Walking amid artist Lee Renninger's ethereal couture at 701 Penn Gallery, I'm reminded of A Midsummer Night's Dream: The gowns featured in her Threaded Line exhibition seem the perfect getups for stumbling love-drunk through the moonlit Athenian forest. The frothy, pastel "Sous Ses Jupes (Under Her Skirts)" floats at the gallery's center while "Fishtail" cascades, with what appear to be white petals, into an elegant fan across the floor.
But Helena and Hermia wouldn't have made it much further than their bed chambers in one of Renninger's gowns; despite her work's effervescent appearance, the primary "fabric" of each dress is clay.
"They're totally not wearable," Renninger says. "And they're probably breakable. You could maybe pose in them."
Up close, the petals of "Fishtail" look more like scales. Another, "Throw," bursts with pockets of white and red; at first, it looks like it might feel squashy underfoot, but a closer inspection reveals that it's made of tightly knit porcelain rings. "Boho," with its web of tiny white flowers, seems the lightest, visually, but Renninger estimates it weighs about 35 pounds.
The exhibit's most clever textural trick comes from "Shag," three circles of carefully juxtaposed porcelain slivers that, at a distance, look like swatches of polar bear fur. Even up close, when Shag's hardness becomes more apparent, it's difficult to accept that it isn't soft and cuddly.
Renninger has experimented with ceramics for 10 years, but didn't explore her interest in fashion until 2005, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home and studio in Gulfport, Miss. For six weeks after the disaster, she stayed in the home of some "amazingly generous strangers," where her "one bit of brightness" came from watching Sex and the City and paging through Vogue.
"Fashion was a surface interest," she says. "But I did some exploration and realized it held a lot of potential for speaking as an artist. Because there's such a wide interest, it gives me a chance to reach a wider audience."
For Renninger, fashion is inherently political, so it seemed logical to use her couture to speak about global issues. "Everyone, whether they admit it or not, uses fashion as a metaphor," she says. "You're saying something whenever you put something on."
Renninger uses "Sous Ses Jupes" to explore the cultural clash between Muslim immigrants and French natives, a conflict that's turned violent in several French cities. The gown has a Marie Antoinette bodice, representing "archetypal qualities of France," but rivulets of raffia and strings of cupcake wrappers -- objects from the Middle Eastern marketplace -- shiver down its skirt. The interplay of the two elements speaks to the exciting and, as of yet, unrealized potential of cultural exchange between the two groups.
While Renninger feels strongly about the issue, she says the piece doesn't have fixed meaning. "Everyone brings different associations [to a work of art]," she says. "I think a work should allow for that. I think a work should have layers of meaning."
Threaded Line: Works by Lee Renninger runs through Sat., July 18. 709 Penn Gallery, 709 Penn Ave., Downtown. Free. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org