LONDON – Luella Bartley is moving on from fashion to fine art, though she still thinks about the curves and intricacies of the female form.
His new exhibition, with fellow designer-turned-artist Sara Berman, is called “Armoured” and runs until June 11 at KH Gallery in London. The sculptures, paintings and drawings of the two women show the body, covered and uncovered, and the image is not always pretty.
The title is taken from a poem by fashion curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, while the exhibition features new works by Berman and Bartley, which explore the female experience, particularly in relation to the body and space.
Berman’s colorful paintings deal with the semiotics of dress and armour, while Bartley created stark white sculptures of bandaged and twisted limbs, bent at awkward angles.
She also drew and painted the twisted naked female body in different postures and in exaggerated proportions. Berman’s subjects are hidden characters, protected by their clothes, while Bartley’s characters reveal everything.
In an interview, Bartley said she started drawing after taking time off from work for personal reasons. She soon found she couldn’t stop – and she plans to continue.
“I just felt compelled to draw, to explore feelings that I couldn’t verbalize. So I drew and drew and drew and it was a very personal exploration, and not necessarily something that I even thought would be shown [in public]. But it feels very natural and the right thing for me to do now,” she said.
Until now, Bartley had never shown publicly before, although his early work was recently featured in collaboration with Miuccia Prada for a Miu Miu advertising campaign.
She has described her approach to art as a “struggle with yourself” and her drawings are done with a sharp, rough pencil and a long “sword-like” brush. Her sculptures are made of clay which she bandaged with white plaster.
Bartley has had a long and successful fashion career, most recently serving as global design director for Calvin Klein Jeans and co-founder of Hillier Bartley, the ready-to-wear and accessories brand with Katie Hillier. She was head of women’s rtw design at Marc by Marc Jacobs and was the founder and designer of her eponymous line, Luella, which closed in 2009.
She won Designer of the Year in 2008 at the British Fashion Awards and received an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, from Queen Elizabeth II in 2010.
When asked how her fashion background influenced her approach to art, Bartley said that as a designer she always thought about “women and their attitudes towards their bodies, their sexuality and their femininity. . But in fashion, for me, it was very much a question of image, mask and exterior.
In contrast, with these new works, Bartley said she was completely exposing herself and her thoughts, “by doing something very raw, naked and exposed.” It’s quite vulnerable, quite courageous, something that I felt was really important to do, as a woman.
She added that her art is “much more visceral” than her fashion designs have ever been. In fashion, Bartley said she was dealing with “a theoretical idea of a young woman. I was playing with ideas of sexuality and creating very primitive ideas that were also quite sick. But it wasn’t a visceral look at the body like what I do now.
She said that long before the show, she and Berman took long walks and talked about their ideas, then returned to their studios to draw, paint and sculpt. She said the works come together like a conversation.
Some of Berman’s women were created on a larger than life scale that seem to overwhelm space and are themselves obscured by thick, bulky clothing that in some cases restricts movement or access to the body.
Berman, who used to design an eponymous collection with her sister Amiee Berman, and was co-creative director of British cashmere brand N.Peal, said the show is the result of her “very beautiful dialogue honest about femininity and what it’s like to be in our bodies at this point in our lives.
She believes that “recognizing her armor draws attention to the inevitable softness beneath.”
Asked about her plans for the future, Bartley said she was in no rush to return to fashion.
“I really hope to pursue art,” she said, adding that KH Gallery founder Kristin Hjellegjerde had officially hired her “and right now I feel really compelled to move forward. I have so many other things I want to explore and experience,” she said.
KH Gallery has locations in London, Norway and Berlin and functions as an incubation space where young artists can experiment. The gallery says its aim is to stay with artists for the long term and “to inspire the collectors of tomorrow”.
Later this year, Hjellegjerde will expand to the United States, opening a new space in Palm Beach.