February 24 – April 16, 2022
Troy Montes Michie’s Dishwater Holds No Images continues his use of textiles to tell stories of resistance, and expands his work in collage into a space-consuming format. The latter becomes almost tangible in a forty-foot-long patchwork of garment bags, wire hangers, and pages from mail-order catalogues on the gallery’s south wall, all stitched together with dis- and reassembled pieces of clothing. Its surface holds, by means of his needlework, several overpainted images of women, each of them sporting a pinstriped black pantsuit with a distinguished high waist and broad shoulders.
In a 2020 contribution to The Paris Review, Michie credited Frida Kahlo, and specifically her piece My Dress Hangs There, as the inspiration for his transition to collage. Kahlo’s 1933 piece grounds the painted New York cityscape in collaged newspaper clippings, depicting deployed soldiers, impoverished civilians waiting in a breadline, and unemployed workers. It is there, amidst this grim juxtaposition of American capitalism with its real human cost, that she decided to hang her traditional Tehuana dress. Michie’s installation Amanecer o Atardecer in the gallery’s back room appears as a quite literal reference to this piece, with its monochromatic shirt sculptures arranged on crisscrossing lines. However, what makes My Dress Hangs There an adequate starting point for me to approach Michie’s show is not so much the hanging garment, the use of paper clippings, or the (painted) thread that connects elements within Kahlo’s work. The more interesting commonality is the fact that both Michie’s exhibition and Kahlo’s piece emphasize the re- or misappropriating of textiles to tailor a distinct Mexican identity in interrelation with American consumer culture.
In the gallery’s smaller back room, underneath the shirt sculptures, are drawings of various garments. One work in this series, titled Jitterbugs, depicts billowing pants that roughly resemble the trousers worn by the women in the main gallery: ballooning at the hip, the pants narrow to a pegged cuff. Together with a broad-shouldered and elongated blazer, which we see molded from paper on the opposite side of the room (Eye Was Bowl of Blood), these trousers are part of an ensemble known as the zoot suit. Although this look probably originated in Harlem’s African American communities during the 1930s and was related to the contemporaneous jitterbug dance craze, it would soon become infamous as the signifier of a particular subcultural movement that formed during the 1940s among young, second-generation Mexican American men and women, also known as pachucos or pachucas.
At the same time that Kahlo famously paraded the attire of Zapotec women to express her pride in indigenous Mexican culture, these children of Mexican immigrants on the other side of the border (mis-)appropriated, of all things, the white man’s business suit: the sartorial materialization of America’s white middle class, of conformity and capitalism. But they did so in a fashion that subverted the suit’s intended use values and made it fun, fierce, and flamboyant. But, for the white majority, the suit’s textile abundance became a symbol of un-Americanism at a time of war. And since this lavish outfit was not inexpensive, it signaled a certain affluence of those who dared, in the face of anti-Mexican sentiment, to take pleasure in their appearance and put its opulence in palpable evidence. Consequently, pachucas and pachucos represented a potential permeability of class categories at a point when the perceived instability of race, class, and gender segregation, as well as the fear of female sexuality and homosexuality, provoked tremendous public unease.
Accordingly, while the fashion of pachucos was attacked as a sign of sexual perversion, pachucas actively queered gender categories by being both threateningly feminine and perversely masculine. Michie approaches this tension in Ramona (La Pachuca). Carved into the work’s painted surface, the left side of the life-sized canvas shows the contours of a woman confidently flaunting the male zoot suit. Although pachucas typically wore a (scandalously) short, knee-length skirt, photographs from the time, like the 1944 photograph of Ramona Fonseca that this piece is based upon, suggests that some opted for the male zoot, which they complemented with a high bouffant and exaggerated feminine make-up, evoking the glamor of white Hollywood. We find this hairdo, the pencil-thin eyebrows, and the dark lips throughout the exhibition in Michie’s make-up of catalog images, which he also integrated into Ramona. But we soon realize that not only did he change the clothing style of the catalogue models, he also darkened their skin tones.
However, in the context of the zoot suit’s history, it remains unclear how to perceive Michie’s manipulation of those catalog images. It appears as if the idea, the outline, of Ramona’s look finds its contemporary actualizations, by means of Michie’s hand, on the bodies of formerly white models. Does it signal a domestication and commodification of a once radical, subcultural look? And what can we make of the obviously significant altering of their skin color? Does Ramona imagine a scenario in which people of color are inserted into the middle-class American dream? Or does it suggest a re-re-appropriation, a commentary on the all too familiar process of Black innovation/white imitation, which, too, befell the zoot suit once the American men’s fashion trade adopted a modified version of this outfit as part of the new “bold look” to give an aggressive demeanor to the American male and his all-too-fragile masculinity. But perhaps this uncertainty is, partly, a reaction to the fact that fashion is constantly positioned between performing and deforming the norm, between individualism and conformity. Yet, at the very least, Michie’s latest exhibition suggests a commonality between tailoring and collaging, attributing to both practices a quality of artistic invention and aesthetic splendor—either on our bodies or on canvas.