“It started with a T-shirt.”
That’s how Kevin Tucker, chief curator at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, described the humble beginnings of artist and oracle Virgil Abloh at the media preview of “Figures of Speech,” the latest collection of work from 39-year-old Abloh. A framed Supreme T-shirt took pride of place in the main exhibition room as one of Virgil’s first collaborations with a major fashion brand and mainstream music artist. However, the expanse of digital media and experimental-looking textiles surrounding the T-shirt made it hard to stay focused on any one installation for long.
“Figures of Speech” brought to mind a futuristic Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, full of unconventional modes of expression, from textiles to sculpture to sneakers. There’s a surprise around every corner, but the exhibit remains cohesive, and Abloh’s methodology for creating puts his final products into perspective; in a short video at the beginning of the exhibit, he describes himself as constantly trying to channel his 17-year-old self through his creations. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Abloh said:
Abloh loosely organizes his work into sections of music, fashion, and sculpture. Yet these sections blend together due to Abloh’s tendency to combine several mediums when constructing a piece. The result is a thrilling journey through Abloh’s creative mind, spanning the restlessness and excitement of his youth to his current identity as a creator. “Abloh’s designs reflect his keen perceptiveness of the world around him and his appreciation for an understanding of the pulse of popular culture in various media,” said Tucker.
The Chicago native underscores the power of advertising in his artwork, featuring brand names and parodying marketing techniques throughout the exhibit — but never in the same way twice. An installation featuring four statues in various poses underneath a glowing yellow neon sign reading “You’re Obviously In The Wrong Place” stands in the middle of the room, directly adjacent to a baby blue ladder lying horizontal on the floor. A gigantic pendulum constructed from bright pink wall insulation looms in the corner, inscribed with the pink panther smirking and holding a sign reading “Ozone Depletion.” This satire of advertising is pervasive throughout the exhibit, meant to remind visitors that the perception of reality is tangential and subjective.
Referring to his own creations as “quote-unquote art,” the Kanye West collaborative partner prioritizes keeping his audience on their toes and questioning the limits of the creative process. Installments in “Figures of Speech” include sculpted vessels of clay painted blue, a formal gown designed by Abloh for Beyonce Knowles-Carter, and a vast cityscape model of Chicago sculpted from styrofoam. Abloh also included a framed Cease and Desist letter that he received from the United Nations in 2018, urging him to immediately stop using the UN’s emblem on his DJ flyers and templates. Abloh initially chose the emblem to personify the international, aspirational democracy he channels through his art, and subsequently transformed the letter from the UN into a demonstrative art piece showcasing the proclivity human beings have for division, tribalism, and separation.
Expressing himself through clothing design, audio, video, and furniture design isn’t enough for Abloh. In an intimate short video portion of the exhibit, Abloh provided insight on the sincere intent for this exhibit to inspire the next generation of creators and artists to “question everything.” Abloh continues this concept with his floor rugs designed for IKEA where he aims to say “two opposing things at once” with minimalist designs, such as a forest green rug inscribed with text reading “WET GRASS,” a lengthy vertical rug in the shape and style of a customer receipt from IKEA, and a bright violet rug reading “DON’T STEP HERE.”
Abloh’s exhibit melds elegantly with the city of Atlanta’s cultural history of artistic innovation and stands as a testament of the cities desire for societal progression. As Rand Suffolk, director of the High Museum of Art said: “Atlanta’s cultural community personifies style, trend-setting, and pushing the limits of traditional design. We know Abloh’s work will resonate with our audiences, just as it has been celebrated worldwide.”
He expands these limits in a manner that taps into the visitor’s psyche, challenging traditional viewpoints of community and human connection that calls people in rather than pushing them out. The passion that Abloh has for creative expression as a means of connection is vibrantly and unapologetically reflected in his work. Visitors leave the exhibit feeling challenged, inspired, and aware of one’s ability to disrupt the status quo. Abloh manages to convey that we, the human race, are infinitesimally capable of greatness.
“Figures of Speech” will open to the public on November 12th until March 8th 2020. Visit the High Museum of Art website for more information regarding the exhibit.
-Jack Stewart & Abby Palazzo