Fashion and Pheromones

In her new Spaceworks installation, Julia Barbee manipulates nature for art.

Artist Julia Barbee‘s deconstructed-fashion collection, Frocky Jack Morgan, has received shout outs in the Los Angeles Times, Portland Monthly and beyond. But while one segment of her fashion oeuvre is designed to dazzle the eyes, another strand of her art – a more wickedly sexy, cerebral and scientifically-grounded one – dazzles the mind.

This moth is a participant in one of Barbee's fashion-and-pheromone experiments.

“I just completed a sculptural installation of five hanging silk pieces which I grew borax crystals on, and hung from the ceiling in [a] gallery space,” she writes in her project proposal to Spaceworks Tacoma. “They were part of an exhibition around the idea of identity and being named, and they ended up being stand-ins for bodies. In fact, they housed the cocoons of Polyphemus silk moths, which emerged during the exhibition and released pheromones into the sculptures.” Barbee will introduce a variation of this glittering organic experiment, sans silk moths, for a Spaceworks installation opening July 15 at 912 Broadway.

Barbee's studio in Portland, OR.

A recent graduate of the Masters of Fine Arts Fibers program at California State University, Long Beach, Barbee is charting new territory, one where fashion, the perfumer’s art and etomology meet. In an e-mail conversation, the Portland, OR-based artist described the origins of her studies – and her own attraction to smell. One goal of her MFA program, she says, was “to reduce a wearable [garment] to its essence. The idea of an oil slick on the skin was a really powerful, visceral and ephemeral manifestation of that. Smell is directly connected to memory in a way no other sense is.”

That trail led her to pheromone research. “I was living in southern California during my studies, and started getting catcalls on the street. I found this both amusing and/or frightening depending on the situation, and thought a study into attraction would be interesting….Moths have some of the strongest pheromones in the natural world.”

Glittering borax crystals coat a Barbee silk sculpture.

The MFA research acquainted her with yet another natural element, borax crystals, which she would eventually grow on hanging silk sculptures: “The borax crystals were kind of a play on salt crystals, sweat.” In a previous project, Barbee had worn a single skirt for three months, then soaked it in borax solution, and made it into a non-representational self-portrait. “I did this project four times, resulting in a year’s worth of skirts, called seasonal skirts.

“The moths were a natural illustration of the theory I was testing with wearing perfumes in the world, combined with my pheromones and measuring attraction. The males can smell the females from up to five miles away. During the exhibition, four moths emerged in the gallery and spread their pheromones in the environment. I collected the pheromones in fat, which I will have distilled into an essential oil soon. I released those moths at the end of the exhibition, having found a breed that was safe for the environment in California.” A natural outcome of Barbee’s studies was the creation of her own line of aromatic infusions. Next, she is toying with the idea of releasing a very limited-edition perfume (maximum run of 15 bottles) to be paired with her own hand-made art books and recordings. Julia Barbee, 912 Broadway, through October 31, 2011.

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