In 2014, artist Karen Kraven mounted a series of hats atop salt blocks as part of her solo exhibition, “Razzle Dazzle Sis Boom Bah,” at Montreal’s Darling Foundry. The hats were arresting in their vibrancy, yet strange in their off-kilter unwearability. They mimicked the ostentatious, aesthetic rituals of upper-crust horse races like the Kentucky Derby, where more is always more and class is on lavish parade. The awkwardness of Kraven’s hats—“It was important that it looks like an amateur made them,” she says—deconstruct this relationship among fashion, money and the art of peacocking.
Fashion has always been a sign of the times: however exaggerated in its luxury, it promises a degree of function. Art, less obviously so. But both are in the curious business of selling sometimes intangible, often non-essential goods, and this is more of an impulse, or need, than you might think. Preceding and during the Second World War, for instance, Europe’s creative communities took up Surrealism’s blurring of harsh realities and beautification of the banal. The interdisciplinary movement spawned Dalí paintings, Schiaparelli dresses, Cocteau films and, perhaps most notably, became one of the first aesthetic movements to knowingly identify and express a mass psyche.
The term “Consumption Art” might be used to define post-Pop artwork that has focused on fashion in one way or another since the excesses of the 1980s. Barbara Kruger’s I shop therefore I am (1990), a product of the media-critical Pictures Generation but also a product itself (the image unironically appears on postcards, T-shirts and more to this day), provides enough connective tissue to form this entire analysis. It leads us to the last great era of the status sell: the 2000s. Artist Chloe Wise rose to stardom in 2014 with her take on early-2000s designer bags, remade into urethane bread sculptures stamped with Moschino, Chanel and Prada logos.
“For me, the early 2000s seemed to be a time when assimilation was at the forefront of what constituted a popular purchase,” says Wise. “That was the time in my life where I was attending Bat Mitzvahs, a coming-of-age moment for a young Jewess, and those ‘It’ bags were at their peak of popularity, with celebrities like Paris Hilton toting them. My work is involved with ideas of the mysticism surrounding designer logos and the semiotics of desire, and the early 2000s signifies that for me.”
In turn, Wise’s art career has been bolstered by high fashion’s ongoing embrace by the mainstream, in no small part due to the Internet and social media. Her frequent use of Instagram, where all brands come to play, has made her something of a poster girl for a new hybrid of fashionable art stars, alongside Canadian photographer Petra Collins, a frequent Gucci model, muse and collaborator. “Sometimes I feel [art and persona] are inextricable from one another, that persona is in itself an art form,” says Wise.
The expression of contemporary art on Instagram—in which it is often the backdrop for selfies—proves Wise’s observations; art is worn as an identity marker as much as fashion. Gucci, in the midst of a rebrand since appointing creative director Alessandro Michele in 2015, has harnessed Instagram’s contemporary-art consumption models to expand its influence. In October 2015, the brand launched #GucciGram, a series of works featuring its Blooms and Caleido prints, interpreted by popular Instagram artists like Kalen Hollomon and Ryder Ripps. Since, it’s collaborated with Trevor Andrew (@troubleandrew), a Canadian graffiti artist who goes by the name GucciGhost, on an expansive line of ready-to-wear and accessories. Andrew, who began tagging Gucci’s iconic monogram in efforts to get noticed by them, has become a regular collaborator and his followers have swelled.
“The fact that so many artists of all types are brand preoccupied—with brands, with becoming brands—is indicative of the extent to which brand primacy factors into today’s world,” says Jeremy Laing, a Toronto-based designer-turned-artist. It’s no surprise that Gucci was ranked the most influential brand on social media in 2016, just as its logo bags were identified as new blue-chip investments.
If Insta-collaborations like Gucci’s are couture’s answer to fast fashion, then the merchification of the multiple must be the art world’s. Sure, most museums have had gift shops since at least the 1990s, but the scenester draw of art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach has caused an uptick in wearable objects. In 2016, at the Art Basel Miami Beach satellite fair Untitled, artists Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu set up a silkscreen T-shirt stand, featuring slogans like “Police the police” and “All you need is dynamite,” which could be customized for $30 a pop. (The same fair sold “Bernie or Bust” merchandise last year.)
