You enter the Rick Owens exhibition at the Triennale di Milano through a tall notch sliced from a white wall angled like a ziggurat. Within, a darkened antechamber has a backstage vibe. Two columns of spotlights mounted on a scaffolding arch face off, creating a wall of light beams through which you cross, as if passing through a final check before stepping out onto the runway.
“Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman” is the first retrospective in Mr. Owens’s 23-year fashion career. The runway atmosphere is not coincidental, Mr. Owens said. On the one hand, the introspection that goes into a self-curated retrospective dictates that “this is kind of a portentous, significant moment.” On the other: “It’s also another show, and I do four shows a year. If I didn’t, something like this would be a lot more intense, probably. It’s kind of a show of all my shows.”
Icy-crisp winter daylight courses through high windows in the exhibition proper, which opens with a group of white-clad mannequins on raised platforms. Their dress is Rick Owens classical — draped, twisted and pleated Grecian robes queered with horsehair, beaten lambskin and outsize bugle beads. The atmosphere is cyber-temple: Madame Grès goes “Star Wars.” Undercutting this ethereal atmosphere is an ominous black globular form that bursts through the front wall and streams in serpentine coils through the 330-foot length of the Triennale’s horseshoe-shaped gallery.
This sculptural intrusion is, in part, a reference to Mr. Owens’s notorious pronouncement, made some 20 years ago, that he would “lay a black glittering turd on the white landscape of conformity.” Suspended from the ceiling by metal cables, the structure itself contains a witchy amalgam of concrete, crushed lilies, sand from Venice and wads of the designer’s own hair.
For 30 years, Mr. Owens has stored the shed hair from his brush. In itself it is, he said, another kind of created object. “My hair is naturally curly and white. I wanted Cher hair. I wanted Joe Dallesandro hair. I wanted Joe Dallesandro abs. I didn’t have any of that stuff, and I made it happen. I got a trainer, I took steroids, I went to the gym for years, I got the abs, I straightened the teeth, I straightened the hair with chemicals, I dyed it. It’s a self-invention. This is my drag. I made this.”
In the Milan sunlight, Mr. Owens’s hair has the improbable black sheen of laboratory carbon. Slim and tanned to the tips of his earlobes, he is bundled up against the cold in a high-neck cashmere sweater and podlike duvet coat. He chews gum and emits the delicious smell of Aesop face cream.
The coiling black structure was, the designer said, his first idea when the Triennale offered him this space, though he admits: “It’s so first degree” that his wife, Michèle Lamy, “thought it was really dumb to use it.” The snaking sculpture also reflects Mr. Owens’s current interest in monumental works of land art by Michael Heizer and Richard Long. (It’s a genre that’s “about leaving your mark, wrestling with the world, shaking your fist against the sky and saying ‘I’m going to control you,’” he said.) While it’s an unconventional inclusion in an exhibition of fashion and furniture design, the structure serves a number of interesting functions, breaking up the space, steering visitors and offering an earthy, abject counterpoint to such cherished qualities as beauty, elegance and refinement.
Mr. Owens returns often to the idea of equilibrium. It’s a theme he sees underscoring his life and work, in which he positions himself as a counterbalance to joyless and conservative tendencies. He fights hard against binaries and conventions, including those prevalent within his own industry.
“I think judging people on their appearance unfavorably is the kernel of intolerance and bigotry,” he said. If he can make “the strict rules about what people need to look like a bit more flexible, then that’s my role.” In the same breath, he admits that he is “as judgmental as anybody.
“I talk about people judging — I’m the worst. I know both sides of it, and I judge myself for judging.”
Mr. Owens, who was born in California, studied painting and sculpture at what is now Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles before pursuing a technical qualification in pattern-cutting and draping. The act of hand-making is, he assured me, still his day-to-day. An hourlong video, first presented at an exhibition of his furniture design at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2016, shows him creating a garment from scratch on a mannequin.
“I took the video just with my phone, and it ended up being one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done,” he said. “But that was just luck: You only drape something good one out of 50 times.”
From a creative perspective, he does not, he admits, work well with others: “I don’t have a team of designers,” he said. “I don’t want to have a debate, I don’t want to have a conversation. I’m not good at sharing. I want other people to feel comfortable so I just automatically get polite. I get passive. As a group, that would never work creatively — it can only be a complete dictatorship.”
The Triennale, built in 1933, is an excellent vessel for Mr. Owens’s designs. He’s a big fan of pre-code Hollywood epics and describes, excitedly, both the Art Deco elegance and “lurid fun” of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1932 film, “The Sign of the Cross,” highlights of which include “virgins being eaten by crocodiles” and “a sequence of giant women fighting African pygmies, which is so deliciously politically incorrect.”
There’s more “lurid fun” in a set of vitrines loaded with show invitations, catalogs and ephemera. These include gauntlets apparently stitched from shed snakeskin, and a hairy, ring-shaped, “goat eye” sex accessory presented in a wallet of bleached toad skin. There is, he said, no sequence to it: “It’s all mixed together, just a composition of how I would want to see somebody’s life laid out. I want to see an ikebana flower arrangement. I don’t want a textbook.”
Despite my repeated requests, Mr. Owens never detailed the themes, structure or narrative of “Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman” for me. It was only much later that I realized I had been asking the wrong question, using the wrong language. These conventions of exhibition-making are just that — conventions — and as such they fall outside of Mr. Owens’s native vocabulary. Instead, the show seems to be structured according to … well, gut instinct.
He worries a little about how his excremental sculpture will be read. “People are so sensitive now,” he said. “A lot of times, people say the things that I do are transgressive or shocking, and I think, “Doesn’t this generation remember Dadaism or Surrealism or Cubism?’”
Mr. Owens said that he habitually rejects the idea that fashion might be art. In this exhibition of garments that radically reconfigure the human body, footwear that accepts no logic of what a shoe might be and uncozy furniture, Dadaism does seem an apt point of reference. Writing in a 1916 manifesto, the artist and poet Tristan Tzara proclaimed that “Dada is life with neither bedroom slippers nor parallels.” One could say much the same for the vision of life delivered by Rick Owens.
“Rick Owens Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman,” Triennale di Milano, Dec. 15, 2017 — March 25, 2018
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