Before serving as Audrey Niffenegger’s muse, fashion icon Isabella Blow inspired designer Alexander McQueen and über-milliner Philip Treacy, whose extravagant hats became part of her signature style. Niffenegger’s homage to Blow, who committed suicide earlier this year, is appropriately somber for a memorial, yet flamboyant enough for a woman who sometimes wore antlers to lunch.
Many of Niffenegger’s prints and paintings only refer to Blow obliquely. In her amazing aquatint/etching The Starling’s Funeral, a glass carriage driven by a nattily attired skeleton transports a dead bird across a featureless waste. The skeletal horses, giant birds and butterflies drawing the carriage; the crowd of birds observing its passage; and the forlorn corpse and driver are all beautifully rendered in reddish-brown ink that makes the piece look like an 18th-century artifact.
Fallen, a large mixed-media linocut, is equally sad and almost as lovely. A thick wreath of roses frames a skeletal angel hovering over a woman lying unconscious or dead, her modest, high-collared red dress and impossible high heels yielding an odd convergence of Victorian and erotic images.
When Blow appears herself, she does so in a suitably dramatic fashion: Niffenegger created 20 hand-painted etchings of Blow’s head and bare shoulders for the series Hats for Isabella Blow To Wear in Heaven, adorning each Isabella with all manner of materials. Blow peeks out from underneath hot pink feathers on one piece of paper and plastic googly eyes on a second; her other portraits are bedecked with gold leaf or hand-painted and collaged motifs such as bat wings or eyeless dolls’ heads. The show has a few too many crows and teen Goth accoutrements, but it’s usually as fabulous as its subject demands.