Nordic Heritage Museum as part of the Dressing Swedish special exhibit, where it will be displayed alongside historic wickerwork made by his great grandfather. Join Pauper at Thursday’s opening for a chance to experience an intervention featuring two models and his fiber artworks.