On view until September 10 at Cheryl Hazan Gallery is Gray M.C.A.’s pop-up exhibition “Drawing on Style,” dedicated to fashion illustration. Curated by Connie Gray, the show highlights the work of the late artist Kenneth Paul Block, and contemporary artists Bil Donovan and Jason Brooks.
“Today’s contemporary illustrators owe a great debt to the modern masters of the genre from whom they draw their inspiration,” said Gray. “Fashion illustration records the elegance, grace and style of each generation. Kenneth Paul Block’s outstanding works are a key reason why original fashion illustration is now recognized as having a pivotal place in the world of art and fashion.”
To learn more about the exhibition, we spoke to Gray and Donovan.
WHITEWALL: The pieces in this show spotlight the artists’ technical skills, while also showing their flair within the dynamic interpretation of fashion. What was most important for you to include in this exhibition?
CONNIE GRAY: Each artwork by Kenneth Paul Block, Bil Donovan, and Jason Brooks are the very finest examples of each of their individual techniques in interpreting fashion via illustration.
Block was the “master” of gesture, balance, and energy. He was the leading fashion illustrator of his generation and was the go-to illustrator for all the leading magazines and newspapers of the time. As chief artist for WWD (the fashion world’s bible) and W Magazine, he was responsible for shaping the careers of the new generation of American fashion designers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s—including Ralph Lauren, Donna Karen, Carolina Herrera, and Calvin Klein. I am incredibly fortunate to be working with the Kenneth Paul Block Foundation, and so have had access to the most important artworks from the archive to include in this years exhibition—none of which have been seen before.
WW: Why did you choose these three artists?
CG: Bil Donovan is today’s American “master,” and although his work is entirely contemporary, it is rooted in the finest traditions of fine art drawing. As artist in residence for Dior, a title that he has held since 2009, Donovan’s creativity and visual response to couture fashion is second to none. He uses space and colour in his artworks with such subtly and simplicity that the images almost float off the page. To be able to create movement in such a way is groundbreaking. He always works with live models and rarely uses anything other than brush and colour. To have been able to select from his archive of artworks in his studio has been a huge honour.
British fashion artist Jason Brooks has an entirely high impact style that demands an instant reaction from the viewer. He works almost entirely in silhouette with strong colour block. As the first artist to use digital technology in the 1990s to create his visuals, he is now at the very top of key contemporary artists working in fashion branding today. His artworks are highly sought after for interiors and commercial layouts, as they are so powerful in their message. His work is held in key archives internationally, including the V&A [The Victoria and Albert Museum] in London. He is the perfect final dimension of the exhibition that shows the progression of fashion art through the last 30 years.
It was very important for this show to highlight three different interpretations of fashion art through the eyes of three immensely important and influential fashion artists.
WW: How do you feel fashion helps our culture—in terms of artistic expression, freedom, etc.?
CG: Fashion is entirely emotional and personal to each person, and as fashion reflects the times that we live in (always progressing yet at the same time looking back for inspiration from the past), so fashion art interprets the mood and trends of a season. Fashion illustration is entirely free in its interpretation, photography is more of a direct reflection of a look and trend, whereas illustration is personal and so elicits emotion allowing the viewer to respond more freely.
Fashion Illustration is once again fresh and exciting as a medium & is back in fashion like never before.
WW: Can you tell us a bit about your role as the in-house illustrator for Dior?
BIL DONOVAN: At present, I am an artist-in-residence for Dior Beauty—a role role I have served in since 2009. It’s amazing to be affiliated with the House of Dior, an unimaginable dream that became a reality.
I do a series of events, traveling around the country, painting fashion portraits of special Dior Beauty clientele at Saks, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman in my home state of New York. After sitting with the Dior makeup artists for a makeover, the clients will then sit with me for a fashion portrait done in brush and ink. The challenge is to create a portrait live in fifteen to twenty minutes that emphasize the beauty and spirit of the wonderful Dior women who sit with me. I know I am successful when I get a smile upon completion.
WW: Where did your journey with fashion illustration begin?
BD: As a child in South Philadelphia, a blue collar working class Irish-Italian neighborhood in the heart of Philadelphia. I loved drawing and was fascinated by high fashion. I was captivated by old Hollywood movies, and introduced to glamor through the presence of stars, such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Sophia Loren, and Natalie Wood in Gypsy and Rosalind Russel in Auntie Mame. I wanted to draw the glamour and style of the women wearing the gowns. And I did.
WW: What styles are visually you most attracted to interpreting? Any specific shapes or silhouettes you particularly like?
BD: Haute Couture. Dior, Valentino, Delpozo, Ralph Rucci, Giambattista Valli, Bertrand Guyon Schiaparelli, Alexis Mabille, Givenchy, Julien Fourni, Viktor and Rolf, Xuan, and Thom Browne. Rosie Assoulin and Raul Penaranda invite me to draw live at their collections and it’s thrilling. I love the designers who think out of the box and challenge my preconceived notions of making work. I love when the unexpected shows up—on a runway or on my paper.