Elsewhere, other pop-up shops—selling pins, T-shirts, lighters, tote bags and more—ensured that those not in the market for the art could own a piece of Art Basel Miami Beach. Toronto’s Art Metropole often creates a special-edition artist-designed tote for the fair. In 2014 they collaborated with design duo Eckhaus Latta on Vulnerability Beach Bag, and in 2015 with artist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy for Cliff Bitch. “The [totes] are wearable if you like, or sculptural or frameable,” says Art Metropole director Danielle St Amour. “They make great laundry bags, if you feel like having a lot of conversation at the laundromat.” St Amour attributes the rise in demand for wearables to the ebbs and flows of consumption. She jokes, “The number of tote bags in the shop has increased at a rate almost exactly correlative to the word-usage-over-time chart for ‘tote bags’ on Google Trends.”
“To work on an industrial level, maintaining its significance and perpetuity, which seems very much its goal, contemporary art subscribes to and depends on the machinations of fashion,” says Laing. “[It’s] seasons, trends, planned obsolescence hidden within the tease of the novel in the same way as other industries, particularly luxury-goods industries.” Fittingly, the decade-long boom of art fairs has settled around the spring and fall fashion seasons, mimicking a once-strategic fashion-week schedule now rendered near useless in the digital age. The faster the cycle becomes, the more insatiable the quest for newness. We live in an age of microtrends: tomorrow, calf-length skirts will be over, just like the new figurative.
The work of Vancouver artist Elizabeth Zvonar consists of mixed-media collages that often echo fashion’s inherent cacophonies; her images are sourced from magazines and then paired with those from art history. In her work The Spectre, The Serpent, The Ghost, The Thing (2013), Zvonar uses a pair of gold-plated bronze stiletto heels (cast from a pair designed by Paris Hilton) as props for a collage, suggesting a squatting woman. “Because we’re in this moment of teetering late capitalism and we are inundated with advertising that reflects a fragment of a story, this is how we understand the world in part,” she says. Collage work similar to Zvonar’s is experiencing something of a renaissance in the fashion world, co-opted by brands like Prada, Céline and Courrèges in the last few seasons, while reaching a fever pitch on Instagram. “I suppose the connection between the faster cycle replicating itself and social media is inherent in the platform and all trends of every sort are easily visible and as fleetingly apparent as the day they were posted,” says Zvonar. “Maybe the core symptom is amnesia or something similar to the experience of Groundhog Day.”
Fashion’s buzziest designer label, Vetements, is in and of itself a parody of the fervent cycle of “what’s hot.” Its Spring 2017 collection is an idiosyncratic mix of collaborations with brands like Levi’s, Canada Goose and Juicy Couture, the latter of whose resurrection can be attributed to the power of social media and the resurgence of ’00s nostalgia. The Paris-based label has been credited with infiltrating the highest ranks of the industry with a distinctly anti-fashion approach, notably selling DHL-print logo T-shirts for upwards of $300 USD last spring. Its approach to collage—both cerebral and literal—mimics the ever-fickle shifting tides of consumer culture.
“The way things are primarily consumed today is not in their tangible state. We are sold images of a dress in a magazine and pictures of paintings on Instagram. Likely you’re not buying either, but you are consuming the relevance of both of them,” says Laing. “A transaction is happening and you are part of its vortex, but the object itself may as well not exist. Runway clothes don’t really exist for their own sake, nor do paintings, particularly the really expensive ones. They make up the visual currency that sells the brand of the artist generally, rather than the object itself.”
At the 2016 Biennale de Montréal, artist Valérie Blass exhibited a series of sculptures that explored the boundaries of perception, visibility and physical presence. One of these structures I referred to as “the scarf pants” while talking to Blass; it was exhibited across from a deconstructed version of a body. “You make weird associations about what is abstraction, what is figurative,” she says. “I don’t want to talk about fashion because it’s beautiful; I want to talk about it because you see it everywhere.”
A few years back while on vacation in Amsterdam, I watched my designer friend eye-roll a throng of tourists crowded around Rembrandt’s The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, taking selfies. “Are they even looking at the art?” she asked. This past December, I wondered the same thing as I got down on hand and knee for the perfect Art Basel selfie to add to my Instagram feed. I didn’t buy any of the art, but it sure looked good on me.
Randi Bergman is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital expert. She currently works with publications such as the Globe and Mail, Flare, the Kit, NOW and Vogue.com. Previously, she was the executive digital editor at FASHION.
This article is from the Spring 2017 issue of Canadian Art. To get every issue of our magazine delivered to your door before it hits newsstands, go to canadianart.ca/subscribe.