1978. Weary of the Soho art scene, artist Stefan Eins decided to open a new art space in the South Bronx. The space was named Fashion Moda (1978–1993), an abbreviation of the full name painted above its entrance: Fashion 时装 Moda МОДА — the word “fashion” rendered in English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Russian. The venue, which was praised for responding to the interests of the local community, was instrumental in providing a platform for both Downtown artists and the burgeoning hip-hop and graffiti movements.
Fashion Moda’s first exhibition of graffiti art was curated by artist John Matos (aka Crash) in October 1980. Entitled Graffiti Art Success for America (GAS), the show included work by artists such as Futura, Lady Pink, and John Fekner. Fashion Moda: 35 Years Later, an exhibition of works by artists associated with the space, is currently on display at Wall Works, a one-year-old gallery co-founded by Matos and managed by his daughter, Anna.
The show is comprised of over 20 works, most of which have been loaned from private collections. A number of Fashion Moda artists and collaborators are represented — Stefan Eins, John Ahearn, Charlie Ahearn, and Jane Dickson — though there are also some conspicuous absences, most notably Lady Pink and Jenny Holzer. Most of the pieces on display date from the 1980s, although some artists are represented by contemporary work.
The exhibition is the first of two consecutive shows at Wall Works dedicated to Fashion Moda. The second, which has been dubbed “Session II,” will be a recreation of Jane Dickson’s “City Maze” (September, 1980). Dickson’s installation, a cheap cardboard maze that children could run around, epitomized Fashion Moda’s ethos. Local graffiti artists and visitors scrawled over the installation (and indeed the building itself), a perfect synthesis of Bronx and Downtown sensibilities. By most accounts, the exhibition was one of the space’s most popular shows. Some months earlier in an essay for Seven Days (April, 1980), Lucy Lippard remarked that Fashion Moda’s success “stem[med] from a genuine mesh of its own interests and those of its audience.” “It avoids ‘cultural imperialism,’” she wrote, “by respecting itself as well as its audience.”
A quote by artist Joe Lewis, Fashion Moda’s co-director, cements Lippard’s conclusions. As relayed to curator Herb Tam in Alternative Histories: New York Art Spaces 1960–2010:
Artists Space was seen as an uppity place in the sense that it was really “white.” They had a very specific agenda. The most important thing, in my point of view, about Fashion Moda is that if you asked someone from Artists Space or Group Material or the Alternative Museum or the New Museum or Franklin Furnace what they were, everyone would tell you the same thing. If you asked ten people about Fashion Moda, you would get ten different responses.
35 Years Later is an excellent primer for those unfamiliar with Fashion Moda’s history. A video of Dickson’s “City Maze” is on display, as are a number of photographs by Lisa Kahane and David Gonzalez, both of whom documented the space itself. Kahane’s images of the Bronx, particularly “Tent” (1980), capture the extreme dereliction of the borough, which Lewis recently likened to post-war Dresden. They also capture a sense of civic pride. In “Beyond Abjection” (1983) a young boy stares intently at the camera whilst holding flowers picked from the rubble of a building.
Thankfully, the arrangement of the exhibition levels any distinction between Fashion Moda’s lesser known associates and those who became art world superstars. For instance, a Keith Haring drawing is positioned beside pieces by under-appreciated artists such as Thom Corn, Marc Brasz, and Justen Ladda.
Ladda’s best-known early work is “The Thing” (1981), a trompe l’oeil painting of Marvel’s Fantastic Four character. Ladda painted the image across a wall and several chairs in the basement of an abandoned school. When viewed from a certain angle, the figure appears to hurtle towards the viewer. Since then, Ladda has continued to play with the relationship between perception and reality. On display in 35 Years Later is an utterly beguiling painting entitled “(You Don’t Know) “Jack”” (2013). The work depicts a holographic bust of some sort of hybrid creature (part-bird, part-man). The red cedar wood on which the image is painted resembles a television screen, and the work’s shiny blue background recalls broadcast static. How Ladda created this piece (which is described wryly as “mixed media”) is an intriguing mystery.
Many of Fashion Moda’s artists were united by an interest in unusual, attention-grabbing media. Like the Pictures Generation, the Fashion Moda alum understood and exploited the visual cues and inferences of popular visual culture; the advertising billboard, video games, and television. Thom Corn painted on canvas that had been woven through chicken wire. Christy Rupp produced her “Rat Patrol” posters (1979) by xeroxing an image of a rat from an NYC health department advertisement. Don Leicht and John Fekner collaborated on a series of painted metal cut-outs of space invaders. Whilst these artists were utilizing the aesthetic of the street, many of the graffiti and street art pioneers were seeking art world credibility, hence the works on canvas by artists such as Daze (Chris Ellis) and A-One (Anthony Clark).
35 Years Later purposefully emulates Fashion Moda’s scrappy, carefree aesthetic. There are some nice touches to how the works are presented. A vertical arrow pointing towards the floor accompanies a wall label for one of Christy Rupp’s rats. It’s an amusing touch. The exterior of the gallery, which is emblazoned with work by contemporary street artists, is a reminder of how far graffiti and street art has come. An exhibition of choice works, particularly one held at a gallery, can only ever provide an approximate context for how Fashion Moda impacted the lives of those who organized and visited its shows. Still, it’s a shame that more archival material wasn’t included, particularly when one considers the wealth of Fashion Moda’s graphic output. 35 Years Later is a small but neat introduction to Fashion Moda’s artists, and the show whets the visitor’s appetite for Session II in which Jane Dickson’s “City Maze” will be given a second life for a whole new audience.
Fashion Moda: 35 Years Later (Session I) continues at Wall Works (39 Bruckner Blvd, Mott Haven, Bronx) through August 8.
Fashion Moda: 35 Years Later (Session II) opens August 12, 5–8pm.