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The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago opens first-ever museum exhibition devoted to Virgil Abloh
Installation view, Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”, MCA Chicago June 10 – September 22, 2019 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

CHICAGO, IL.- The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is presenting Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech," the first-ever museum exhibition devoted to the work of the ultramodern, genre-bending artist and designer Virgil Abloh. Set in an immersive space designed by Samir Bantal, a Director of AMO, the research studio of Rem Koolhaas’s renowned architecture firm OMA, the exhibition focuses on the creative process and collaborative work of Abloh who is redefining fashion, art, and design. Chicago artist Abloh is pioneering a new creative discipline that ranges across media and is at its core deeply collaborative, connecting visual artists, musicians, designers, and architects. Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech" is organized by MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling and runs from June 10 to September 22, 2019.

Michael Darling says, “An exhibition like this in a major contemporary art museum is the next milestone in the evolution of Virgil’s practice. This show examines the choices Virgil has made, the media he works with, and the context of his artistic inspiration. His projects have unfurled with intention, precision, critique, historical awareness, cultural sensitivity, and rigor, and when taken out of the buzzy, frothy context of luxury fashion, celebrity mannequins, and hip hop one-upmanship, a very measured vision emerges.”

An artist who is always in motion, Abloh’s approach to fashion is equally inspired by contemporary art, his architectural training, and the style-conscious world of music. He uses the codes of fashion to deconstruct modes of dress in a playful, Duchampian style. His inspiration began with the street fashion in urban centers like Chicago, where looks emerge spontaneously and organically from trendsetting youth. Likewise, his work celebrates the ethos of streetwear and culture, where high culture is appropriated, altered, and served up as something fresh and new. The MCA exhibition offers an in-depth look at the defining highlights of Abloh’s career with signature collections, video documentation of his most iconic shows, music highlights, and his distinctive collections of furniture, design, and graphic work.

Raised outside of Chicago by parents who emigrated from Ghana, Abloh trained in engineering and architecture, but from an early age cultivated an interest in music, fashion, and design. While pursuing a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the artist connected with a then-emerging Kanye West, joining a fledgling creative team to work on album covers, concert designs, and merchandising. Abloh took the experience gained from working with West to his own stand-alone fashion brand Off-White™, which is designed in Milan, Italy, and presented at the seasonal shows of Paris fashion week alongside luminaries of the high fashion world. Most recently, Abloh’s profile expanded when he became the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection.

This survey exhibition covers seven areas of Abloh’s work over the past twenty years, chronicling the different pillars of his work in fashion, music, art, furniture and graphic design.

Shaped by the culture of streetwear, Virgil Abloh is one of the leading designers to revolutionize high-end fashion by inserting elements such as sneakers, hoodies, and denim into his collections. The language of streetwear defines the identity, status, and preferences of many young people who value uniqueness and creativity, and have a rebellious stance against the mainstream. Abloh pays homage to the contributions streetwear has made to contemporary culture and uses many of its techniques of borrowing, remixing, and ironic commentary to guide his work.

In 2012, Abloh used graphic t-shirts to hone his visual language of texts, numbers, and logos; first as a guest designer with the independent brand Hood by Air, and then creating his own brand Pyrex Vision that relied on simple graphics loaded with coded meanings. Subliminal and often subversive messages were a staple of Abloh’s upbringing as a skateboarder and consumer of rock and hip-hop music.

Pyrex Vision featured mass-produced sweatshirts and plaid shirts onto which he screenprinted “Pyrex,” (the glassware used in home drug labs) “23,” (Michael Jordan’s basketball number) and images of a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio. These references allude to stereotypical ways disadvantaged youth can overcome their hardships: by selling drugs or becoming a famous athlete. The video “A Team with No Sport” (2012) helped to promote the launch of Pyrex Vision and included members of the then-emerging rap collective A$AP Mob.

Abloh launched the brand Off-White in 2013, bringing a formula of texts, graphics, and logos to men’s and women’s clothing. The name was meant to suggest a post-racial reality, neither black nor white. Connecting his architectural roots and interest in urban design elements, much of Off-White’s imagery comes from roads, signage, buildings, and uniforms. Nearly every collection has been guided by a theme Abloh wants to investigate, functioning as discreet essays on the codes and rules of fashion or topics of the day. Key motifs in the collections include the diagonal black-and-white stripes that have become the brand’s signature, long nylon belts borrowed from the shipping industry, and caution stripes that symbolize that the wearer of the garment is part of the city.

