Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech
by D'Arcy Blake
Virgil Abloh is primarily known for his work as a fashion designer. He ascended to major prominence after founding the luxury streetwear brand Off-White in 2012, and was appointed artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton in 2018. In addition to surveying Abloh’s work in fashion, graphic design, furniture design and music, his retrospective at the MCA Chicago introduces us to Virgil Abloh the Contemporary Artist. Barring the entrance to Abloh’s show are the sort of retractable-belt stanchions used by airports and movie theatres to control crowds. Visitors must pass between the orange and white striped belts, which resemble construction zone CAUTION tape bearing the exhibition’s title: “Figures of Speech.” By combining motifs of working-class labour with the limited-access exclusivity of a cordoned entrance queue, the gesture foreshadows a body of work that, like Robin Hood in reverse, has no qualms with taking the image of the poor and selling it to the rich.
While this is the first museum exhibition for Abloh, exhibiting fashion has certainly become a trend among art institutions. In 2018 alone, MoMA, LA MoCA, the Whitney, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Met, to name just a few, all had major exhibitions dedicated to the subject. And although this recent surge in the popularity of clothing in the art museum questions, once again, the limits of what can be defined as art, a more pertinent question could be asked. To what extent is the enormous gravitational pull of celebrity culture and its glitzy spectacle steering the focus of today’s art museums towards blockbuster exhibitions that will assuredly gain more media attention and visitor attendance, not because of the quality of the art, but because they resonate more broadly with the impulses of mass consumer culture? The MCA’s validation of designer streetwear as museum-quality artwork collapses a necessary distance between the now-aging notion of art as a critical voice and the corporations and markets that seek to earn profit off of those voices. Moreover, it presents a host of opportunities to instrumentalize any social issue that can be made fashionable.
In the first room, a cluster of banker’s boxes labelled 2010–2011 VIRGIL ABLOH OFFICIAL FILES (In Conversation with Shayne, 2019) is stacked with calculated haphazardness. A few of their lids, perched wilfully askew, reveal cellophane-wrapped garments that are branded HOOD BY AIR (another luxury street-wear brand with which Abloh is associated). Hanging on the wall opposite, a photo by fashion photographer Juergen Teller pictures Abloh amid a mise en scène of objects that clumsily allude to his rise to prominence in the fashion world, including a Louis Vuitton tool box and an inflatable T-Rex. In the image, Abloh wears a hoodie silkscreened with the phrase R. MUTT 1917—the signature that Marcel Duchamp inscribed on Fountain (1917), the urinal-made-artwork that is generally credited for exploding the formal limitations of modernism. But the conspicuous homage does more than merely pay respects to one of modern art’s giants. Abloh equates his own achievements, which at times bridge several sectors of the culture industry, to the seismic shift Duchamp represents. Considering Abloh’s preoccupation with labelling things (another of Off-White’s signatures is imprinting their product’s descriptions between quotation marks on the garment itself), the designer seems to be labelling himself as “R. Mutt.”
Despite the self-aggrandizing material one finds in the first room alone, what we see might, in fact, indicate that a transformation of Duchampian proportion has begun to take hold of the institutional art world. The once-sturdy barriers between separate industries have been eroded to the point that merchandise and culture have become superimposed. This is evident in the adjacent room’s display, which features three clothing racks from Off-White’s runway collections, looking as much like a museum of contemporary art as it does a salesfloor at Nordstrom. The text on the rack holding his 2018 “Temperature” collection states that Abloh “drew on nautical themes and used materials from emergency and rescue professions, explaining that he felt a personal responsibility to respond to the [Syrian refugee] crisis.” It so happens that his response was to make clothing items that retail for upwards of $1,000 a piece. From a curatorial standpoint, Abloh’s feeble gesture of humanitarianism seems to function as a self-assuaging veneer of altruism. It affords the museum a virtuous appearance while avoiding the risk of partisanism that real activism holds, which could potentially alienate benefactors and visitors alike.
Beyond a free-standing, human-sized replica of Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus (Abloh was, at that time, assistant creative director of West’s creative content company DONDA), a black hall is hung with advertising photos for Abloh’s fist Louis Vuitton collection. Pictured against a stark white background, a selectively desaturated group of Black toddlers models bright, primary-coloured handbags. The accompanying wall text asserts that Abloh wanted to use the advertising campaign to “focus on the theme of boyhood” and goes on to state his belief in posing children of colour at “the center stage in the future of luxury.” But while the arresting images do, on the surface, seem to fly in the face of typical luxury marketing, and might indeed challenge our expectations of who should be modelling designer accessories, they belie the fact that under Abloh’s creative direction, racialized bodies are being used to advertise handbags with price tags of over $5,000. On the far wall of the same room, a black painting bears the white logo of Cotton Incorporated, the marketing and research association for American cotton growers. A seemingly unintentional sense of irony hovers around this obvious reference to slavery in America: it simultaneously recalls the horrors of slavery and represents America’s deification of the commodities that emerged from it—including the industry in which Abloh has built a substantial empire.
Apart from simply pointing to the deep contradictions of American consumer culture, these works highlight the growing confusion between virtue and profit, instrumentalization and inclusivity, progress and regress, that ascends the rungs of the art institution. Could it be that this entire exhibition is a massive PR opportunity—simultaneously an advertisement for the supposed progressivism of the MCA Chicago and for Abloh’s commercial exploits? Should the marketability and mass appeal of art come at the expense of its critical value? It seems today that, within art institutions, consumerist ideals have begun to outweigh the issues of identity, critical thought and social movement that have been intertwined with art for the past half-century. In this process, an increasing emphasis is placed on art that spans the various realms of the culture industry, of which visual art is just one part. But with this transformation, dilemmas arise in determining the appropriate arenas for art, cultural critique and consumption. Abloh’s exhibition reveals the difficulty our time will have in parsing the boundaries between art and product, and determining where each belongs.