Fashion, Design, Art and Music Converge

Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech” exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art is a representation of all the worlds Abloh exists in – fashion, music and art.

Abloh, a Chicagoan who rose to fame with his Off-White clothing line and work with Kanye West, is now the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection.

Abloh attended University of Wisconsin-Madison and received a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering there. He also received a Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

In 2012, Abloh began creating graphic t-shirts. He eventually would start his own line, Pyrex Vision. It featured shirts with “Pyrex,” “23” – a nod to Michael Jordan’s number, as well as images of paintings by Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio.

In 2013, Abloh launched the Off-White clothing brand. It connected architectural and urban design elements. And it featured the black-and-white diagonal stripes that became the brand’s signature.

In addition to his art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is a Louis Vuitton pop-up men’s store, located at 1100 W. Randolph. The pop-up shop will feature Abloh’s second menswear collection, FW19, for the fashion house. It will continue through Sunday, July 7.

Michael Darling, the James W. Alsdorf chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago,  talked about Abloh’s evolution and how it manifests in the exhibit.

“The early environment is ever present in Virgil’s work,” he said. “Architectural scale is ever present in the exhibition.”

Among the pieces are sculptural renditions and recreations. “This amazing new sculpture, a gigantic billboard, a black billboard that looks as if it’s crashing though the ceiling, right into the space,” Darling said. “We’ve recreated a backdrop from a fashion show that looks like a neoclassical façade … to create a disjunctive sense of scale and a different type of architecture that contrasts with our white cubed gallery upstairs.”

There is a sculptural rendition of the “Yeezus” album cover Abloh created. “His work when he was the creative director for DONDA, Kanye West’s creative firm, absolutely paved the way for the work he’s done since going out on his own in 2012,” Darling said.

Darling said Abloh’s work exemplifies a really tight graphic design identity.

“Throughout, you’ll really sense Virgil’s sense of graphic design and an unerring kind of sophistication to his graphic design approach,” he said.

There also are posters of flyers Abloh creates for his deejay sets, which he only posts on Instagram.

In one room, there are sculptures in various poses and a neon sign that reads, “You’re obviously in the wrong place.” It’s called “Black Gaze,” and Darling said it shows the political undercurrent, not just of this show, but in so much of Abloh’s work.

“Seeing through an autobiographical lens, this almost impossible journey of a black kid from suburban Rockford, Ill., to take over one of the major fashion houses in Europe,” he said. “It is a commentary of Virgil as an interloper into the predominantly white industry that he’s been able to infiltrate.”

Abloh said he had been working on the show for almost three years. And, there are similarities between his work and the way the city intersects and converges. “The grid system of the city itself, the way Chicago is set up with some pretty stark markers: South Side, West Side, North Side … Everything sort of connects in the center here, just where we’re at. It’s basically the middle,” he said.

Abloh said he and a collective of artists would meet in the center. He said the show signifies the journey he is on as a creator. “That show upstairs on one hand is a bunch of stuff … on a level, that it is art, it is a tri-section of understanding what advertising means,” he said. “It’s me unpacking all of these advertisements.”

Abloh said he had preconceived notions of what a designer was. He said the exhibit shows his transition of being a consumer on Michigan Avenue to being a creator.

“I thought an artist with a capital A, architect with a capital A looked like what I projected they looked like,” he said. “I didn’t look like that, so I was sort of content with being a consumer.”

Abloh said he hoped the show would foster something new and open the door to a wider, contemporary audience.

“Places like a museum, I thought was a safe haven to sort of speak about the obvious that me as a male, as a black man from Chicago … just to sort of vent and voice the sort of inherent boxes we sort of place ourselves,” he said.

The exhibit will be on display through Sunday, Sept. 22. From MCA, it will be featured at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, from Nov. 9-March 8; ICA Boston from July 2020 to Sept. 2020; and Brooklyn Museum, from Winter 2020 to Spring 2021.

For more information, visit www.mcachicago.org. For more information about the Louis Vuitton men’s collection pop-up, visit tinyurl.com/y4gpmkf3.

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