Deep West London has always been "wild" to me. I've never lived there. I hardly ever venture there unless it's to pass through to get to Heathrow. It's not as foreign an entity as South of the river but it's not far off. It would have to take something special to get me to the nether regions of the District Line. Turns out that the famed 18th century architect, Sir John Soane, creator of Soane's Museum -one of personal favourite central London escape boltholes, had a country pad in the form of Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing. Today, this small but well-formed house plays hosts to exhibitions and right now you can catch the tail end of one and the beginnings of another. Enter the Soane Suite and you'll be greeted with a sculptural banquet created by London-based artist and designer Kathy Dalwood. This is her "Secret Society" (trying very very hard to ignore naive Selma Blair's incantation in Cruel Intentions) with a very unusual guest list of ecccentric characters with names like Mme Maigret, Gold Digger, Ms Chattanooga and Aviatrix. The sixty-four busts, almost all of which are female, are part of Dalwood's ongoing series of work, which she started three years ago, when funnily enough, she wandered around Sir John Soane's Museum looking at 19th century busts and was inspired to take this recognisable sculptural format and give them a contemporary shake-up. Their link up with fashion isn't immediately apparent as the intention is that from a distance, they look like they could well be conventional busts depicting the guarded image of important people.
Up close though is where it starts getting interesting. Instead of sculpting directly out of plaster, Dalwood creates silicone moulds out of real materials and constructed apparel to then cast her busts in white plaster. Everything from coffee cup lids, recycled packaging fruit netting, foil and cardboard to charity shop finds are used to create the costumes which adorn the busts. She initially looked at the way fabrics were intricately represented in 19th century sculpture where silk and taffeta appear to look realistic when in solid marble or plaster form and so she casts from real materials to take on the imperfections of her material choices. A portrait of Marie Antoinette in fancy dress with a ship on her head set Dalwood off on a tangent of elaborate headpieces, referencing the pomp, airs and graces of what traditionally a bust was meant to portray. To juxtapose the idea of that dated bust with contemporary fashion and design, Dalwood then looked at sculptural fashion references, specifically from Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed, the accompanying book to the 2001 Met Museum exhibition, taking certain elements and recreating them in miniature bust form. Junya Watanabe's bulbous fabric-covered sculptural headpieces, Viktor & Rolf's exaggerated ruffs and even Christian Dior's 'New Look' hat are used here, recast in white, reverting the process in fashion where white toiles get turned into functioning, colour and texture-filled garments. She also creates her own form of sculptural fashion, bending plumbing pipe to obscure the face in an evocative way, fanning out fabric into ruffs and collaging her own punk-bricolage out medals, military jacket detailing and lego bricks.
By blanketing her banquet in matte white plaster, the eye looks upon a woman wearing a toy jet fighter plane on her head in a different light – everything is elevated with the appearance of elegance and sophistication. Even the small gesture of angling all the headpieces or obscuring the faces of her cast of Secret Society characters, instantly recalls our own ideals of femme fatale mystique, despite the fact that the materials used to do so are less than desirable. A banquet littered with household whisks, fag packets and pound shop plastic flowers suddenly looks like the most beautiful thing in the world. It's a simple (although the process of creating this banquet was arduous) yet completely effective veneer. It's clear that Dalwood she isn't whitewashing "trash" to hide their humble origins but rather she wishes to elevate these materials by moulding them into costumes with conviction, and cast them in a positive light. It was a surreal respite of an exhibition where you came away asking questions about the veneer of luxury, the appearance of things versus what they are in reality and how Dalwood crosses discplines with this body of work. It's a banquet for the brain to consume. This exhibition ends this weekend on the 9th June but Dalwood's busts are all available to purchase and she's up for commissions of all sorts if there are designers out there prepared to set their real garments up against her white plaster formations.
In a more traditional fashion exhibit setting next door, the PM Gallery plays host to Second Nature, an exhibition curated by Gemma Williams of LCF, on until 9th July. Drawing influence from Sir John Soane's ideal of Pitzhanger Manor as his personal nature-fuelled country retreat, Williams brings the ever-peverasive link between nature and its influence on fashion, to life with this compact but worthwhile exhibition. It's a topic that could be conceived on a far larger scale, and you could dream up sprawling exhibitions where gowns are unrealistically exposed to the outdoor elements. For now though, Williams carefully selects designers who have continued to be magnetically drawn to the natural world despite technological advances with everything from Zandra Rhodes' 1974 Ayers Rock collection to Peter Pilotto's S/S 12 surf-waved dresses. Through print, applique/embroidery or sculptural organic forms in accessories, it's certainly an inspiration point that I doubt will ever truly diminish. Here, Williams is sensitive to the surroundings of Pitzhanger Manor and the pieces displayed are highlighted by the golden light cast through the beautiful skylights. Wander out into the gardens afterwards for that final feeling of retreat before trekking back on the District Line.