The string bikini has been carving tanlines in the erotic imagination since its birth in 1946. With a less-is-more design, it announced a new sexual awakening and body consciousness. Anthony Lepore’s dual projects ‘Bikini Factory’, displayed at François Ghebaly Gallery, and ‘Splash, Glow, Fullflex’, installed at a women’s apparel factory by Lauren Mackler of curatorial collective Public Fiction, dissected this dream in a flurry of bright fabric. Like a poolside cocktail, the show’s photographs were sun-drenched and saturated with tropical colours.
The photographs were taken at the Lepore family bikini factory in east Los Angeles, founded by the artist’s grandfather in 1971. Lepore began the series when he moved his studio there last year, displacing two rows of obsolete sewing machines that were then displayed at François Ghebaly. At the factory, the four walls of Lepore’s studio form a sky-blue cube that sits incongruously in the centre of a vast hall, the drone of sewing machines and laughter of seamstresses playing Lotería always audible through its open ceiling. Lepore’s photographs are filled with childlike wonder at the harlequin delights of this workspace; one can almost envision the artist playing hide-and-seek as a boy in rows of garment racks. Iridescent spandex stretched over the jagged edges of wooden frames evokes the body even when no skin is shown. In The Boss (2015), his father’s balding head bobs through a hole in fabric printed with stars and shadowy moons, the saturnine factory owner hiding beneath what could be his son’s pre-teen bedspread.
Lepore relishes chance moments, photographing the scalloped guts of dropped fabric reams or the kaleidoscopic chaos in piles of discarded Lycra samples. Some images, installed in situ at the factory, engage with the steady work flow: a pyramid of packed shipping crates matches the fleshy foam of Gold Cup (2015), and a yard of red fabric left half-cut in front of Pusher (2014) amplifies its mermaid teal tones. Mirage (2015) records the reflection cast by swimsuit fabric on a puddle of mop water. Cleaners had arrived at the factory to wash the floors of ‘bikini dust’, a toxic film of pulverized polyester formed by fabric-cutting machines, when Lepore noticed the trick of light and snatched his film camera. The result is an LSD dreamscape, like rainbow ribbons of gasoline dashed across hot desert earth.
There was a seamier side to this show; a story of alienated labour and displacement. Some of the show’s strongest works are portraits of seamstresses’ metal chairs, hung from an outdoor wall hook in the sun’s full glare.The women covered the seats and back rests of their chairs with quilted scraps of recycled bikini fabric in order to make them more comfortable; each bears the trace of its owner’s hand and the weight of her body. The exhibition text refers to the colourful upholstery as an aesthetic ‘intervention,’ veiling the factory’s working conditions with art-historical jargon. Lepore’s formal appreciation for these uncomfortable chairs betrays his class privilege, his familial history obscuring this relationship in the service of an uncompensated creative exchange.
Lepore found the sweeping gestures of arms, buttocks, and breasts beneath tight fabric more aesthetically compelling than the slight yet dexterous movements of fingers holding sewing needles. Certain kinds of sweat – artistic sweat or beach-bum sweat – were privileged over the sweat of industrial labour. Lepore’s one nod to workers’ rights came in Cover-Up (2015), a photograph of a legal notice board obscured by a gauzy net of pink fabric. The board is a palimpsest of paper, layered pages listing minimum-wage increases and childcare services. All US employers are required by law to post such boards in public view, and the photograph’s title hints at the obstructionist tactics often employed by sweatshop owners to prevent workers from unionizing. At the bikini factory, another work (Spaghetti Strap, 2015) was installed over the board, hiding some of the flyers pinned to its surface. The installation was visually appealing but probably illegal, implicating both artist and curator in a cover-up that neither intended, one that aestheticized a long and difficult history of labour reform.
Visitors to the factory mostly amplified the racial and class divide between the photographer and his subjects, lending the experience an air of voyeurism. Without the aid of a didactic tour, Lepore’s photographs appeared to combine commodity fetishism with a fetish for the Other. The artist’s enviable talent for capturing light and texture produced a visually stunning series, yet approached a politically fraught subject with formalist disengagement. This attention to surface resulted in work content to remain there, floating above murky waters.
First published in Issue 173