“Helmut Lang” 8 January – 21 February 2015 Sperone Westwater, New York
It is partly a myth and party true that when the New York studio of iconic fashion designer Helmut Lang burned down he took what remained of his archive, “Séance de Travail”, and shredded it to pieces in an industrial shredder, like a phoenix rising from the ashes he chewed up his past commercial life as a designer only to be reborn into renewed life as an artist. Full of personal history he stated it contains “elements with irreplaceable presence and scars” stating it is “a circumstantial effort in favor of new creative endeavors”. He has been practicing as an artist ever since he left his namesake brand in 2005, with his first solo exhibition in Hanover Germany in 2008.
Actually, Lang was originally trained as an artist in his home city of Viennia who extended his practice into fashion, free from the dogma of fashion school he broke rules and created fashion innovations beyond anything his peers could imagine. He transmogrified the primary structures of minimalist sculpture from the 60’s-70’s into fashion with very sharp lines and pared down silhouettes at the height of deeply intellectual and conceptually based fashion in the 1980’s, only to once again transform the biomorphic forms to runway models into the post-minimalist sculpture of his first New York gallery show at Sperone Westwater. A sculptural installation featuring large-scale ten to twelve foot sculptures of industrial columnar totems leaning stiff against the walls whose architectural dependency contrasts the grouping of mid-sized sculptures of humanistic scale free standing in the center. In anthropomorphic rows, as if they were strutting down the runway in rank and file, the materially intensive works move and dance together.
Made of a heterogeneous mix of what was left in Lang’s studio an inventory including, furs, skins, fabrics, hangers, eyeglasses, paper, plastic, zippers, rubber and durst and ash all shredded nearly 6,000 pieces of clothing into a pulp suspended in pure pigment and resin. Metal ovals, perhaps meant as sample fabric like chain-mail that he had left over in the studio, the size and shape of military dog tags pervade the surfaces like scales or teeth, in other moments zippers carve out pockets. With its many metaphors and ghosts, he consolidates the material existence of his past life shoving it into metal casting tubes nearly bursting at the surface and leaves it outside to harden over 24 hours after which he opens the tubes to reveal resulting viscerally formed columns. One wall of lined up “personages” like an orchard of slim sapling birch trees rich primal earth tones, a spectrum from yellow ochre through burnt sienna bookended by deep charred bone blacks faces off with a wall of unworldly synthetic cadmium red radiating electric vibrancy. Lang intuitively arranges the elements with sensitivity, the rough strewn surfaces full of ambiguity and multiple interpretations but are latent with eroticism. The vibrant red harks back to the blood and entrails used by the great Viennese Expressionist, which he must have seen as a student in Austria, artist who emerged after world war two and transformed abstract expressionist painting into performance art of rituals—many of which included animal sacrifice. Here Lang poetically orchestrates each formal concern, as tender and sensual as it is ritualistic, informed by years of arranging tall thin models. They are a nod to the early totems of his close friends and inspiration Louise Borgieous. They take up space in the gallery like the neon friezes of Jenny Holzer leaning against the wall, another artist he collaborated with as a designer. In the center of the room are stacked piles of pulp from floor to ceiling form arches that he chain saws open to reveal the layers inside.
Painstakingly modeled the process-based sculptures also remove the artist’s hand and allow the materials to speak for themselves. Similarly in another body of work, layered relief sculptures of tightly bound flattered cardboard boxes wound around with tape hang on the walls. He gives the surfaces a glaze of monochrome black, white or metallic with a perfect glossy finish that in nearly fetishsized. -Justin Polera