Wednesday, August 31, 2005

MAY 12 THROUGH JULY 30, 2005

High Fashion Crime Scenes is Melanie Pullen's first exhibition since she joined Ace Gallery last spring. The exhibition contains works from Pullen's photographic series of the same title based on vintage crime-scene images, firsthand accounts, and documents Pullen mined from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, the County Coroner’s Office, and other primary sources. Drawn to the rich details and compelling stories preserved in the criminal records, in 2002 she began restaging the events, outfitting the "victims" (her selected models) in current haute couture, and photographing them in her staged settings. The collection of more than one hundred images has received considerable critical acclaim in the national and international press. The exhibition will include new images shot in Los Angeles and New York City. Pullen's photographs address four dominant themes: death by fire, water, and hanging; and the sometimes-dangerous environment of the taxi. She revisited these situations repeatedly throughout the series. A woman’s legs dangle from a flaming dumpster. The body of a young woman floats amidst a forest of seaweed. And a taxi contains the body a gunshot victim.

Over the past three years the twenty-nine year old artist has occasionally worked as a commercial fashion photographer. She has shot layouts for the likes of Flaunt and Rolling Stone. Photographs from the series employ the power of fashion to disguise and distract, or to draw our attention away from the otherwise gruesome subjects. While representations of violence - including its causes and affects - have always dominated visual culture, artists have long employed the subject to comment on greater social values and taboos. Pullen herself has noted that she takes aim at society's glamorization of violent acts and crimes by iterally re-dressing what are deeply disturbing events. Her forceful juxtaposition of intense colors and sometimes jarring compositions recall aspects of Expressionism and Surrealism as well as deeper art historical precedents. Self-taught and raised in a family of photojournalists, publishers, and artists, she began the present project - her very first multiple series - after seeing a copy of Luc Sante's 1992 book Evidence (1914-1919) about crime scene photos from the New York Police Department. While the disturbing stories behind the pictures intrigued Pullen, she was more interested in the minute details: the material that made up the images and told a story. Prior to the mid-1950s, the nature of criminal photographs was fundamentally different from their present, clinical form.

Given the complexity of cameras earlier in the century, most crime scene photographers had both artistic and professional experience. With an eye for composition, lighting, and drama, photographers like Eugene Atget, Alexander Gardner, Jacob Riis and Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) produced crime photos that were artistic and documentary, evocative of tabloid illustrations or film noir. Inspired by such images, Pullen conducted extensive research in the LAPD archives that yielded a wealth of vintage sources to work with.

To create High Fashion Crime Scenes Pullen at times enlisted the help of up to sixty people per shoot: set builders, makeup artists, models, stylists, and stunt crews, among others. Her models have included the actresses Rachel Miner and Juliet Lewis. Many important fashion houses have lent or donated clothes and jewelry for shoots, among them, Louis Verdad, Bulgari, Gucci, Chanel, and Vivien Westwood. In the development stage, Pullen intensifies the colors, which are captured on a highly saturated and high-resolution film commonly used in nature photography. She treats each composition like a still life that both reveals and obscures its content beneath layers of brilliant color, atmosphere, and fabric. For each image she prepares elaborate storyboards, which may include the original photographic source, sketches of the final shot, and myriad production notes. As a result, the viewer’s attention initially focuses more on the setting than the actually "scene".

Pullen enjoys the sense of ambiguity about her works. A given photograph mightaddress the folly of immoderate wealth, the seductiveness of tragedy, or simply the brevity of life. She summed up her intentions in a recent interview in Los Angeles Time: "I took this horrific subject and turned it into something aesthetic. My goal is that the last thing you'll notice is the crime."

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