Artbeat: Costume Ball

Katie Ries challenges her viewers to make a change by dressing them up

Katie Ries is a graduate student in the University of Tennessee School of Art's high-profile printmaking department. But her most recent opening at UT's Gallery 1010 this past First Friday proves that it is rarely the medium that counts most to Ries, but the message.

Ries' show, entitled open source: costumes to save your life, incorporates costume-making, fiber art, photography, drawing, and sculpture, with a touch of performance art for good measure. Ries has created a series of four functional garments, each designed for a specific behavior or emotion. The impetus here is to validate and enable actions that are natural but have been marginalized or forgotten. Like most of Ries' work, the show is interactive and is meant to challenge the viewer to become an active participant in her process.

In her relatively short time in Knoxville, Ries has already accumulated a substantial exhibition tally. A solo show at the Tomato Head a few years ago hinted at her interest in garments and recycled materials with its memorable mermaid's tail made of disposable onion bag packaging. The fishtail could either be worn or displayed as sculpture when suspended by fishing wire. This past winter Ries held court at Gallery 1010 with UT Graphic Design grad student Hilary Williams for a show that featured a vending machine filled with art-like items. Ries' work with the Birdhouse art collective has included the DIY-themed swap meet-cum-craft fair Swap-O-Rama-Rama.

For her manifestation of despair in open source, Ries crafted a quilt made from brown velveteen fabric remnants and red-and-black tartan plaid. The quilt was intentionally weighty and bulky, made for settling into a deep contemplative lull. Once the quilt has been wrapped around you for a few moments, you begin to feel the cold of hidden ice panels inserted into the blanket. Her design for mourning took shape as a pair of extremely long sleeves, six feet or longer, that were gathered at the ends. Ries noted that the sleeves were originally intended for a dance she envisioned shortly after a high school friend committed suicide. An accompanying photo and drawing bring to life her dance and heighten the concept for the garment.

Ries made two identical costumes for her eating/feeding concept. A royal blue waistcoat was made with a pouch in the front to hold a bowl, a design conceit that allowed for either a heightened shopping experience or for sharing food. That piece was paired with an orange satin hoop skirt that seemed weighted at the bottom. It slowed down movement, and the costume looked as though it belonged in a fairy tale. Ries interpreted collecting/gathering as a quilted cape with hidden pockets, perfect for stashing seeds. The long kimono-style sleeves were fashionable, yet they served a purpose.

Ries encourages viewers to engage with her work; she urged people at the show to try on her costumes, and some viewers jumped right in. It was clear that the interactive component would challenge otherwise complacent art revelers into actually participating. I got there early and tried on a few of the garments and others quickly followed suit. It was fun to see people trying on the bulky hoop skirts and colorful waistcoats. Since it was difficult to feel compelled to mourn or collect during the buzz of First Friday, Ries is encouraging viewers to rent or borrow her costumes to establish their own behavioral framework.

Another key component of the show was the collection of striking color photographs taken by Luke Wilkins. The photos worked well to convey the concepts behind each costume. I especially liked the photo for eating/collecting, which showed the subjects in full costume in a grocery store thoughtfully selecting items. Ries also displayed an intricate artist book in which she showed her progress through the project.

Ries' work here with costumes is reminiscent of Japanese avant-garde artist Atsuko Tanaka. Tanaka's most famous work was Electric Dress, from 1956, a kimono-style garment made entirely of light bulbs and electrical cords. Although Ries' work has a more practical approach, her costumes work to implement change. By putting on these costumes, you assume the potential to fill the role she has envisioned. The rest is up to you.