Edvard Munch had his scream. Van Gogh had his starry night. Now, Serge Strosberg has his mannequins, joining the ranks of these Expressionist greats with the help of his inanimate models.

The “Expressionist of Fashion,” as the Belgian artist calls himself, Strosberg’s new, mannequin-centric series of paintings (appropriately titled Agalmatophilia, or “love of the statue” in Greek) plucks the fiberglass fashionistas from their store-front displays and resurrects them in canvas form. I say “resurrects” because Strosberg’s practiced hand instills a certain vitality into his subjects, invigorating the inert beauties with an almost-human aura. The artist’s leading ladies are decidedly fake in appearance, but behind the dollish features a soul and personality come alive.

A recent private reception at the first-floor viewing gallery of New York’s MAve Hotel, where Agalmatophilia will be on exhibit until April 30th, brought together prominent names in art and fashion circles to celebrate Strosberg’s multimedia creations — which combine the Northern European tradition of oil and egg tempera, as well as graphic-design elements. A soft-spoken, contemplative craftsman, the Antwerp native and I discussed his work at length, delving into his inspiration for the series, the motivations underlying certain pictorial elements in the compositions, as well as the greater meaning conveyed by the tableaus and his fixation on fashion.

Since 2008, Strosberg has lived in the SoHo district of Manhattan — formerly a bustling artistic hub, and now transformed into one of New York’s premier commercial meccas. It’s an inescapable irony, he says laughing, that all the artists have moved away, because he only arrived five years ago from Europe. However, the migration has earned Strosberg the distinction of being “one of the last artists in SoHo,” and the environs imparted the conceptual idea for Agalmatophilia.

“This is a series inspired by my neighborhood,” explains Strosberg, whose past work includes the Expressionist of Fashion series (different from his most recent endeavor through the use of live, as well as fake, models) and who has staged several solo exhibitions in international galleries and museums such as the French Senate in Paris, Antwerp’s Galerie Ludwig Trossaert and the Elaine Baker Gallery in Boca Raton. “One day I saw these mannequins in all these windows, and it seemed like people were fascinated by these fiberglass, lifeless beings, and it inspired me to do a series of paintings. I think it’s really my mission to talk about this change [in the neighborhood] and it’s a great exploration for me. I wanted to say something about the change, the metamorphosis.”

An ex-photography student of former Vogue and Elle art director Peter Knapp, Strosberg began with snapshots of street-level retail displays in international fashion capitals New York and Paris, capturing such holy lands as Saks Fifth Avenue and Galeries Lafayette on camera. These templates were a launching pad for Strosberg’s grand artistic reinterpretation, as he transferred the scenes from photographic film to canvas, altering colors and contrast and adding in shadow. The result: beautifully executed recreations of decked-out mannequins and the glass-enclosed worlds they inhabit, showing a hint of Realism (or “authenticity,” as the Belgian describes) with a distinctly personalized touch.

“I’m definitely an expressionistic painter,” Strosberg says. “It’s interesting because I’m giving an expression to something that has no expression.”

Transmitting subjectivity into artwork, distorting reality to evoke mood or emotional response, is at the heart of the Expressionist school of thought. A portrait artist originally, Strosberg explains that capturing a model’s “interior,” or identity, is critical to executing portraitures, and he appears to utilize that same philosophy with his mannequins. What’s especially noteworthy, though, is the broad social critique radiating through Agalmatophilia.

“Fashion is the new religion,” Strosberg contends (a perhaps-familiar sentiment in an age that sees celebrities chastised or worshipped based on what they wear to red-carpet events). “These mannequins are really like idols… If fashion is the religion, then these mannequins are the apostles, the new saints.”

The outstanding quality of Agalmatophilia lies not only in Strosberg’s technique — both nuanced and refined, not surprising for someone who received formal artistic training at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian (now the École Supérieure des Arts Graphiques) — but in how the 46-year-old artist relays his overarching message to viewers. The series is Strosberg’s first mixed-media experiment, employing overlaid graphics on plexiglass in a few choice oeuvres to highlight the ubiquitous theme of fashion and idolatry. Colorful “rosace” patterns, like those in a Gothic church’s stained glass rose windows, are an ingenious, conspicuous detail signifying the brand of Christianity. The floral design dominates certain pieces more than others, the transparency of the graphics communicating Strosberg’s intent — more transparency means fashion takes center stage as the rosace hovers subtly in the background, less giving religion a bigger slice of the composition as the bright pigments bleed prominently into the foreground.

