The New York City Opera asked artist E.V. Day to create an installation for its grand promenade space that would celebrate the company’s energetic new leadership and direction.
Six years later, the New York City Opera has shut down — but Day’s spectacular series of sculptures has a life of its own. Day fashioned “Divas Ascending” from the opera’s vintage costumes, and four of them will be on display starting Friday in Roanoke College’s Olin Gallery.
The dresses are suspended in place by wire lattices, giving them the feel of being frozen during a moment of motion. Opera lovers have a good chance of figuring out which characters are represented by which dresses without any explanation at all.
An elaborate ball gown splitting open to reveal a smaller, raggedy dress belongs to Cinderella. If you wonder whether the black skirt that’s stretched as if it’s spinning, surrounded by roses, belongs to Carmen, the bloody knife suspended by the veil will probably give it away.
Yet, there’s a twist that is Day’s own. The knife points outward, rather than in, suggesting an alternative version of the story in which Carmen successfully defends herself from her jealous lover. “I’m reinterpreting it for myself,” Day said in a phone interview from her New York studio.
A New York native, Day, 47, first experimented with using wires to suspend garments in mid-air while working toward her M.F.A. in sculpture at Yale University. She aimed to make large scale art with minimalist elements that incorporated pop culture, conveyed an architectural sense to the viewer, and energized a psychological space, she said.
She experimented first with surgical wire, then fishing line. “I always thought of these mono-filaments that captured the light as a drawing.”
She began a series called “Exploding Couture,” in which she cut up costumes and suspended them in mid-air so that the pieces seem to be flying apart, as if from an explosion. Her first piece in the series, “Bombshell,” which used an 8-foot-tall replica of Marilyn Monroe’s dress from “The Seven-Year Itch,” was shown in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and is now part of that museum’s permanent collection.
Some of her sculptures have been provocative and humorous. A 2001 installation at the Whitney called “G-Force” suspended thong underwear in military fighter jet formations.
With the opera costumes, she was considerably more reverent. Built to embody larger-than-life characters and create a commanding stage presence, the dresses are works of art in their own right, she said. She spent time with the opera’s costuming directors, who were able to share the history of each dress.
One dress on display at Roanoke College, which Day calls “Ghost/Angel,” was made for the title character in productions of French composer Jules Massenet’s “Manon,” chronicling the rise to riches and fall to dissolution, disgrace and death of a beautiful young Frenchwoman. It was a costume worn by soprano Beverly Sills, a superstar in the opera world who helped popularize the art form for modern audiences, making frequent appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and even “The Muppet Show.”
Days said she was allowed to create whatever she wanted, but was drawn to female characters “who were sopranos who died tragic unfair deaths.” In adding her own subtle twists to the sculptures, “I really wanted to bring them to life and sort of change the injustice.”
She came to the project troubled by how operas traditionally depicted women, but as she became immersed, she came to appreciate the depth of characterization and the way the fates of these heroines serve the stories. “It’s pulling at the heartstrings in the most basic ways.”
Olin Hall Galleries director Talia Logan said she’s worked for five years to bring Day’s art to Roanoke. Day will speak at Friday’s reception, which begins at 6:30 p.m. in Olin Gallery.