by Kristen Wawruck
The phrase “art brut” – French for raw or crude – has been a fraught term ever since Jean Dubuffet used it to describe work made by institutionalized artists. Similarly freighted words that conflate marginalized populations include outsider art, visionary art and the almost-extinct, racially coded “primitive” art. Mode Brut, the title of the newly opened exhibition at the Museum of Craft and Design, extends this binary labeling as a tongue-in-cheek nod towards these past designations, with the subtitle “redefining fashion through accessibility” for today.
However, rawness is not what comes to mind when surveying the galleries. With its ready-to-wear ensembles and dressed-up mannequins lining the runways, the exhibition, organized by Cléa Massiani and Ariel Zaccheo, evokes a fashion show. The outfits were created by artists working with Creativity Explored (CE), the Mission District organization that has provided studio space and materials to hundreds of artists with developmental disabilities since 1983. Mode Brut offers a look at what happens when these artists are given a prompt — in this case, fashion and all that it can be.
The exhibition brims with clothing and accessories made in structured collaborations between CE artists and staff, local designers and collectives operating remotely over the last two years. Their output includes dresses, blouses, jackets, capes, pants, tote bags, aprons, belts, headbands, shoes, wheelchair embellishments and textiles – some of which challenge the notion that fashion should be confined to the body. The show’s panoply of styles, textures, unconventional materials, and forms underscores this point.
The looks are joyful, with an uninhibited use of color and contrasting patterns demonstrating the ways that more than 50 artists came together. The Community Quilt Knit Jacket (2021), created with SAORI Arts, another organization working with disabled artists, is a fine example. As the title suggests, the piece’s hand weaving is the product of many hands. A line made by the collective Bonanza and CE artists Kathy Wen, Conrad Guevara, Lindsay Tully, Lana Williams, Kevin Chu, and Joseph Omolayole also celebrates our return to community-based activities, seen in a video of their beachwear in action on the Alameda shoreline.
Bonanza is one of three local designers chosen by the show’s curators to work with CE artists; the other two are the designer and activist Ayana “Yanni” Brumfield and the design brand Tokyo Gamine, a project of the artist and designer Yuka Uehara. Like Bonanza, Uehara also looks to the natural world in her multimedia presentation, with oversized and sculptural gender-neutral robes hung in a circle. A speaker at the center of the installation plays a loop of airy flute music, while videos of the clothing on models in a forest line the walls in the five-channel digital video, Kizuna (2021). A robe embellished with Hung Kei Shiu’s patterned paintings on the fabric evokes water in its colors and lines; it hangs alongside other nature-themed garments made in collaboration with nine other CE artists.
Working with Joseph “JD” Green, Vincent Jackson and Gerald Wiggins, Brumfield created a line of nonbinary casual wear and more masculine-charged denim ensembles. They feature the artists’ figurative and text-based works painted directly onto the clothing. A call for awareness and tribute to victims of anti-Black-trans violence is a moving focus of their installation’s wall designs, in front of which hang two outfits that display transgender and nonbinary pride flag colors. Vincent Jackson’s geometric face paintings on shirts in Brumfield’s collection also stand out, as does the scrawling text-based work of John Patrick McKenzie on a blazer in the main gallery.
The conceptual and physical organization of this presentation often overshadows and obscures the individual artists’ works. Even if you were familiar with any of the CE artists, you’d have difficulty identifying their contributions. That is because many of the objects on view were created in an exquisite-corpse style, i.e., by artists taking turns working on swaths of fabric that were integrated into wearable forms by Victor Molina, a CE teaching artist. Other objects employ the artists’ creations as starting points; for example, a line drawing by Kathy Wen became a dayglo pattern sewn out in fabric scraps by Bonanza to make a vibrant gardening outfit. And while one of Wen’s drawings hangs opposite the gear it inspired, only the most astute visitor would connect the two. The absence of textual information is a gesture towards the show’s collective ethos, but it complicates authorship. While each room contains long lists of CE artists, I would have had difficulty discerning who did what without the image captions in the press packet.
Is this important? Not when the collaborations are undertaken with an eye toward collectivity or anonymity. But when CE artists’ contributions appear largely undifferentiated by the curators—even as the extended wall labels state collaborating designers’ intents otherwise—this merging becomes a problem. That, in turn, opens up the more significant question surrounding presentations by developmentally disabled artists: where does credit for a work of art accrue? To the artist or the institution? And does replicating fraught terms like “brut” or “outsider,” even when used with a wink (as happens with this exhibition), help elevate these artists or further segregate them as the artist/scholar Katherine Sherwood has suggested it does?
I ask these questions in response to the exhibition’s earnest aims towards expanding visibility for these artists. A display of fashion-inspired “CE Studio Artwork” captivates attention in a way that the main event does not. Paintings, drawings, and tapestries hang on their own terms on the back gallery’s walls with space for reflection. And it’s here — to borrow a phrase from the late curator Harald Szeemann — that these artists’ “individual mythologies” wield their greatest power.
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“Mode Brut” @ Museum of Craft and Design through January 23, 2022.
Cover image: Tokyo Gamine, a project of the artist and designer Yuka Uehara. Photo: Richard Van
Artists featured: Ian Adams, Zachary Adams, Antonio Benjamin, Alissa Bledsoe, Olivia Byers-Straus, Pablo Calderon, José Campos, Kevin Chu, Linda Davenport, Samedi Djeimguero, Katherine Finn-Gamino, Christina Marie Fong, Michelle Gonzales, Daniel Green, Joseph “JD” Green, Maribel Guzman, Camille Holvoet, Jesus Huezo, Vincent Jackson, Kaocrew “Yah” Kakabutra, Andrew Lee, Ade Lewis, Delia Liu, Steven Liu, Taneya Lovelace, Marcus McClure, James Miles, Miriam Munguia, James Nielsen, José Nuñez, Joseph Omolayole, Nubia Ortega, Musette Perkins, Thomas Pringle, Paul Pulizzano, Yolanda Ramirez, Corine Raper, Ethel Revita, Emma Reyes, Irene Rivas, Kevin Roach, Cheryle Rutledge, Yukari Sakura, Hung Kei Shiu, Ka Wai Shiu, Anne Slater, Amani Swalim, Kate Thompson, Kathy Wen, Rory White, Gerald Wiggins, Doris Yen. With Design Partners Tokyo Gamine, Bonanza, Ayana ‘Yanni’ Brumfield, and Victor Molina.
Photos: Henrik Kam except where noted.
About the author:
Kristen Wawruck is an arts worker, writer, and curator. Before moving to the Bay Area, she was the deputy director of the Swiss Institute in New York.