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‘Killer Heels’ exhibit features more than 160 historic and contemporary pumps

We’ve called them hooker heels, high-heeled sneakers, boogie shoes.

Paul Simon sang about diamonds on their soles.

Whether you consider them fashion statements, fetish objects, artistic outlets or “Sex and the City” props, high-heeled shoes have undergone infinite permutations as style and symbolism shifted across the decades. Needle sharp stilettos, architectural wedges and description-defying designs comprise the more than 160 historic and contemporary pumps in “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” opening at the Albuquerque Museum on Saturday, May 30.

Arguably fashion’s most provocative accessory, stilettos can be objects of horror, empowerment or objectification. This survey of elevated footwear gathers shoes from last fall’s Brooklyn Museum exhibition, borrowing from designers including Manolo Blahnik, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Salvatore Ferragamo, Tom Ford, Zaha Hadid, Iris van Herpen, Rem D. Koolhaas, Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen and more.

The New Mexico leg of this touring show corrals shoes from area artists and designers. The local lineup features Goldie Garcia, Teri Greeves, Deana McGuffin, L.W. McGuffin, Jamie Okuma, Virgil Ortiz, Cody Sanderson and some stiletto-toed Mexican pointy boots. Watch for the tamer versions worn by Mexican cartel thugs in “Breaking Bad.”

Both appalling and dazzling, stilettos inspire the same love-hate relationship many women already have with heels. Ranging in origin from the late Renaissance to today, these shoes conjure gowns, bodies, postures and even sex. Beautiful colors and expert craftsmanship abound: ruched leather gathered into scallops; a 2012 “Healing Fukushima” shoe sports a mechanical heel that automatically plants rapeseed to absorb radioactivity.

Organized by titles such as “Glamour and Fetish” as well as “Rising From the East,” the show reminds us of how much western footwear owes to the east. The platform slide may have originated in the Roman baths to keep feet dry. There’s even a Chinese lotus foot shoe, the result of cringe-worthy foot binding. Its 19th-century construction of wood and cork wears both silk and embroidery.

High-altitude heels are anything but new, curator Andrew Connors said.

Some scholars credit Louis XIV with their invention in the early 1600s when he cut off the top of a hunting boot.

“The red sole and heel indicated you were a member of the French court,” Connors added.

In early 1600s Venice, heels grew so high that women could only walk with the help of an assistant, he explained.

“Women of society didn’t have to run away from thieves,” he said, “so the shoes developed this outrageous extra height.”

In ancient Greece, actors wore them for dramatic effect as they simulated gods.

“Atom” by Noritaka Tatehana. (Courtesy of Jay Zukerkorn)

“Atom” by Noritaka Tatehana. (Courtesy of Jay Zukerkorn)

Societal connections abound. Women wearing the miniskirts of the 1960s brought thigh-high “kinky boots” out of the dominatrix closet.

The materials used are staggering. Designers turned animal horns and horse’s hooves into heels. Abalone, mother-of-pearl, sequins and studs embellish. Louboutin carpeted a stiletto with the cartoon-like googly doll eyes found in craft stores. One heel dangles a fox tail; another flaps wings.

Then there are the famous shoes. The exhibit features the black Ferragamos worn by Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s. The 9-inch-high heels Lady Gaga wore to promote her fragrance line consist of black leather platforms climbing with sculpted and gilded anatomically correct men.

“She had an assistant there to hold her up,” Connors said.

A glimpse at the companion exhibition catalog shows Brooklyn Museum curator Lisa Small saw the humor in the heels.

Next to a full-page blowup of a Vivienne Westwood purple platform sits a much smaller snapshot of model Naomi Campbell tumbling across the Paris catwalk in the same shoes.

“I hope (the show) leads people to see that art has many permutations,” Connors said. “I think this is spectacular sculpture.”

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