NEW YORK — Whether fashion hitches its star to artists or vice versa, the two for the most part have a mutually beneficial relationship. Fashion companies supporting the arts hope the glamour and high-profile gloss of that world rubs off on their brands, while artists get financial support and exposure they might not receive otherwise.
Gucci helped underwrite Vanessa Beecroft’s 1998 “Show” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum where models wore bathing suits (or nothing at all) and Gucci stilettos. Hugo Boss offers a biennial $50,000 prize to an artist along with a show at the Guggenheim, and Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli set up the Fondazion Prada in Milan for ambitious art exhibits. To mark the opening of its flagship on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 57th Street last year, Montblanc asked artists such as Gary Hume and Sam Taylor-Wood to embellish shopping bag sculptures, which were on view at Rockefeller Center.
Other design houses such as Ferragamo and Hermès have opened galleries in or near their flagships. But there a question arises: Can a fashion brand really show edgy or controversial art when its first obligation is to the sensibilities of its customers?
“Sweet & Sour: A Fashionable Exhibition of Provocative Paradoxes” at the Salvatore Ferragamo Gallery at 655 Fifth Avenue, is an example of the quandary. The show has its share of footwear, fetishistic or otherwise. It also has beautiful paintings with disturbing undertones and works that deal with sensuality and oral pleasure.
The exhibition, which opened Tuesday and runs through June 11, invited six artists to explore the dichotomy between sweet and sour and other extremes while drawing inspiration from the luxury brand. It was organized by Blair Clarke, whose company, Voltz Clarke, works with a roster of international emerging artists.
However, one piece created for the “Sweet & Sour” will not be seen. Amy Jenkins’ “The Audrey Samsara,” a 20-minute DVD of the artist breastfeeding her baby in a setting that brings to mind an Old Master painting, was dropped from the show last Monday, the day of the premiere.
Jenkins said she was told that “the image of a baby suckling might be offensive to some customers.”
Ferragamo said the show was simply edited. “We’re trying to make one cohesive group show,” a spokeswoman said.
“There were several works from several artists that ultimately were not included, which is not at all unusual,” said Clarke. “The pieces in the show pop and this piece was much more serious. By no means is Ferragamo censoring art.”
Many of the works in the Ferragamo show have a tart edge. Christina Burch’s paintings of soft and dainty Japanese cherry blossoms upon closer inspection reveal the form of a human skull. Alessandra Exposito’s painting of a cupcake has the word “snob” scrawled across the top, and Shane Bradford’s toothbrush and wooden spoon drip with glossy swirls of yummy-looking but toxic paint.
Other artists in the show include Sandra Nydegger, who photographed a woman’s legs set in rough outdoor landscapes, and Natasha Law, who painted abstract strappy shoes on a long-legged kneeling woman in her trademark graphic linear style.
“At Her Majesty’s Request,” another piece by Jenkins is a chair with an LCD monitor embedded into its velvet cushion. On the monitor are a pair of lips that make slurping and kissing sounds that could be interpreted as “kiss my ass” or “sit down here for pleasure,” the artist said.
“I can’t think of anything more edgy than that,” said Clarke of the work, which remains in the show.
Many fashion companies said while they’re committed to art, they’re careful not to hang anything on the walls that might ruffle feathers.
Issey Miyake’s Miyake Design Studio Gallery in Tokyo, not far from the designer’s store, has exhibited Tokujin Yoshioka, whose work includes furniture, Won Kyung-Hwan’s “Altered Soil” about soil and the memories it holds, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
“Issey’s vision is to bring new young artists to the forefront,” said a spokeswoman for MDS. “We’re not looking for controversy. That’s not really an interest. Issey’s feeling is if it shocks or surprises you because you haven’t seen it before that’s great. We’re not looking to shock for a sensationalist purpose. We want to get people out of the habit of thinking in a set way.”
Agnes b. isn’t out to shock shoppers, either.
“We did a show with Ryan McGinley in our Los Angeles store in 2002 and we actually had a few complaints from customers while they were shopping,” said Chris Apple, special events manager for Agnes b. McGinley photographs his young downtown friends in various states of undress. “We took down anything controversial. That was maybe a little bit of censorship.”
Hermès Paris, which showcases art in a gallery at its Madison Avenue flagship, has shown the work of photographers Yves Guillot and Bruce Davidson and the luxury goods company runs art programs at its other stores throughout the world.
Robert Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermès USA, said Hermès is careful in its choice of artists. “There needs to be a synergy between the company and the artist and there needs to be a lot of communication in advance so everyone is moving in the same direction. Generally, the artists we’re working with fit well with the Hermès culture.”
Christian Strike, whose company, Iconoclast, curates a billboard in L.A. owned by Nike that is used for art, said Nike is relatively hands-off, but ultimately approves all the art choices.
“Artists going to work with a corporate partner in this type of environment may expect this,” Strike said. “The companies need to learn about the artists and realize that they’re not experts per se, but artists have to come to grips with the fact that their work is being shown in a commercial space.”
— Sharon Edelson