I find myself wondering about contemporary art sometimes. Not so often, but every once in a while a little old-fashioned voice pops into my head–especially when I’m looking at a video installation or a conceptual piece–and suggests I could pull off something similar, bury it under enough pseudo-theory about the nature of space/blankness, and call it groundbreaking. It’s a bullshit idea, of course: just the same kind of conservative ‘verification process’ that wanted to be sure Picasso could paint detailed, measured, classical scenes before accepting the artistic merit of his more innovative work.
My silly ideas are sent even further down the river when contemporary artists are given the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in a different medium, especially a traditional one with well-established boundaries. Ubiquitous American retailer The Gap has gone and done just that, commissioning 13 former winners of the Whitney Biennial to design a range of limited edition t-shirts.
H&M has been doing a similar thing for a while now, pulling in top fashion designers and having them create low-cost/high-fashion lines for the store, but Gap’s project is different–each designer isn’t from the fashion world, but actually a contemporary artist for whom clothes aren’t the norm.
Although most of the shirts seem to be sold out by now, they offer us a great look at the kind of art world genre-hopping we don’t normally see. While some artists seem born for at least some kind of t-shirt design (think the visual blasts and surface-is-everything aesthetic of Jeff Koons), others give me pause, or set me wondering how they can possibly translate any of their major themes to a t-shirt. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exploration of the ‘social role of the artist’ works great in a gallery, but splashed across your chest?
Flipping through the New Yorker recently and seeing the individual ads for each shirt, I was really taken aback by how successfully Gap and the artists have pulled this off. Mixing high concept art with a whitebread American clothes shop shouldn’t have worked, but it did. For a few weeks in May, it was possible to hit any big mall in any suburb in America and get a $30 t-shirt that would normally be sold in a select few Paris/NYC/London shops for ten times the price.
Share your thoughts on the shirts–have you seen better stuff on Threadless, or has each artist’s talent been successfully transposed? Leave your comments!