See: Denim @ the Museum at FIT

Three garment exhibitions.

Lately, as part of a larger project, I’ve been researching garments, especially workwear. The more I learn about sewing, the more I realize what I don’t know and can’t yet do. Though I’ve sewn flags and banners, I’m thinking about more complicated items and garments. I have a long way to go, but it’s nice that even my modest experiences help me appreciate construction better.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell's "Popover" dress, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit, as women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Front: Reproduction of Claire McCardell’s “Popover” dress, complete with a matching oven mitt, circa 1942, blue denim and red cotton. Also: denim jumpsuit from when women joined manufacturing for WWII.

Denim: Fashion’s Frontier @ the Museum at FIT
Through May 7, 2016

Though it’s less than two blocks from the Center for Book Arts (where I’m a current resident; learn more about the AIR program at the 2015 AIRs’ exhibition, which opens tonight), I first visited this museum yesterday. They have good spaces, quality shows, and strong exhibition design; I look forward to seeing more shows there. I went for their exhibition on denim—one of the workwear fabrics I’ve been printing on. Here are a few thoughts:

  • The show is composed of garments from the museum’s collection arranged in chronological order. I was most intrigued by the earliest garments. The curatorial statements insisted that denim has been used for workwear for men and women since its earliest days, exemplified by a women’s skirt-set for work from 1912-15.
  • There’s a great video (though the audio is too quiet) about a pair of cotton pants with denim patches. A conservator explains the clues in the garment’s construction that helped her deduce that they were probably made in the 1840s. I love it when invisible museum work is made visible in this way.
  • Chambray became an official union shirt in the 1940s. The blue in “blue collar” probably comes from that. (Growing up as the daughter of a car mechanic, I’d associated work with stain-resistant synthetic blends that were dyed blue.)

The rest of the exhibition reviews how jeans became symbols of rebellion, and emerged as leisure, popular, and luxury goods. The connection to work became symbolic at best. Cheers to MFIT for providing an online exhibition.

Fairy Tale Fashion @ the Museum at FIT
Through April 16, 2016

Coming from the denim exhibition, with its theme of women’s labor, I couldn’t help but see this show’s content in an unfavorable way. The fairy tales here are Eurocentric (maidens with fair skin, gold hair as symbols of gold) and hetero-orthodox. (It’s 2016. I want heroines who kick ass like Ronda Rousey or Rey, who change the game like Missy Elliot and Awkwafina. Also, what’s up with the ageism of fairy tales? Why aren’t there ever evil maidens and heroic middle-aged women?) This show is not for me.

  • If you want to see beautiful gowns, dramatic capes, and nice beadwork, have a look.
  • I was impressed by the exhibition design. The space is underground, with very high ceilings. The exhibition designers did a great job using scrims and dramatic lighting to set a slightly menacing tone.
  • I noticed the use of the word, “sculptural,” to describe functionless elements that diverged from the silhouette or body. Coming from an art/sculpture point of view, it’s interesting to think that a three-dimensional object is not inherently sculptural, but becomes so after adding superfluous parts.

"Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro," at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center,  Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source:

“Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro,” at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery. // Source:

Workwear/Abiti da Lavoro @ The New School/Parsons
Through April 18, 2016

This was also my first visit to the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center’s Kellen Gallery. While the FIT museum had carefully calibrated the lighting to preserve the garments, this space is an airy white cube with dramatic windows and plentiful natural light. I will visit again, as they’re clearly interested in pushing boundaries (check out the concurrent exhibition on mass incarceration).

  • I was intrigued by this exhibition of “garments for hypothetical, invented, coveted, imaginary jobs.” Unfortunately I felt underwhelmed by how little creativity was on display, how the speculation sometimes only made small leaps from present reality. These garments evinced whimsy, not reinvention. I am not sure that this is a valid critique—I think it comes out of an expectation that designers are technologists, and thus futurists. But sometimes designers are just designers. (I love the name of AIGA NY’s “monthly series of provocations where practitioners and critics discuss the changing nature of design and visual culture.” It’s “We used to ____, now we ____.” It’s a worthy prompt for designers and artists to consider.)
  • I was struck by how many garments were simply garments in recognizable silhouettes and forms—size o dresses, suit-shirt-slacks-tie—that were embellished to fit a theme—’girl who picks carrots,’ ‘girl who picks strawberries,’ for example. (Maybe I shouldn’t expect fashion to be less gender-binary, but I can’t help but feel disappointed.)
  • There was an outfit for a “Post-Fordist,” comprising of ready-made vacation separates, a laptop, and a Blackberry in a vitrine. I get that the banality of immaterial labor is what makes it so insidious, but that doesn’t mean creative work about it can’t be more interesting artistically.
  • Men’s ties suggest an outfit of rags under a shabby jacket—a garment for “a migrant”—in a particularly fraught misstep.
  • OK, I liked the exhibition design. An aluminum I-beam was suspended from the ceiling at an angle. Clamps on the beam held up monofilament, which allowed the garment to spin. It signaled the work theme and avoided a static display well.

