Tourist or purist?
Those words, in bold black and electric green, are emblazoned at the entrance to the new “Figures of Speech” exhibit at the ICA. The phrase is designer Virgil Abloh’s shorthand way of describing two types of people on the planet.
A “purist,” to Abloh’s thinking, is someone who has so much knowledge they erect tall walls around art.
“There is a feeling like you don't get it, or you don't belong,” he said during a press preview of the Boston run of the show. “That’s kind of what makes the wall stand taller.”
Purists want to keep art practices and ideas from bleeding messily into each other and are eager to hand out pass/fail grades on what exactly constitutes “art.”
“Tourists,” on the other hand, may not adhere to art world dictates but are ripe for exploration and experimentation. A little mess and bleeding are welcomed.
And it’s in that latter category that Abloh’s 20-year retrospective, on view at the ICA through Sept. 26, firmly resides. His work, he said, “exists to surf on this hydroplane of pop culture, to sort of spread ideas and empower people. That’s the metric.”
An architect by training, Abloh has scaled the walls of high fashion, design and music. At 40, he is artistic director in the elite and rarified offices of the menswear division at Louis Vuitton. He also runs Off-White, his own Milan-based high-priced luxury streetwear clothing brand whose name cleverly riffs on his standing as a black man in a predominantly white fashion world.
He has teamed up with brands like IKEA and Nike to create ironic, subversive limited-edition designs for shopping bags, chairs and sneakers, and created sculpture and multimedia installations for art museums. He’s had a hand in designing album covers and was, at one time, art director for Kanye West’s Donda Academy. He’s also designed for other musicians, including covers for the late rapper Pop Smoke, Jay-Z, Lil Uzi Vert and Westside Gunn. And when he’s not creating album covers for others, he’s DJing — everywhere from the Coachella Art and Music Festival in California to Ibiza and Las Vegas nightclubs. His far-reaching, wide-ranging career fuses art, commerce, advertising and celebrity culture, thus earning him comparisons to another artist who glibly traveled in this space, Andy Warhol.
By aspect, though, Abloh couldn’t be more of a contrast to the now deceased Warhol. The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Abloh grew up in Rockford, Illinois, immersed in skateboard and hip-hop culture. He first attended engineering school to please his parents, but ultimately got a graduate degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Not satisfied to confine himself to the narrow world of architecture, he started applying his architect’s eye to graphic design and fashion.
“I'm sort of allergic to discipline,” he said.
In fact, Abloh has made a career of being studiedly “undisciplined,” mixing, matching and blending across genres for people like himself.
For Abloh, pop culture is the perfect vehicle for delving into complicated issues surrounding race, class and gender. Nothing is to be taken for granted, which we quickly understand to be Abloh’s credo as soon as we enter the ICA where we are confronted with a large flag embossed with the phrase, in quotes, “Question Everything.”
And Abloh does, combing through and combining a world of images, impressions and ideas as effortlessly as a Silicon Valley search engine. Melding widely disparate sources, including classical architecture, skateboarding ramps, lines from Hollywood movies and the graffiti you see on that building across the street, “Figures of Speech” is a revealing mashup infused with irony, whimsy and gravity, all at once.
Right away we encounter “A Team With No Sport” (2012), a video Abloh made to promote his Pyrex Vision brand. In the video, youth wear sweatshirts and T-shirts that Abloh has printed with the words “Pyrex 23.” The kids wearing them are Black and brown. Pyrex refers to the glassware used in home drug labs and 23 refers to Abloh’s idol basketball player Michael Jordan (who wore number 23). The reference is oblique and might be a sarcastic way of addressing the notion that in some people’s eyes, the only two ways out of the ghetto for Black kids is by selling drugs or playing basketball.
In that same gallery we see “Frontin’” (2021), created for this show, which features a half-pipe skating ramp littered with red plastic beer cups and tagged with the words “CloneS” and “international business machines.” Behind the skate ramp hangs “False Façade” (2016-2019), a drape printed with a pillared classical building suggesting the heights of Western culture. It is a juxtaposition of “high” and “low,” illustrative of Abloh’s blithe mélange of improbable influences.
“He's grazing on culture,” said ICA curator Ruth Erickson in an interview a few weeks before the press preview. She helped mount the Boston iteration of a show that was originally put together and shown by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “He's seeing what's out there. He's putting his finger on the pulse and he's putting them together as a kind of collision. And he's letting us do the reading.”
Another work created especially for the Boston show, “Fashion Wall,” is a massive 60-foot photo collage featuring a street scene in Accra, Ghana combined with photo cut-outs of models, all dressed in white, wearing Abloh fashions in a sort of archived timeline of his work. In a gallery dedicated to Abloh’s music, we see “In His Image (A Tribute to Yeezus)” (2019), a 60-inch acrylic sculpture of the minimal clear jewel box that Abloh designed for Kanye West’s 2013 album “Yeezus,” along with a silent two-minute video entitled “In Other Words” (2017) that Abloh sometimes uses as a backdrop to his DJ performances. The featured phrase on the video: “objects in mirror are closer than they may appear.” Make of it whatever you choose.
In a room entitled “The Black Gaze,” Abloh presents “As Impossible,” a folded ladder lying flat, fashioned out of blue foam. Although a ladder should be a way to climb, this ladder is so resolutely fragile it would crumble to pieces if put to use. Also in this gallery is Abloh’s “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place” (2017), a simple phrase writ in bright yellow neon on a black wall, taken from the film “Pretty Woman,” in which Julia Roberts’ streetwalking character is summarily ejected from a tony Beverly Hills boutique. The line will resonate with Black visitors, many of whom have themselves experienced being followed in stores by suspicious shopkeepers who assume they don’t belong.
In the exhibit’s final gallery dedicated to Abloh’s design, we see “Dorm Room” (2019), a piece incorporating designs Abloh has created for IKEA. The rugs are witty and ironic and one is actually a giant receipt for an IKEA rug. His “Toolbox” (2019-2020), appears to be a mutant Louis Vuitton suitcase crossed with a 1980s era boom box, and pays tribute to the many threads of Abloh’s career incorporating street culture, music and fashion.
The sheer diversity of objects on view, from fashion to furniture to DJ flyers, will make Abloh an easy target for the purists, who may sniff at the easy, glib abandon of Abloh’s borrowing and branding.
Abloh, though, has made it plain where he stands.
“My work isn't for the establishment,” he said. “It’s made so that a 14-year-old kid comes in here and sees something they relate to. And like the light bulb goes off in their head and they're like, I got it.”
Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” is on view at the ICA July 3-Sept. 26.