“But is it art, decoration or design?” The question came up a few times during the private view of Virgil Abloh’s new exhibition at Paris’s Galerie kreo, where he’s showing 20 or so pieces that include tables, benches, concrete vases and giant mirrors. This is a Paris first for the Off-White founder and menswear designer at Louis Vuitton, who holds an M. Arch from IIT in Chicago, has been a renowned DJ since his time with the Been Trill collective, is a friend and collaborator of Kanye West’s, as well as an artist who has been celebrated by a major retrospective that toured several American museums... Abloh dealt with the question good-naturedly, gently laughing at ideas which he feels are “profoundly entrenched but have no meaning.” Are the French, of whom it is said that they love nothing better than to categorize, ready for the breaking down of boundaries that Abloh is championing and of which his career is the perfect demonstration?
Whatever field Abloh is working in – fashion, art, design, music – his practice is always one of displacement. First of all spatial: he transfers a practice or an object from one cul- tural field to another. At the Galerie kreo, his concrete pieces are covered with graffiti realized by his own hand (the gallery can at last congratulate itself on having exhibited street art!), reminding us that his 1990s childhood in the Chicago suburbs plunged him early on into skate and graff culture. “Graffiti is a language a lot of people don’t get,” he told Numéro, “but when you’re able to decode the use of colour and lettering, you can distinguish different artists and cities. I can recognize graffiti from Brazil, for example.”
This spatial displacement, which mixes “high” and “pop” culture, is often accompanied by a temporal displacement: for example, graffiti being mixed with the Brutalist or Modernist references in Abloh’s con- crete pieces (he openly admits his admiration for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), or his collection for his label Pyrex Vision from a few years back, which paired images from the paint- ings of Caravaggio with references to basket-ball star Michael Jordan.
But his Postmodern collages have nothing gratuitous about them, their origin being found in the subversion of the mainstream and the renewal of the concept of “new creation” that have characterized hip-hop since its beginnings. Both as a musical and clothing style, hip-hop was built up from borrowings (many of them from disco) which were remodelled through sampling and formal inventiveness, a reappropriation of the mainstream in order to take it onto more political or crusading ground.
The concept of “new creation” (making a clean sweep of the past) soon became completely obsolete through this use of other artists’ sounds, ushering in the era of the artistic director: talent was no longer about inventing what had never existed but instead about rearranging the pre-existent – with a new sensibility and to different ends. In the case of Abloh, his reasons are pretty obvious: modifying views of cultures that are not socially respected and bringing into the cultural conversation those who have been up till now excluded, in particular African-Americans. You can look, he is saying, at Caravaggio’s life as you would Michael Jordan’s – and find things to appreciate in both; you can analyse graffiti as you would old-master painting. The message is simple, and it works, having already brought on board more young people and minorities than 50 years of French attempts at cultural democratization.
Efflorescence, by Virgil Abloh, until 10 April at Paris's Galerie kreo.