Other observations:

The Garment District

One of my favorite things about living in NYC is access to all the garment district shops. The district near Hell’s Kitchen is so vital that shops can specialize in selling only one type of thing: linen, spandex, notions, textiles for men’s wear, textiles for quilting, etc. On occasion, I’ll stumble into a building full of garment industry services. Earlier in the week, I got to peek inside a huge embroidery studio. I felt so grateful that so much industry still happens in Manhattan. I hope these small businesses—and the workers doing such skilled labor—keep going strong.



Iran do Espírito Santo’s Poetics

Iran do Espírito Santo, Water Glass 2, 2008, crystal, edition 23/25, 14 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. // Source: Ingleby Gallery, If you're ever not sure what to get me for my birthday, well, this would be nice.

Iran do Espírito Santo, Water Glass 2, 2008, crystal, edition 23/25, 14 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. // Source: Ingleby Gallery, If you’re ever not sure what to get me for my birthday, look no further.

Tonight’s artist talk by Iran do Espírito Santo, a Brazilian sculptor and installation artist, energized me. It was part of the Public Art Fund’s excellent series of talks at the New School’s Vera List Center.

Santo constructed a slide lecture that began with a sequence of formally related artworks—a room with circular cutouts, followed by a plaster block with Swiss cheese holes dug out with coins from different currencies, followed by an installation of plaster hemispheres on gallery walls. From there, Santo showed site-specific wall paintings that referred back to the existing architecture, such as floor-to-ceiling brick pattern painted inside SFMOMA in 1997 referring to the brick façade outside. He showed “folding” glass plate installations, wall paintings of gradations of grey, and solid sculptures based on specific forms, such as tin cans, pint glasses, and lamps. 

IRAN do ESPÍRITO SANTO SWITCH, 2012 latex paint on wall dimensions variable unique // Source: Sean Kelly Gallery,

SWITCH, 2012
latex paint on wall
dimensions variable
unique // Source: Sean Kelly Gallery,

Santo delivered his talk in a matter-of-fact way: In this project I did this, this site was that. He didn’t get into what he was thinking or trying to do. At first, I wanted to hear more—to ask what Jon and Anna from Eastport asked me, because they wanted to ask all artists:

Why do artists make art?

I wanted to know why Santo made what he made.

As the images continued, however, the question seemed less pressing. Though Santo worked in many media, they all seemed to make sense as a body of work. There was a coherence of sensibility and thought to them, even if I couldn’t spell it out how or why.

I still tried to find a logic or connecting thread to them, and here’s what I formulated: Santo’s work is rarely representational but often mimetic (having a referent), while some of his work, such as the gradient paintings, aren’t mimetic. They are about perceptual experiences. What these divergent works shared is open-endedness, a need to be interpreted or looked at, which seemed to suggest generosity or consideration of the viewer.

Santo spoke beautifully about his concern for the viewer. He explained that he (I’m paraphrasing)

envisions his work operating cinematically, because as viewers, we are moving cameras.

I love this idea, because I think a lot about how the aesthetic experience unfolds over time, and how looking is a process that at times is simultaneous and at times sequential.

He also said something like

how the viewer accesses the work is part of the works’ poetics.

That’s a fantastic and fascinating choice of words. I am excited to continue to consider the idea of poetics in terms of art, mulling over theories of how things take an effect on viewers, in Santo’s art, and my own.

A few more insights I learned tonight are below. If you already like Santo’s work, you can skip this paragraph. The following info will not better equip you in your encounter with the work, as you already have what you need. Read on, however, if you’ve yet to be won over.

