The words “Caution Your Perceptions” are painted on a yellow sign at the entry to the Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech exhibition at the High Museum. This is certainly an indicator of what’s to come from the artist, who is the artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton and has his own label, Off-White. The exhibition is like taking a walk through Abloh’s creative genius, including a mix of garments, video, music, rare sneakers, and works by his contemporaries. With each object, he ponders race, hip-hop, and the marketplace, all with a nod to his native Chicago. Figures of Speech is on view through March 8, 2020.
“Our hope is that this exhibition will be seen as a continuation of our efforts to broaden and expand our audiences by providing a diverse range of work—just as Virgil Abloh himself works across a range of media,” says Kevin Tucker, the High’s chief curator.
Before venturing into fashion design, Abloh studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. As his career in fashion bloomed, his background in architecture influenced his designs. You’ll find elements from Grecian architecture as well as Italian renaissance art on the graphic tees from first label Pyrex.
From Yeezy to Yeezus to Jesus
Abloh has had a long-standing friendship with fellow Chicago native, Kanye West. Blending high and low garments, West’s signature blazers and hoodies with jeans were styled by Abloh. In the “Music” section of the exhibition, an oversized version of the Yeezus album cover, which Abloh designed, is also on display.
The fabric of our lives
The complex relationship between black people and cotton is explored in each of the exhibition’s four sections. The cotton logo is painted white with a spotlight shining on it in “The Black Gaze” section. There is also a black flag embroidered with a cotton peace sign hanging over a prayer rug with a crown of cotton on it in the “Music” section. These pieces demonstrate Abloh’s hyperawareness that he is creating products to sell in the same marketplace that black people were once sold through.
As Louis Vuitton’s first black artistic director of menswear, part of Abloh’s mission with the brand is to include more images of black people in the advertisements. For his first campaign, he featured a black boy playing with vinyl blue and red duffle bags.
Nike asked Abloh to redesign 125 of their bestselling tennis shoes. On some, he includes plastic red tags that resemble those tied onto bodies at a morgue. This is not only an acknowledgement of the constant presence of death due to the murder rate in Chicago, but also to the stream of headlines about teens being robbed and killed over Nikes.
An awareness of the business of art is a through line in the exhibition. Abloh recognizes that his commercial success rests on building anticipation and marketing an illusion of exclusivity. At the end of the exhibition, this is punctuated by a deconstructed black Sunoco gas station sign with the prices in white LED lights. It contains a duality, since “gassed up” is a colloquial term for overstated hype.