Fashionistas, fetishists, and Famolare-ites will swoon over “A Walk of Art: Visionary Shoes” at Parasol Projects Gallery on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. The tightly edited show features 60 high-art shoes by 40 artists, all faculty, graduates, or students at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Israel.
Curated by fashion historian Ya’ara Keydar, “A Walk of Art” showcases a huge variety of breathtaking footwear. “People always ask me, ‘Can you wear them?’” Keydar said in an interview. “And I always say, “You can wear them … but it depends on where you want to go!”
She added that the central question of the show is “Can a shoe be a work of art? And if you can’t walk in it, is it still a shoe?”
These questions are fitting for a show generated at Bezalel Academy. The school was founded in 1906, long before there was a state of Israel. Founder Boris Schatz was interested not just in painting and sculpture, but in Yemenite decorative objects, traditional Syrian and Persian design, leatherwork, woodcarving, and goldsmithing—in other words, a mix of art and craft. The Bezalel School, an art movement associated with the academy, blended European Art Nouveau with Middle Eastern design. And today, still, it’s all about the juxtapositions of different cultures and styles, of influences high and low. The fashion and jewelry design department has one faculty member whose work focuses entirely on shoes: Eliora Ginsburg, a mentor to many of the artists represented here. Ginsburg apprenticed for a decade with a master Tuscan leather designer before returning to Bezalel to teach; her path parallels that of the school, with its history of multidisciplinary exploration and wrestling with questions of how fine art, design, and craft commingle.
The shoes shown at the Parasol Project Gallery are classified loosely by theme. Those under the heading of “Natura Morta” (“reflecting on the ephemeral and the transient”) make the viewer think of death and decay, cycles of life and rebirth. Perhaps the most compelling piece in this section is by Sigalit Landau, one of Israel’s most renowned artists. Much of her work – in material culture, photography, and video—focuses on the Dead Sea. “The Dead Sea has no life, and Landau uses it to create new life,” Keydar told me. For this show, Landau submerged a pair of workaday shoes in the Dead Sea. Over time, they turned otherworldly, beautiful and sinister, covered in tiny jagged white forms, like snow or sugar. These shoes are as tempting to touch as something out of a fairy tale, but they’re clearly rock-hard and sharp. Also huge—the shape of the original shoe is only hinted at under obfuscating layers of blankness. “Salt heals, preserves, hides, kills,” Landau says in the exhibition catalog. “The Dead Sea has myths and prehistory all around its shores…It is a border as well, so the behavior of salt and the natural environment is highly metaphoric and keeps changing direction as I experiment.” She concludes, “Nothing is dead there as nothing lives there—so the cycle of life-death-life-death doesn’t even exist there.”
Other shoes in the “Natura Morta” area employ animal bones, raw cowhide, carved wood. Nimrod Gilo’s “Vanitas”—a heavy, weathered, sculpted wood platform with delicate sprays of pink flowers across the top—made me think of flower petals blowing across an old tombstone. Tali Surit’s “Heavy Weight” is unmistakably a rhino in the form of a shoe: Wild, leathery, with a playful yet dangerous brass horn. Aya Feldman’s “HyBird,” seems both sci-fi and naturalistic, a strange but graceful bird taking off in flight; the shoe itself is barely connected to the ground.
The exhibit’s “Art Form” section showcases shoes influenced by iconic masterpieces and images— most entertainingly, Mor Paola Gaash’s “Gaston Persona” shoe, which melds Picasso’s Cubist period with Disney’s Gaston. The beefy Beauty and the Beast antagonist’s familiar curled, arrogant lips—rendered in plastic over goatskin—sneer at the viewer from the shoe’s heel. Gal Souva’s “Lip Gloss Shoe,” a hat-tip (shoe tip?) to Salvador Dali’s “Mae West Lips Sofa”—“lips are a symbol of sex, desire, and sensuality, just like high-heel shoes” Souva says in the catalog—gleam in carbon fiber, crystalline epoxy, and electric red paint. Nadim Ram’s “Barococo” looks like an unholy blend of the inside of a shell and a cone of extruded Dairy Queen vanilla fro-yo. Made of glimmering airbrushed polyurethane and car-kit fiberglass, it’s Rococo and funny, silly and fancy, pitching the wearer’s foot forward at a steep angle and seeming to smother it in swirls of nacreous soft-serve.
In “Carved,” a selection of sculptural wooden shoes, there’s Gal Souvra’s “Jenga,” a construction of precarious-looking stacks of milled mulberry wood. Like a tower in its namesake game, it looks as though it would fall apart with one wrong move and is clearly a metaphor for my experience of walking in high heels. Any high heels.
Keydar’s other curatorial classifications include “Neo Geo,” (shoes crafted with advanced technology), “Painfully Beautiful” (shoes of fetishistic hotness), “Primary Source” (abstract, raw shapes), and “Balance” (equilibrium and instability). In that last category, I felt a stab of longing for Neta Soreq’s 3D-printed, lightweight “Energetic Shoes,” a series of coral-colored arches reminiscent of rolled-out, skinny logs of Play-Doh, with a visible shock absorber inside the swirls of the heel. Soreq was inspired by hyperactivity—the natural motion of a fidgeting foot and the striations of moving muscle. I loved the way the piece took a trait largely perceived as negative (as any parent of a kid with ADHD can tell you) and turned it into something still childlike, but now entirely happy and positive.
In the “Painfully Beautiful” section of the show, there are shoes that look like torture racks and chastity belts, as well as Sapir Tzidon’s gorgeous aluminum shoes referencing knight’s armor. They simultaneously feel like forged weapons and an organic dinosaur spine. Spiky but fragile, agonizing yet empowering—what could be a better encapsulation of uncompromising high-fashion footwear?
My faves, though, were mostly in the “In A Relationship” section of the show. Or Kolker’s “Trust,” in sexy deep burgundy, is inspired by the Kama Sutra: Two pairs of elongated, stretchy-looking high-heeled shoes are attached sole-to-sole; the act of wearing them is the act of being connected to someone else. Boris Shpeizman (a graduate of the school who is now an instructor) used traditional Venetian free glass blowing to create a shoe truly worthy of Cinderella. Heartbreakingly lovely and delicate, shot through with curvy colored lines, these shoes are the love child of a court slipper and an orchid. And from the sublime to the porny: Kobi Levi’s “Blow” is an unsubtle reference to a blow-up doll (there’s even a clear plastic beach-ball-like plug in its…um, back area?), in that icky matte peachy-beigey-plasticky color Crayola used to call “Flesh,” genuflecting on its knees, its red lipsticked toe open and waiting. (If this is your definition of “In A Relationship,” you should probably get out more.)
You can visit all these shoes through at Parasol Projects through February 13, or buy the 160-page exhibition catalog (it’s tax-deductable, with proceeds going to scholarships at Bezalel) and drool over them all year long.