This section includes highlights from Off-White’s men and women’s collections from 2014-2019. Some of the representative elements include Abloh’s interest in word play in the titles of his collections, such as “Moving Still,” “You Cut Me Off,” and “Nothing New.” In “Off Day,” the idea of casual dress in the workplace is compared to how put-together one should be on one’s day off. The deconstructed and asymmetrical tailoring also plays with the idea of having an “off day” when things aren’t going according to plan. In “Blue Collar” Abloh uses the phrase as a way to explore the potential of blue-collared shirts and jackets while mixing in signifiers of working-class jobs such as logos of mail carriers and construction workers.

Abloh also includes fine art references in his fashion designs, from incorporating a Caravaggio painting in his early Pyrex Vision line, to using a reproduction of a Surrealist painting by Giorgio de Chirico on a dress, to referencing the Italian modernist artist Lucio Fontana, known for slashing his canvases, with roughly cut patches affixed to overcoats and scraps of fabric attached to bags. Abloh is inspired by people from popular culture such as Princess Diana, and enlists artists such as Jenny Holzer, who created video projections of poems about the plight of refugees that scrolled across a screen as one show’s backdrop. Abloh’s designs incorporated materials from emergency and rescue professions.

Abloh’s attraction to music has led him to professionally DJ at prestigious venues and festivals around the world, such as Lollapalooza and Coachella. His work is branded by a comprehensive visual language that draws on his love of graphic design and his experience working as musician Kanye West’s creative director for over a decade. Working for West’s firm DONDA, Abloh oversaw the creation of concert merchandise, album packaging, and stage designs, for West and other artists.

Highlights from this section include a large-scale version of the album art for Kanye West’s Grammy-nominated sixth album, Yeezus (2013). The design by Abloh reduced the packaging to only the necessary elements, such as the single red sticker that kept the CD’s jewel box closed and displayed the album’s name. In another work, One-of-a-kind DJM and CDJ turntable, (2018) Abloh worked with audio company Pioneer to make a transparent version of the turntables he favors when deejaying, which reveals all the internal parts that make up this sophisticated device. There is also a set of gold, diamond-encrusted accessories by Jacob the Jeweler that mimic the jewelry worn by hip-hop personalities.

Abloh compares his design activity to prototyping, constantly testing new ideas. The sculpture, Pink Panther: Scales of Justice (2019) represents one of these ideas using insulation foam to fashion a modern sculpture reminiscent of those by the artist Alexander Calder. Foam is a material regularly used in architecture and design offices when rehearsing new concepts, and for Abloh it also recalls the teenage practice of salvaging construction materials to make skateboard ramps and other structures.

This section explores Abloh’s approach to fashion and art through the lens of black cultural experience. The launch of the Off-White brand appealed to a diverse new generation of consumers with collections that celebrate black artists, athletes, and musicians. In 2018, Abloh assumed the position of artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, becoming one of the very few black designers to helm a major Parisian fashion house. He now uses his high-profile platform to forge a more inclusive vision for high fashion. Highlights include Abloh’s collaboration with filmmaker Arthur Jafa in the work Wakanda Never (2018). The text on the back of the jacket is a play on the black nationalist rallying cry “Wakanda forever” from the 2018 film Black Panther—with a twist that implies that a black utopia is an impossibility. Also included are Abloh’s designs for the Nike “Queen” Dress for tennis star Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open, and an Off-White dress for Beyoncé for her 2018 Vogue cover photo shoot. The dress combines a traditional flowing silhouette with Abloh’s signature black-and-white diagonal stripes. A neon sign, “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place,” (2015/19) originally welcomed attendees to the Off-White Fall/Winter 2016 runway show, referencing a line from the film Pretty Woman (1990) where a woman is dismissed by a snobbish saleswoman at a high-end clothing store.

Abloh’s design practice—covering architecture, furniture, painting, sculpture, and shoe design—embraces many of the techniques used by modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: transparent materials, emphasis on function, and attention to detail. Abloh’s focus on process and ideas allows him to question the use of images, structures, and materials in new ways, using techniques such as appropriation and wordplay. Abloh’s Color Gradient Chair (2018) embodies transparency, the key principle of his design philosophy. The open frame is inspired by the aesthetics of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture, with rational distribution of weight and the exposure of the gridded structure in plain sight.

A literal pile of furniture prototypes displays Abloh’s experiments in making modifications to familiar designs to give them new life. Abloh also reinterprets the idea of luggage personalization in his collaboration with luggage brand Rimowa. As a conceptual alternative to tags, stickers, and monogrammed initials on luggage, he created a transparent suitcase so that the owner’s belongings are on display as a statement of identity. In Abloh’s words, “You become a performance art piece just by using the thing.”