Indeed, the rosace is the focal point of Yellow Sleeping Idol — which sees a blonde in a smile-filled slumber, lying serenely against a black backdrop — dominating the canvas with a flowery, multi-color burst and pulling the eye toward it with a strong magnetization. Church imagery aside, the rosace is so prominent in this work, it’s hard not to think of ‘60s-era hippie “flower power” or a stereotypical acid trip.

The jelly-bean-hued emblems are, funnily enough, the only splash of color permeating through the collection — everything else is in black and white. The subtraction of color carries Strosberg’s bleak, if not dystopian, message of society’s inexorable uniformity and increasingly “monochromatic” appearance, as people strive to look beautiful and themselves begin to resemble mannequins through plastic surgery and their obsession with fashion. The use of oil and egg tempera is hardly arbitrary, either — it’s a classical form used to paint religious figures in churches and as such carries a spiritual connotation. The combination of this type of paint as well as the black and white shades allows for a more pronounced contrast, and permits Strosberg to dress his subjects with the ever-so-slight trace of a halo. Of course, for those uninterested with symbolic interpretation, the paintings’ titles act as their abridged translation — the religious connotation is so glaring in designations like Two Idols and The Pink Annunciation, it’s like God himself is slapping you across the face.

In a stroke of brilliance, Strosberg also recycles his models throughout several paintings, utilizing the same mannequin striking the exact pose and look as in another work, but fundamentally altering the composition through manipulation of the rosace’s color scheme. One example sees Strosberg start with the graphic-less Idol, building upon it with Blue Idol, Green Yellow Idol and several others merely by framing the “apostle” with new pigments. Through these subtle graphical variations, the artist generates a catalogue of nearly identical paintings spanning a broad, rainbow-esque color spectrum, effectively creating miniseries within the exhibition. It’s a lovely touch that forces viewers to reconsider the same work from a new vantage point and adds a layer of complexity to the collection. In another example of artistic ingenuity, the words “American Idol” appear as a rough, charred-amber banner toward the bottom of a tableau, beneath a “woman” wearing a black dress and reclining lazily in an armchair, the look of blissful daydream upon her face as she stares at the world beyond her glass-window prison. The coarse, blackened lettering arises from torched sugar, which Strosberg burned onto aluminum to depict the “hysteria” fashion induces — “the heat, the fire, the flame,” he explains. It is these minutest of touches that elevate Agalmatophilia from average to top-notch.

Even the artist isn’t coy about the high caliber of his work: “I think this series has everything,” he describes. “It’s conceptual, it’s contemporary, it’s classical, and it’s avant-garde. I wanted to introduce something different, something more edgy.”

In our increasingly narcissistic and voyeuristic society, Strosberg’s artwork is a refreshingly unique glimpse of fashion, making us consider its place in the world along with its absurdity. Whereas department stores use art in their retail displays, the Belgian cleverly inverts that equation. He objectifies mannequins, to be sure, but in a non-commercial manner — it’s the art lover, not the shopper, that’s the peeping Tom here. For all the social commentary pulsing through Agalmatophilia, though, Strosberg’s opinion of fashion may not be as biting as one would assume. On the contrary, it seems surprisingly admiring.

“It’s a beautiful subject,” he exclaims. “It’s very much in the air and everybody’s talking about it. It just inspires me.”

“Agalmatophilia” is on display in the ground-floor gallery of the MAve Hotel (62 Madison Ave, New York) through April 30th. The exhibition is visible to the public from the street on Madison Avenue and from inside the hotel lobby. Visits inside the gallery are available by appointment only ([email protected]). To learn more about Serge Strosberg and his artwork, visit http://www.strosbergserge.com/.

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Featured image: Artist Serge Strosberg in front of his paintings at the “Agalmatophilia” exhibit inside the MAve gallery. Photo Credit: Greg Iacurci/GALO Magazine.