Ephemeral artwear

Waxed-paper clothing by Kate Hamilton now on view at Water Street Market in New Paltz

by Lynn Woods
Kate Hamilton:
Since July 16, Unison’s Water Street Market Gallery has been filled with clothes, but you may have trouble seeing them: the overalls, tee-shirts, slips, dresses, men’s formal shirt and cummerbund and hats are sewn out of waxed paper (actually an archival glassine paper – a step up from the stuff that you buy at the supermarket). When the room is full of light, one is more apt to see the details of their construction: seams, crinkles, pockets, zippers, hooks, snaps, buttons and buttonholes. “They’re like 3-D X-rays. You can see through them, and they kind of glow,” noted their creator, Kate Hamilton.

Titled “The Closet of Nothing,” the show, which runs through August 15, reflects Hamilton’s fascination for clothing and the way that it signifies the self (or selves, given what clothes indicate about gender, age and class). “Clothes are like shells of identity,” she said. Like the skins shed by the snakes that inhabit the area around her New Paltz home, they are ephemeral and double-edged, signifying absence as much as the body’s presence. Hamilton has used wood and cloth to construct her conceptual clothing and costumes, but paper predominates, and the waxed paper is perhaps the most extreme medium – just a step away from nothing.

“I was reading Derrida and I came up with the idea of using a material that’s intrinsically valueless,” noted Hamilton. “It’s also extremely lightweight. The stuff looks like it will float away and is made out of nothing.” Yet sewing the waxed-paper clothing was anything but easy, resulting in many rips and discards. Barely there and yet solidly constructed, the pieces are full of contradictions, Hamilton noted.

Hamilton, who teaches costume design to high school and middle school students in Brooklyn, has previously shown her work at New Paltz’s Rock and Snow store, the Dorsky Museum and the Beacon Theater. She has designed costumes for theatrical, operatic and dance performances in New York City, Zurich and Berlin, constructing a skirt with a 35-foot circumference for a singer in a performance by Theater Skok, Zurich, for example, and designing transparent 19th-century aprons with feathers attached for performers suspended from wires in a store window in a Berlin gallery.

Among the projects on which she is working currently is a performance of The Human Voice, a one-woman opera written by Poulenc, for a Zurich theater. The mezzo-soprano sings into a telephone and gets sporadic communication back, and Hamilton’s paper clothes reinforced the theme of the tenuousness of communication and life. One idea being explored is to have the piece simultaneously performed in Ulster County, with Hamilton’s costumes perhaps transmitted to the stage as video images.

As a child growing up in Pennsylvania, Hamilton never dreamed that she’d be making art from clothing; the family expected the children to sew their own clothes as a way of saving money, and Hamilton hated it. She studied Art in college and after graduating was doing carpentry in New York City when she discovered the Millinery District and became entranced. Soon she had founded a children’s hat and clothing business called ETAK. After she closed the business, she started making costumes for her kids’ school performances, and “It really clicked. I loved the shapes of the clothes and how they got made. They seemed almost aberrant.” She ended up teaching three-dimensional design at Parsons, and also taught a costume workshop at the West Kortright Centre’s teen Shakespeare Workshop, in Delaware County.

The Gallery, located in the Water Street Market just off lower Main Street in New Paltz, is open every day of the week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. All the clothes in the show are technically wearable (they’re women’s size 8) and float freely in the space, suggesting an environment that’s akin to a dream or being underwater. To view Kate Hamilton’s work, visit www.katehamiltonstudio.com.

© 2011