Saturday, August 10, 2019

Museum Exhibit: Virgil Abloh "Figures of Speech"

Before I left for Europe for the summer, I took in an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art which I've been thinking about how to write about for almost two months.  The exhibit was a retrospective of Virgil Abloh called "Figures Of Speech."

Abloh is an artist, designer, engineer, and architect, who, while pursuing his masters degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, managed to hook up with Kanye West, and become the creative director of his creative team, working on album covers, concert designs, and merchandising.  He parlayed that work to create his own fashion brand Off-White, and recently became the artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear collection.

I was really struck by a couple of the pieces, including "You're Obviously In The Wrong Place" which quotes Pretty Woman with George Segal style sculptures in white that manages to be funny and meaningful on a number of levels, accessing racial discrimination, class discrimination, and impostor syndrome all at once. I loved it.

Another piece I really loved was the Figures of Speech mural, which incorporates a whole lot of imagery and signs and signals.  I did a video flyby of it, but it really deserves looking at and studying.

And a third piece I loved was the Black Cotton Logo.  With a simple inversion, Abloh manages to elegantly make a statement about consumerism, racism, history, and branding.  It's this kind of elegant and sardonic minimalism where I think Abloh is at his best.

There were lots of other pieces that I was not enamored of, but I'm not going to focus on them.

Abloh is an interesting character-- in 2002 he was a student, in 2006 a graduate student and in 2009 he was an intern at Fendi, and by 2019 he is a ruler of the universe.  One of Abloh's mandates in his work is "Question everything."  So here are my questions.  How did he rise so fast?  What is it about his work that is so fantastic that in 10 years he can rise to the literal top?  And could the next Virgil Abloh be a white female septugenarian?

I'm not exactly sure, but after listening to him talk at the opening of the exhibit (which runs through September 22 in Chicago, before going on to Atlanta (Nov 9-2019 to March 8, 2020), Boston (July-September 2020) and Brooklyn (Winter 2020 to Spring 2021) I'd say it's a combination of a few things.

Articulate  Abloh is a good talker.  He's got a lot of ideas and he likes to talk about them.  It was a little frustrating, someone asked him a straight forward question at the opening (about the difference between appropriating, stealing, and quoting) , and he preceded to talk for ten minutes, say all kinds of interesting stuff, and never answer the question.  He didn't even directly talk about the question, he just followed his own thoughts.  This is a guy whose trademark image is a quotation mark.

Actuator.  After looking through the entire exhibit, I think that Abloh is an actuator.  He takes his ideas and puts them on canvas/fabric/sculpture/whatever.  (He's come out with furniture, music, clothing, and a whole lot of other stuff.  It makes sense now when he has the money to make things happen, but I got the feeling from looking at his work that he was making stuff constantly, even if it wasn't very good.  He puts out his ideas concretely, even if they aren't fully formed or fully functional.  He lays it out there.

His Master's thesis project.  He redid it for this exhibition.
Iteration  The second part of that is that Abloh seems able to move on from one piece or idea and into another fairly effortlessly.  He has no problem releasing 10 or 15 different versions of something as he strives for what works (both aesthetically and in the marketplace)

Collaboration  Abloh enlists lots of other artists into his works and is able to use their contributions to fuel his own ideas and then take off even further.  He's worked with some powerhouses, including Kanye, Jenny Holzer, and Arthur Jafa, and has been inspired by diverse influences including the movies Black Panther, Pretty Woman and architect Mies van der Rohe.

Merchandising  Abloh seems to be a master merchandiser.  He's really great at putting price tags on things and getting people to buy them.  It's not so much a zeitgeist thing (I think) but a "knowing how to be the cool kid" thing.  Anyway you slice it, he knows what sells, and he seems to do a great job selling.  (By the way, that's the third artist who is a commercial success that I've seen have an exhibit at MCA- Virgil Abloh, David Bowie, and Takashi Murakami. Food for thought.)

These 5 elements seem to be at the heart of his work, and so I think the answer to my question lies somewhere in the middle here.

But whoever the next Virgil Abloh is, I'm going to guess that they will exhibit some or all of those traits above.

You can find out more about the MCA exhibit Figures of Speech at their website:   Timed tickets are being sold for this exhibition, which also allows you access to all of the other museum exhibits.  And the Museum has a particularly strong slate of events around the Abloh exhibit, including talks with the artist, performances, student opportunities, and more.  Click the link above to find out more.

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