Visual Arts Review: Virgil Abloh brings the outdoors into the ICA

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By Chloe Pingeon

“Figures of Speech” is a kind of aesthetic/political injection: its messages are conveyed through pieces that seamlessly blend a number of genres, including sculpture, music, graphic design and film.

Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech at ICA, Boston, MA, through September 26.

Virgil Abloh: “Figures of speech.” ”Photo: Courtesy of ICA.

Throughout his career, Virgil Abloh never confined his work to one medium or one space. He is an architect, DJ, fashion designer, activist and visual artist. Above all, it’s about resisting labels – Abloh seamlessly merges mediums and practices. The power of Figures of speech reflects this agile dedication to fluidity.

Divided into six rooms, with names such as ‘music’, ‘design’ and ‘dark gaze’, the installation is bifurcated: it looks inward, reflecting Abloh’s past and process, and looks outward. outside, criticizing capitalist and racist traditions and institutions. Abloh is best known as the founder of his brand Off-White and as artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. But the worries of the pictures in Figures of speech extend well beyond fashion, embracing issues raised by culture, music and politics. What runs through it all is a subtly cynical (bordering on sarcastic) sense of humor. At the opening of the exhibit last week, Abloh told the crowd that “fashion is like the vaccine. It goes in the vein of culture. Figures of speech is also a kind of aesthetic/political injection: its messages of dissidence are conveyed through pieces that harmoniously blend several genres, including sculpture, music, graphic design and cinema.

That’s not to say his mix of genres is static. Abloh believes in the fluidity of art and the artist. In his latest Louis Vuitton show, Abloh asked models to wear paintings under their arms to emphasize that fashion should not be isolated from fine arts. He also wants to bring the street into art. Gallery walls are traditionally reserved for finished products and polished masterpieces. But Abloh is keen to meet the challenges of the present with flexibility. He put unfinished works in the thick blue book that accompanies the show. In his ICA speech, he described the volume as a handbook for young creatives rather than a traditional catalog, which he called “a stake in the ground”.

Abloh has aimed to open doors for young black artists since the beginning of his career. Without surprise, Figures of speech does not hide its cultural and political intention; it serves as a commentary on social conditions, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter. For example, the room titled “Black Gaze” has a neon yellow sign that reads “YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY IN THE WRONG PLACE”. It is placed against a black wall and suspended above sculptures dressed in Abloh’s designs. The scene is a seriocomic nod to the worlds of high fashion and art – which have historically banned black voices. (In his speech, Abloh mentioned that he has sometimes been stopped by security when trying to enter his own stores, likely because of the color of his skin.) Abloh’s art is to make us aware of the roadblocks created by society: the obstacles for him as an artist and designer and for young black artists today. The first room of the installation is entitled “early works”. A rug on the floor of this room cites the first bit of negative press Abloh received for his debut label, Pyrex Vision. During his speech at the ICA, Abloh noted how this criticism threw him at the time – but then he smiled and added that “now people walk on a carpet”. Beyond the carpet hangs a black and yellow painted metal and vinyl sign titled “BARRIER TO ENTRY” which visitors must walk under to enter the rest of the installation. “ATTENTION” reads another sign, “YOUR PERCEPTIONS”.

Virgil Abloh: “Figures of speech.” Photo: Courtesy of ICA.

Of course, there’s a contradiction in Abloh’s dedication to inclusivity. He wants to open the doors of the industry to everyone, but the artist/designer sells $2,500 jackets and $500 sweatshirts in the ICA gift shop. But you get the sense that Abloh doesn’t mind the juxtaposition – he thinks the culture will grow beyond it. For example, in-person events disappeared during the pandemic and inspired the rise of fashion film. Abloh said he approves of the fashion film because it strips away the exclusivity that was integral to the traditional fashion event. He makes art accessible to everyone. In the “mode” section of the installation, Abloh placed a film, Particular contrast, perfect light. (This is the Louis Vuitton Menswear FW21 show and can be viewed for free online.) Visitors experience a relatively new genre: a fashion show fashioned to tell a visual story that ventures beyond conventional runways. And there are no exclusive tickets, apart from the necessary technology. Onscreen, male models intentionally move, often in slow motion, through a landscape that begins in ice and snow before morphing into a cavernous room strewn with blocks of green marble. The story features activist, poet and model Kai Isiah Jamal, the first black trans model to walk for Louis Vuitton.

For Abloh, accessibility rather than price is the point. His work is not designed to sit – finished and stagnant – on elite stages or in privileged galleries or major institutions. Figures of speech is rooted in Abloh’s desire to keep pace with the furious movement of the world around us and to make art that speaks to this change accessible to all. “The word contemporary brings us to what is happening now,” Abloh proclaimed to the ICA. “It’s quite an effort to make the inside look like the outside.”


Chloe Penguin is a rising senior at Boston College studying film and journalism. She wrote regularly for the articles and arts section of Boston College’s independent student newspaper. Heightsand also wrote for the culture section of Lithium charger. She is currently a creative development intern at Foundation Films.

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