Review: Klea McKenna’s haunting images of vintage fabrics tell the stories of bodies that once inhabited them


For her exhibition at Von Lintel Gallery, Klea McKenna pressed items of vintage clothing into photographic paper and exposed the embossed surfaces to raking light. The resulting photograms are beautiful, unusual documents of women’s clothing, but also ghostly records of bodily presence.

The series is called “Generation,” and McKenna purposely selected items from across a wide span of history and geography. Items date from the 1890s to the 1960s and represent women’s wear from the U.S., India, Mexico, China and Europe. Most have some kind of raised embroidery, sequins or tassels. McKenna further documented the context and stories behind the garments in an artist’s book, also on view.

One of the more striking pieces is “La China Poblana (2),” a large photogram of a 1920s Mexican skirt, spangled with that nation’s eagle and snake emblem. Splayed out across the black-and-white image, tinged with touches of sepia, it looks like an alien Rosetta stone or an aerial view of an archaeological dig, seeming to speak in some mysterious, ethereal language.


McKenna chose items from the past in order to connect with women across generations. For her, the intimate process of pressing the clothing into paper echoes the bodily impressions of those who inhabited the items long ago.

In the case of “La China Poblana,” she also uncovered some colonial fashion history. The look we associate with traditional Mexican women’s clothing — a short-sleeved white blouse with a wide, decorated, circular skirt — is actually derived from the clothing of an enslaved East Indian woman (confused for Chinese) brought to Puebla in the 1600s.

Culture is always more complex than it seems, and McKenna’s project suggests that a simple piece of clothing might carry history not just in the way it looks, but in the way it feels. Her photograms also capture the ridges and textures of handiwork, most likely created by women.

“Anonymous (1)” depicts the surface of a cutwork sampler from the 1910s, a practice piece of embroidery in which parts of the fabric are cut out and removed. The ridges and scratches in this image feel almost otherworldly, like Nazca Lines, but are, literally, a record of women’s labor, tiny stitch by tiny stitch.

By pressing these garments directly into the paper, McKenna echoes the kinds of physical impressions left both by their creators and their wearers. Her project focuses on the minuscule textures of everyday life that typically fall beneath historical notice and are typically ascribed to women. “Generation” brings them into full, palpable, close-up view.


Von Lintel Gallery, 2865 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 559-5700, through Oct. 20. Closed Sundays and Mondays.