"FIGURES OF SPEECH" - CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
The multifaceted creative Virgil Abloh defies categorization as singularly a designer, a DJ, or even an artist. Abloh’s collaborations with cultural icons Kanye West, Nike, Ikea, high end luggage manufacturer Rimowa, and recently, Louis Vuitton, among others, have demonstrated his fluid creativity across industries. They have also rocketed Abloh to museum-worthy status. “Figures of Speech”(stylized to incorporate Abloh’s signature use of “ “) at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is the first museum exhibition devoted to the Illinois-born polymath. The exhibition covers 20 years of Abloh’s creative work - he’s only 38! - so the show had the feel of a mid-career retrospective, and appropriately so. Given Abloh’s knack to upend the art, design and fashion industries, his talent and star power is far from decline.
Abloh is well known for his clothing & footwear label Off-White. Due to the massive popularity of his sneakers I anticipated they would be included in the exhibition, either displayed as art or flaunted on the feet of his devotees attending the show. Both assumptions proved true. I don’t own Off-White sneakers, which are sometimes produced in collaboration Nike, so I donned the closest thing in my wardrobe: the Nike Dunk Wedge Sneaker - in just “regular” white (ha).
I met Virgil in 2016 at Design Miami, a satellite fair of Art Basel Miami Beach, where some of his early furniture pieces were on display. Recalling that experience and the high profile of his newer furniture designs, like the “sinking” series - bronze pieces that appear to be submerged in water as a nod to environmentalism and which are on view now in the Venice Biennale - I was pleased to see a set of sherbet-hued metal chairs included in this exhibition.
While footwear and furniture are hallmarks of the Abloh brand, there was one surprise: His cadre of “actual” art, in particular sculpture: A blue foam ladder laying on the floor represented his “improbable” rise in the fashion industry; a true-to-scale outdoor billboard with graffiti scribbled on one side bought the “scale and grit of the streetscape into the museum.”
In Warholian style Abloh’s sculptures were artistic puns on advertising and, as he says, “the projected image”. I did not see an explicit mention of Andy Warhol in the exhibition. However, the parallels were conspicuous: At the entry of the exhibition boxes from Abloh’s Pyrex label, a street wear brand that predated Off-White, were stacked in a corner. Their arrangement recalled Warhol’s conceptual Brillo boxes. Nearby a set of screen print frames that Abloh used to print reproductions of a Caravaggio painting on t-shirts and hoodies, brought to mind the process of some of his mid-century predecessor’s most famous artworks. Emulating the artistic trajectory of Warhol is not an objectionable career path for many artists, but I’m convinced this shoe-furniture-product-clothing designer/architect/DJ/contemporary artist aims for much more.
“Figures of Speech” is on view until September 22.
Above: Virgil Abloh, “An array of air’, 2019. Nike shoes on tarp.