In 2008, I made a trip to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the recent work of Takashi Murakami. The museum was mounting a retrospective of the Japanese artist, the heart of which, Murakami himself proclaimed, was a fully operational Louis Vuitton store. There, in the massive space allotted for a pageant of outsized sculptures and canvases, sat a quiet island of leather goods — handbags, wallets, and accessories, printed with motifs from Murakami’s cartoon universe, mingling with iconic symbols of the French fashion house. Like others, I raised an eyebrow to the display, too scandalized by the overt flirtation between art and consumer culture to even inspect the objects for sale. It was as if a sacred boundary had been crossed; the gift shop had infringed upon the exhibition, coming into view too soon, debasing the space with its tactless flaunting of exchange value.
In the 10 years since then, it seems that the criteria used to distinguish art from commerce have changed. A new exhibition at Whitney Museum of Art calls attention to this particular instability. Open from early August until October 8, Possessed spotlights the work of Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta, the New York-Los Angeles duo behind the fashion label Eckhaus Latta. Their presence at the Whitney marks the museum’s first dedicated fashion show in two decades. Yet Eckhaus and Latta are no strangers to the art world; the pair has garnered praise for their expressly hybrid design practice, their frequent application of processes endemic to the field of art into the rapaciously novelty-seeking industry of making and selling clothes.
Not a lot of history is spelled out in Possessed, which occupies the museum’s lobby gallery, as well as other un-ticketed first-floor spaces, like the gift shop and the restaurant. Opening wall text states that Eckhaus and Latta met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design, that they formed their eponymous brand in 2011, and that they represent a “new generation of designers operating at the intersection of fashion and contemporary art.” It elucidates some of the themes of their designs, namely the eclecticism of their materials (“bath towels, rust-coated fabric, iridescent transparent polyester…pre-owned T-shirts” — a list that reads like a description for a Rauschenberg combine) and the fluid sense of identity espoused by their garments, which are characterized by a mixed-and-matched aesthetic and gender non-specific silhouettes.
Left unsaid are the myriad other ways in which the pair has brushed against fashion industry standards — like how they frequently collaborate with artists, or how they’ve debuted their clothing in art spaces before, or how they stage open calls for models, choosing to visualize their collections with a broad variety of body types.
For the most part, the exhibition speaks through the work. Possessed reflects Eckhaus Latta’s gift for recognizing the art of any given situation, be it a pile of dead-stock fabric or the prospect of showcasing their work in a contemporary art institution. Rather than default to the use of mannequins and haute-couture runway aesthetics, Eckhaus and Latta saw an opportunity to experiment with the format of the fashion exhibition itself, working with curators Christopher Y. Lew and Lauri London Freedman to produce what is described as a “linear progression of experiences.”
Part conceptual art installation and part functioning retail store, Possessed reflects recent trends in contemporary art in its bid to activate an immersive, interactive experience. In this case, the museum exhibition and the gift shop have fully merged, coming together in a precise collage of spatial and cultural cyphers that attempt to reveal not just the creative influences behind Eckhaus Latta’s clothing, but also the cultural conventions and economic systems that delineate the field of their creative activity.
The exhibition is divided into three parts. It begins with a hallway of tall, unfinished walls, where visitors encounter large, miscellaneously sized, backlit photographs of models sporting Eckhaus Latta apparel. Here, the exhibition borrows the visual language of the streets just outside the Whitney, where constant construction and urban hustle are often papered over with high-gloss, aspirational imagery. From here, visitors are ushered into the second component of the exhibition — a contrastingly warm, “operational retail environment,” replete with sales attendants, a changing room, and a checkout counter.
Lulled with a playlist that flows across musical genres, like some evolved form of Muzak, museumgoers are encouraged to touch, hold, try on, and buy clothing designed by Eckhaus Latta, from limited-edition patterned button-ups and hand-printed t-shirts to explicitly one-of-a-kind objects, such as a pullover knitted out of a vibrant palette of recycled plastics, and a pair of white denim jeans dappled with watercolor-like blots and embellished with a fringe of craft-store beads. Everything, the sales attendant-docents stress, can be tried on and purchased. Finally, just opposite the changing room is the third component of Possessed, a darkened, semi-concealed space, where visitors will find a wall-sized, multi-screen display of surveillance footage from Eckhaus Latta’s retail stores, some piped in live from the very space they just left.
Possessed is a small but ambitious show. It dares to comment on dizzyingly outsized subjects such as surveillance and consumer culture, while asking the open-ended question of just exactly what fashion that appeals to the tactile, to the handmade, to the locally inspired and the creatively repurposed, can do. In an era when longstanding, structural problems are ripping to the surface, when the local and the global reverberate against each other almost instantly, when to participate in life is to face one’s complicity with deeply entrenched, destructive systems, can art — and fashion — wrest beauty out of the morass and make it more bearable?
Though suffused with a self-interrogating tone, Possessed radiates an optimism characteristic of Eckhaus Latta’s practice, one based on their relentless faith in the creative act. Collaboration is emphasized here. For the retail component of the show, Eckhaus and Latta asked several artist friends to create the clothing racks, furniture, decorative sculptures, and other elements used to display their clothes, effectively producing a microcosm of their more immediate artistic influences. The gallery is thus populated with an assemblage of painted, collaged, taped, welded, glazed, and stacked objects, reflecting the duo’s penchant for combining a handcrafted sensibility with a harder-edged, urban aesthetic. Conventional museum wall labels name these participating artists and list the composite materials of the furniture, while the actual garments designed by Eckhaus and Latta are left unexplained.
It is this deliberate withholding of explanation, of resolution, that gives Possessed its vaguely Duchampian charge. The exhibition implores a constant shifting of attention and switching of gears, in a way mimicking the complex and banal experience of navigating the contemporary urban environment. This seems to be what Eckhaus and Latta do best — sift through the stimuli and detritus of present-day reality and narrate it back to us, speaking in the jagged-edged, bric-a-brac, everyday language in which many of us are, unwittingly, already fluent.
Eckhaus Latta: Possessed continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through October 8.