On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
August 3 – October 8, 2018
It is no radical claim that art is a commodity driven by the same forces as fashion: disposable income and ephemeral aesthetic tastes (albeit on different scales). But museum collections typically retain a symbolic status as arbiters of historical and aesthetic value isolated from the influence of the market. Eckhaus Latta fashion designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta’s pop-up shop/art exhibition at The Whitney, Eckhaus Latta: Possessed, exhibits decorative and installation artworks while simultaneously using them as display racks for Eckhaus Latta clothing made to be sold from the exhibition (as stated by the custom tags stitched into the garments). Curators Christopher Y. Lew and Lauri London Freedman’s choice to operate an actual fashion retail store from the first floor of a museum is a direct challenge to museum art’s claim that it occupies an intellectual safe space outside of commodity. Though the artworks in Possessed are not for sale, having to peer around merchandise to look at them makes you wonder what they might cost. From there, it is only a short jump to considering the price of the rest of the Whitney’s holdings.
The show occupies three rooms in the lobby-level gallery. The hallway displays nine lightboxes featuring glossed shots of models in Eckhaus Latta clothes—a subtle flip on their usual casting choices of artists and “cool kids,” but a subversion without much bite. The second room is the retail floor, containing a desk (Sophie Stone, Flower arrangement for POS, 2018), clothing racks (Riley O’Neill, Basil’s tissue scaffold, 2018), a mirror (Susan Cianciolo, Dress Mirror frame, 2017-2018), a bench (Torey Thornton, Benching Hierarchy Console (EL), 2018), and a dressing room (Susan Cianciolo, Textile Curtain for dressing room, 2017-2018) all commissioned from the designers’ artist friends. Some are compelling works of decorative art, such as Cianciolo’s mirror framed by cut dresses: fabric swatches from what might have been couches, or dresses, or coffee sacks, or those clear PVC bags that duvets get stored in. It is an eclectic fabric-junkie’s mood-board, playfully offering ways out of outfit indecision while also bringing to mind how clothing gets made—that is, cheaply and in poor conditions—and that nearly all of it ends up “recycled” in landfills. Matthew Lutz-Kinoy’s Slippery Shelf (2018), which holds two pairs of sunglasses, is compellingly gross; it looks like it might slide off the wall, and the wine-bottle necks protruding out of it recall detritus littering the drained bed of an urban pond.
But what might be otherwise interesting experiments in material and form are reduced to their function as retail displays, taking a backseat to the garments hanging off of them. The mixture between art objects and clothing makes the space confusing to navigate: you aren’t sure whether to approach it as a gallery or a store, and whether you should browse or spend time with the pieces. (And switching between these two modes is more easily considered than actually done.)
The store features Eckhaus Latta’s typically conceptual fare: sweatshirts and t-shirts that have been repurposed from overstock, garment dyed, turned inside-out, and printed with slogans; as well as some one-off pieces like a sculptural sweater Frankenstein-ed from different colored swatches of crocheted plastic grocery bags, and a skirt and jeans with beaded fringes. The intention of using salvaged stock as new inventory is to question over-consumption and fast fashion. But, for a house that adheres to the seasonal release of new product, it’s a hollow gesture.
The final room, an installation with a wall of televisions and three office chairs, is the show’s conceptual fulcrum. The sets play security footage from various stores selling Eckhaus Latta, and two of the screens play a live-feed from the museum retail floor. It is calming to watch people shop. As they navigate the retail floor, deciding whether or not to buy something, you are lulled by the unspoken promise that scarcity is a lie. Passing under the CCTV cameras’ gaze folds each viewer into the exhibition, entangling them with the clothes’ dollar value—implicating the viewer in each sale made. The viewer’s interactions with the space—seeing, remembering, talking, and posting images of it—give the clothes much of their value. Those exclusive exhibition tags sewn into the clothes would be worthless if nobody had seen the show, and each visitor helps justify the price, accruing their own dollar value.
This is not the first shoppable exhibition in a museum. We might remember Martha Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale at Museum of Modern Art atrium in 2012, a performance piece for which she collected, appraised, and sold around fourteen thousand objects, from her mother’s dishes to a Mercedes station wagon. Neither is this Eckhaus Latta’s first time in a museum: they were included in MoMA PS1’s 2015 Greater New York, and the Hammer Museum’s 2016 Made in L.A. But while Rosler’s garage sales inspect suburban American commercial tradition as a purely conceptual exercise (neither Rosler nor the museum kept the proceeds), Possessed is an honest for-profit store. Possessed is not concerned with art’s boundaries and definitions, but with whether our ability to buy and sell a work is part of what we find attractive about it. It suggests that how we might own an object is, now, inherently part of how we value its aesthetics—even, or maybe especially, in a museum setting.