Prototypes for rugs designed for IKEA in 2018 are also featured, which reflect his interest in wordplay and provoking viewers to question what they are seeing. Nike asked Abloh to redesign ten of the company’s most famous shoe styles. Abloh used collaged elements, transparent materials, self-referential labels, tabs, and zip-ties to emphasize the shoes’ construction, inviting people to take a second look at these iconic sneakers. The display of shoes also features unreleased designs from subsequent Off-White × Nike collaborations in various stages of prototyping.

“advertise here” (2018) plays on available billboards that encourage interested parties to call and inquire about leasing the sign. Reimagining that billboard, Abloh provides a phone number that, when called, lets visitors hear a voicemail he recorded to explain one of his Off-White collections.

This final section presents recent works critiquing the influence of advertising, and how the phrase “The End” is only a figure of speech. In “Keep All,” (2019) Abloh re-imagines several of Louis Vuitton’s signature products, including the classic Keepall bag that was originally released in 1930. His new version adds heavy ceramic chain links, which have appeared across Abloh’s clothing and accessory designs. The chain refers back to Abloh’s origins in streetwear while offering a sly commentary on the wearer’s enslavement to branded luxury. A reproduction of a Newport cigarette billboard addresses the insidious power of advertising, offering unrealistic fantasies of the good life. “Newport ads are a Chicago thing I grew up with—black people looking happy and joyful, but they’re living in circumstances that don't look like the adverts,” said Abloh.

For me, “Figures of Speech” is an art exhibition rooted in advertising and “the projected image.” Any time an idea takes shape on a particular surface—a photo print, a screen, a billboard, or canvas—it becomes real. This exhibition demonstrates how I wrestle with this concept freed from any one medium, looking for personal and specific solutions. This twenty-year survey shows how I am constantly looking for a way to transform myself from consumer to producer, navigating a path between “Tourist” and “Purist,” between the literal and the figurative.—Virgil Abloh

The audio experience for Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” features commentary from Virgil Abloh and a multidisciplinary cast of his collaborators, along with an introduction by MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling. Tremaine Emory and Acyde, the founders of London-based streetwear/hip-hop collective No Vacancy Inn, provide commentary on the exhibition galleries featuring Abloh’s early work and music, respectively. Fashion critic and Vogue writer Amy Verner reflects on Virgil’s legacy in the fashion world. The Swiss curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, Hans Ulrich Obrist, shares insight into Abloh’s design and visual artworks. Contemporary filmmaker and videographer Arthur Jafa, best known for his filmic tour de force, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death in the MCA’s Prisoner of Love exhibition, discusses the role of the ‘black gaze’ in Abloh’s work and artistic process. Visitors touring the exhibition can access the audio experience on their smart phones.

As an extension of the exhibition, Virgil Abloh has created a series of public art projects that reach outside the museum exhibition space. The front facade of the museum has been adorned with the tongue-in-cheek phrase “CITY HALL” in ten-foot-tall white letters across the windows. The front plaza has a 50-foot-tall flagpole with a large flag that reads, “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” Through this phrase, Abloh wants to empower visitors to think for themselves as they enter the MCA.

Around the city, there are graphic artworks created by Virgil Abloh using photographs by renowned photographer Juergen Teller. The public will be able to view these on the CTA Red Line train cars as well as on a large billboard on Lake Street in downtown Chicago.

When visitors enter into the museum’s fourth-floor lobby, Abloh has created a monumental “Culture Wall” mural together with Samir Bantal. The graphic announces the title of the exhibition and serves as a roadmap to understanding Abloh’s influences starting from his adolescence. Its subjects range from music to architecture, and from the unfamiliar to the everyday. This breadth of influences captures the balance Abloh sees in himself as being both a “tourist” or enthusiastic novice, and a “purist” or expert insider.

A special Virgil Abloh pop-up store which Abloh named “Church & State” is another extension of the exhibition, and is located on the fourth floor of the museum. Abloh and his team provided the concept and design of the store, which features chromed stainless steel finishes on the shelving and retractable accordion doors, with industrial PVC plastic curtains for the fitting room, and colored plastic palettes serving as fixtures. The walls of the store are covered with large graphics of photographs related to the exhibition taken by German fashion photographer Juergen Teller.

The store features a variety of products related to Virgil Abloh, many created exclusively for the MCA, including limited edition collections and a retrospective of best-selling Off-White™ items. Collaborators on the limited edition collections include influential designers such as Simon Brown, Futura, Brendan Fowler, Cali Thornhill DeWitt, Some Ware, and Tom Sachs, among others.

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