In 1769, Joe, a Virginia slave, ran away from his master, taking with him silk shirts and other fine clothes as he sought freedom. In her 2009 book Slaves to Fashion, excerpted in the free “Black Gossamer” catalog, Barnard College professor Monica L. Miller cites Joe’s action as an early example of what she calls black dandyism or “stylin’ out.”
Miller and this exhibition’s curator, Camille Morgan, suggest clothes have great symbolic power in the black community as signifiers of pride, memory and wealth. Morgan brings together eight artists who engage fashion from black perspectives. Their backgrounds and media vary widely: The contributors include Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, white Ohioan Krisanne Johnson and Marlon Griffith, an artist from Trinidad. The works on view range from Columbia College prof Myra Greene’s dreadlock- and curl-stuffed Hairy Pillows to Kalup Linzy’s Sampled and LeftOva / Fuck U (2009), a silly celeb-stuffed video advertising a Proenza Schouler collection.
Such breadth makes “Black Gossamer” an unusually engaging show—as does an impressive amount of eye candy. Pieces of the glitter encrusting Ebony G. Patterson’s installation Christ + Co. (Gonzales’s Christ Revised and Extended) (2010) migrate outside the gallery, spreading the flamboyant spirit of this tongue-in-cheek shrine to Jamaica’s dancehall scene. Through rhinestone-studded portrait tapestries, shelves of sneakers embellished past the point of wearability and an array of skin-bleaching products, Patterson offers a taste of dancehall’s pathologically macho yet gender-bending ways.
Griffith’s “Powder Box School Girl” photographs (pictured) allude to a working-class Caribbean tradition of powdering one’s skin to keep cool. The artist’s stencils include Louis Vuitton’s signature pattern. Like much of this exhibition, Griffith’s disturbing riff on branding reveals how subcultures tailor mainstream fashion to suit themselves.