While I don’t want to conflate the artist with the art for oeuvres like this, more facts about Santo help contextualize his work. First, he has a background in photography, which he discussed during the Q&A when someone asked about the tension between the Platonic ideal and the found. (This is an uncommon case where the Platonic ideal is actually relevant, as so many of Santo’s work are in such a state of material perfection that they seem otherworldly.) Santo explained that perhaps his photo background relates to his interest in reducing images, simplifying forms, and seeing light. Another audience member’s question prompted Santo to discuss his interest in architecture, which formed the support and informed the content of his wall paintings. But for his objects, too, I can see a rigorous, almost severe formalism that seems related to architecture, or what we mean when we describe something as “architectural.”

Playground, Santo’s project for the Public Art Fund, is on view through February 16, 2014 in Central Park.

A few of Santo’s works will also be on view in a group show at Sean Kelly gallery that opens Friday.


get excited: Josephine Meckseper, Josiah McElheny, Rob Carter

This week I’m looking forward to:

Josephine Meckseper The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art, 2005. Courtesy the Artist, New York, and VG Bild-Kunst.

Josephine Meckseper The Complete History of Postcontemporary Art, 2005. Courtesy the Artist, New York, and VG Bild-Kunst. Source:

Monday, April 9, 7PM
Subjective Histories of Sculpture: Josephine Meckseper
44-19 Purves St, Long Island City, Queens

Citing specific works, bodies of work, texts, or even personal anecdotes taken from inside and outside cultural production, and inside and outside art, these subjective, incomplete, partial, or otherwise eclectic histories question assumptions and propose alternative methods for understanding sculpture’s evolving strategies.

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (installation view), 2009. Courtesy the artist, Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, and Andrea Rosen Gallery,  New York. Photo: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid © Josiah McElheny. Source:

Josiah McElheny, Island Universe (installation view), 2009. Courtesy the artist, Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photo: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid © Josiah McElheny. Source:

Wednesday, April 11, 6:30pm
Public Art Fund Talks at The New School: Josiah McElheny
The New School, John Tishman Auditorium
66 West 12th Street, between 5th & 6th Avenues, NYC

McElheny is whip-smart and I expect nothing less than to be blown away.

Public Art Fund is pleased to present a talk by Josiah McElheny, an American artist whose multifaceted artistic practice has incorporated decorative and functional traditions of glass, as well as research, writing, and curating to explore materiality and its relationship to the ways in which we see and experience objects. Often using narratives inspired by the histories of art, design, and glass as points of departure, McElheny has created massive sculptures of shining chrome and transparent glass that layer myriad references as diverse as twentieth-century fashion, modernist design, sixteenth-century Italian painting, and even the Big Bang theory.

Rob Carter. Faith in a Seed, 2012. Image courtesy the artist. Source:

Rob Carter. Faith in a Seed, 2012. Image courtesy the artist. Source:

Opening: Friday, April 13, 6-8pm
Exhibition: April 13–June 23, 2012
Rob Carter: Faith in a Seed
Art in General

79 Walker Street (just off Canal and Broadway), NYC

I helped to build out this show, and I’m very excited to see how the installation and videos have come, quite literally, to life.

Faith in A Seed intertwines the languages of science and history into a living sculptural form. Rob Carter’s installation centers on the houses and gardens of three men of the 19th century. Miniature replicas of Charles Darwin’s Down House, Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, and Sir John Bennet Lawes’ Rothamsted Manor are the centerpieces of a large-scale triangular garden.

Viewers are invited to witness Carter’s controlled but fragile ecosystem in three distinct ways: time-based video projections, peepholes cut into the sides of the garden, as well as from an elevated viewing platform.


Everyday objects: Vessels for sentiments and memories

Prized possessions: What do they mean to their owners? How do they accomplish this? Where does our subjectivity end, and the thing’s objecthood begin?

I’ve been interested in this since starting graduate school, when I tried to change my practice from making art that represented an idea, to making art that embodied it. This quote from a Fluxus artist sums up the paradox beautifully.

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

I’ve been interested in how possessions act as vessels, and it keeps coming up in different ways. In Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), discount store goods triggered questions of value and taste. In reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Creativity, I zeroed in on the psychological benefits of a symbolic ecology of the home for Positive Signs drawings.

