Museum of Art and Design, New York CityAs I entered the fourth floor of the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in New York City, I became enveloped by a dizzying array of colors, patterns, materials, sounds, and pageantry. Children and adults alike audibly gasped or pointed out details in excitement, while a tour group shuffled through the display of costumes and casework displays of photographs and ephemera (pins, fliers, and posters) set against richly saturated ombré murals (created by Rebecca Graves, R. Graves and Company). All of these objects encompass the first solo exhibition of New York-based artist, costume designer, and sculptor Matthew Flower (born 1972) aka Machine Dazzle in Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle on view at MAD through February 19, 2023.
Installation view of Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design
The exhibition was curated by MAD’s Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and William and Mildred Lasdon Chief Curator, Elissa Auther, and is accompanied by a richly illustrated exhibition catalogue published by Rizzoli Electa featuring a number of essays by various artists, cultural historians, and performers. Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle is at once a visual overload, and a comprehensive career survey that spans two museum floors and includes over 80 of Machine Dazzle’s works created since 2000 as well as numerous photographs and archival materials capturing queer nightlife and avant-garde performance venues in New York City since the early 1990s.
As a self-taught fabricator, Machine Dazzle masterfully designs and executes costumes incorporating items as disparate as candy Pez dispensers, deflated balloons, paper flowers, and 3D viewing glasses, among other found materials. Combining these elements with more conventional textiles and fabrics, Dazzle’s body of work defies artistic genres. The works bear elements of fashion design, textile arts, decorative arts, sculpture, collage, mixed-media, stagecraft, performance art, music, and theater.
In the section “Living Sculpture” a noteworthy quote by Dazzle appears on a label and says, “I’m more interested in what a costume is about, rather than how it’s made. I don’t need precise lines. I want the story … I’m an audience-oriented designer.” Other quotations by the artist appear throughout the exhibition, centering much of the show on Dazzle’s individual artistic agency. In this way, viewers learn how Dazzle’s approach to creating is as lively and multi-dimensional as the drag performances, experimental theater, and cabaret shows in which many of these costumes were initially worn. The static museum context, therefore, offers audiences more time to closely observe the designs, as opposed to a brief glimpse of a gown on a stage or worn along a parade route.
Some of the works in the exhibition are partially suspended from above, illuminated by neon light, or worn by mannequins placed atop colorful, as well as mirror-reflective pedestals. Both the costumes themselves as well as the exhibition design and methods of display undoubtedly transfix viewers through a maximalist aesthetic as the title of the show suggests. Maximalism—often defined as an artistic practice that utilizes heavily ornamented surfaces, is also commonly referred to as an “aesthetic of excess.” Because there are so many captivating details to visually register, it would be easy for viewers to pass through the exhibition in sheer delight, approaching each display without regard for any of the wall texts or didactic labels. However, I find that a deeper appreciation of the artist and the exhibition can be gained from viewing the performance footage, reading the labels, and hesaring Dazzle speak about his work through Bloomberg Connects—a free mobile app that provides exhibition guidance on this particular show.
Overarching themes of the exhibition include gender identity, self-expression, a celebration of queer culture, activism, and resilience, and within this framework are additional narrative trajectories. One of the strengths of Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle is its use of didactics that offer just enough information to pique visitors’ interest while also providing additional through-lines of the exhibition.
For instance, one of the central components of the show is the development of Machine Dazzle’s career as a designer, performer, and songwriter and his collaborative work with the performance troupe, the Dazzle Dancers, as well as performers Justin Vivian Bond and Taylor Mac, among many others. The exhibition also captures a nearly twenty-five-year history of New York night life and queer culture highlighting costumes from drag shows and photographs capturing New York City’s Pride, Easter, and Coney Island Mermaid parades.
One of the stronger sections of the exhibition, presented on the fifth floor, is a complete “set” of Dazzle’s costumes made for performer Taylor Mac for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a 2016 durational performance in which Mac sang and appropriated counter narratives of American history from 1776-2016—with an hour dedicated to each decade. As part of his process, Dazzle researched over 200 years of American history, to develop a refashioning of political events and cultural trends.
Installation view of Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York Photo by Jenna Bascom. Courtesy the Museum of Arts and Design.
Many of these decade-based costumes also incorporate art historical and fashion references, such as Jackson Pollock paint splatters, an 18th century hoopskirt formed by faux barbed wire and painted hot dogs, a red and white spiral detail reminiscent of the work of Alexander Calder, a dotted painted pink suit and hat in the style of Jackie Kennedy (a notable subject of Andy Warhol), an oversized backdrop of pop art hands evocative of Roy Lichtenstein’s dot painting emblazoned with graphic typography that reads “BANG!,” a skirt made of sculptural fruit, perhaps as a reference to Pop art, and an ornately dressed mannequin seated on a rope swing made of balloons—perhaps recalling Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famed 18th century painting The Swing.
At a time when many museums are questioning the purpose and intentions of their exhibitions, the Museum of Art and Design’s Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle succeeds in its ability to address this topic directly. Chief Curator Elissa Auther developed a comprehensive survey that is simultaneously exciting, entertaining, and educational. Ultimately, Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle offers a fresh perspective on fashion and performance, highlighting the significant material culture of our time and the marginalized queer bodies who are often absent from American history.
Reviewed by Caitlin Swindell