This idea seems to be coming up more frequently from outside sources as well. Perhaps I’m noticing it more, or possibly a zeitgeist is coalescing…. Here are my notes from the field:

The Floating Lab Collective: Re-Museum
March 20 – April 27, 2012
5×5 public art installations, various sites in Washington DC

The Re-Museum … mirror[s] the process of collecting, displaying, attributing value to, and commodifying art objects by the institution.

Recognizing that souvenirs play a familiar role in the reinforcement of national ideologies, beliefs and rituals, The Re-Museum is selecting an array of souvenirs drawn from and representing issues and aesthetics embedded in our local communities. Through a variety of workshops and conversations created in partnership with local community centers we will select significant objects, sites, narratives and images from various DC communities to be housed in the Re-Museum.

The Re-Museum wil be making weekly stops at locations ranging from the Corcoran Museum to outdoor parking lots in Colombia Heights and Recreation Centers in Deanwood.

(Via Coro/Raquel de Anda)

A life full of things – of personal relationships with the inanimate – only seems possible through the mediation of art, and so I prefer theidea of things, rather than the thing itself.

Isla Leaver-Yap, curator*

(*Yap clan in contemporary art!)

It Chooses You, Miranda July

It Chooses You 
Miranda July 
McSweeney’s, 2011

July interviewed subjects who were selling possessions in the Pennysaver in LA. She asks them to talk about their items, and notes how they decorate their houses. The characters tend to be rather marginalized, so the stories are imbued with pathos.

Read excerpts on

Listen to Miranda July and actors read excerpts on WNYC’s Selected Shorts. Recommended. The idea of July’s work strikes me as self-consciously quirky, uncomfortably over-sharing, twee indie like Michael Cera, but when I actually give it a chance, it is always sincere and affecting. This reading is quite long, but very moving towards the end.

Animism: exhibition and conference
16 March–6 May 2012
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

In the habituated scheme of modernity, objects are conceived as the passive stuff on which human action leaves its imprint or trace. Whenever this passive/active nexus between objects and subject, humans and the non-human is disturbed or even reversed—as in the coming-to-life of seemingly dead matter, or the becoming autonomous of inert things—we inevitably step into the territory of animism: that non-modern worldview that conceives of things as animated and possessing agency. Is it possible to de-colonize the imaginary manifest in the modern conception of the animist “other”, by bringing into view the practices that both make and transgress the distinctions and boundaries in question?

(Via e-flux)

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett

Vibrant Matter
Jane Bennett
Duke University Press, 2010

Lecture: Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter

How do objects sometimes act as vibrant things, with an effectivity of their own, a degree of independence from the words, images, and feelings they provoke in humans? Political theorist Jane Bennett delivers the inaugural lecture as the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences, the center will focus on the material conditions of our lives and examine “thingness,” the nature of matter.

Renowned for her work on nature and ethics, Bennett investigates the power of things, which sometimes manifests as the strange allure that even useless, ugly, or meaningless items can have for us. Her latest book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke, 2010) asks how our political world would approach public problems were we to seriously consider not just our human experience of things, but the capacity of things themselves. How is it that things can elide their status as possessions, tools, or aesthetic objects to manifest traces of independence and vitality? Following the tangled threads linking vibrant materialities, human selves, and the agentic assemblages they form, Bennett examines what hoarders – people preternaturally attuned to things – might have to teach us about the workings of agency, causality, and artistry in a world overflowing with stuff.

Finally, a call for prized possessions for exhibition:

Fawn's collection of fawns. Source: Greene County Art Council.

Fawn's collection of fawns. Source: Greene County Art Council.

The People’s Collection
Greene County
Arts Council, Masters on Main Street project
in collaboration with  Occupy with Art
Friday, April 13 – May 31, 2012

Wall Street to Main Street is pleased to announce an open call to all residents of Catskill and the Hudson Valley to share things you love in your home with your community in a beautiful common space. We ask that you bring one object that has inspired you and gives meaning to your life to be shown with your neighbor’s loved-things in a surprise exhibition located on Main Street.

Not to mention The People’s Biennial, curated by Jenns Hoffman and Harrell Fletcher.

Also, did you know that there are institutions named “The People’s Gallery” in San Francisco, California as well as Riverside, California;  Derry, North Ireland; Cork, Ireland; and Cheshire, UK. It was also the name of a 19th-century African American photographer’s studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as the name of this year’s civic exhibition in Austin, Texas.