“Figures of Speech” Probes Junction of Art and Design

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago


In his first museum exhibition, "Figures of Speech," Virgil Abloh has taken over the MCA with a bold display of work at the intersection of art and design. Intersectionality is a huge topic as we settle into the 21st century. The rigid boundaries that are used to classify abstract concepts are being chiseled away. Abloh's playful yet provocative work contributes to that project.

“Figures of Speech” uses the model of language to interrogate the fixity of definitions. Abloh recognizes that, while a word or phrase can have a surface meaning, it can also mean several different things depending on the context. The meanings of some words have grown to be both figurative and precise. Abloh is leaning into this ambiguity by taking the position of both an artistic “purist” and a “tourist.” This allows viewers to approach the work from both sides of the spectrum of art appreciation and be confronted with that position as it shifts throughout the exhibition.

As a fashion designer and current artistic director of Louis Vuitton, Abloh has been instrumental in the crossover of streetwear and high fashion. His designs are political, confrontational, exuberant, and unapologetically self-promoting. He embraces the hype as well as the hate. A rug is printed with a criticism of his first brand, Pyrex: “It’s highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, slapped 'PYREX 23' on the back, and resold them for an astonishing markup of 700%.” This is funny because it is probably true.


Virgil Abloh, “Figures of Speech.” Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.


Abloh is not interested in reinventing the wheel. He instead takes a 3% approach to his designs, meaning he is only interested in making a 3% change to an original. The creative process is explained in a small book of a lecture Abloh gave at Harvard University two years ago. Insert Complicated Title Here is a simple and well-designed little volume that outlines a few shortcuts for future artists and designers to consider as they discover their own processes.

Abloh also emphasizes the importance of mentors.  Abloh’s mentors are both living and dead. He cites Duchamp and references a myriad of Renaissance artists. Having grown up in Chicago, Abloh can also be connected to the playful approach and generosity of the Chicago Imagists. The Imagists were interested in making work that broke away from the restraints of academic art. Although Abloh does not expressly name the Imagists as influential, they too were inspired by art found in the everyday. This created a style that is accessible to a gamut of viewers by being vibrant and often humorous.

For the purist art goer, the work makes many heavy-handed references to art history. Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ is used repeatedly on t-shirts, hoodies and packaging. By introducing Renaissance artists into streetwear, Abloh is chipping at the boundaries of where fine art is seen. The exhibition isn’t for the average MCA visitor. Instead, it strives in some ways to make that purist feel like a tourist.

“Figures of Speech” refers to the malleability of language. By using language and quotations, Abloh can convey something specific and precise while also implying something else. The quotations he has chosen are ironic and humorous. While explaining his technique, for example, Abloh says, “That’s literally the point of that tool—to insert humanity through conversation. You open up when you laugh.” Part of the tourist/purist theme is to allow viewers the space to enter the work from any background.

The exhibition has a collaborative aspect that speaks to the designer in Abloh. The installation space, for instance, is designed by Samir Bantal and organized by MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling. The show includes work from throughout his career, which began when Abloh started designing album art, concert staging, and merchandise for Kanye West. Appropriately, a giant-sized Kanye West CD occupies one of the galleries.

The sheer amount on display is impressive, as most of the work was created in 2019. At times, you feel like you are walking through the artist’s sketchbook. In some pieces, the viewer is confronted directly. In others the viewer is invited to interact. In this way, the exhibition is a bit chaotic. And there must be about 10 pieces of blacked-out billboards. The symbolism is powerful but loses its effectiveness with the repetition.

Donald Judd’s famous quote, “Design has to work, art does not,” is taken to heart in Abloh’s vision. Commercial art is geared towards the final product—a brand—a means of making profit and discovering (or orchestrating) the next thing before that brand becomes obsolete. Art, with the capital A, is more fluid in nature. While it is also geared toward discovering and orchestrating the next thing, the focus need not only be on the final product but can also include the process. Abloh is sharing his journey, including those processes, and reflecting upon the last 20 years with a positive attitude.

Abloh’s work pokes fun at criticism and speaks truth to power. Neon words illuminate a darkened gallery, stating, “You’re obviously in the wrong place.” This is a phrase most people of color have heard at least once in their lives. Standing in front of this confrontational sign are 3D printed mannequins of four young men wearing streetwear. They too are confrontational and eerily realistic as they straddle the lip of the uncanny valley.


Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech.” Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.


Process is equal to product for Abloh. As a designer, the final product is the primary goal, but in this exhibition, Abloh shows the artistic value of his creative process itself. A set of silkscreens populate the walls of a gallery full of racks of clothing from some of Abloh’s various Off-White collections. The inverted images are transposed with the ghosts of screens past. It feels like a behind-the-scenes view of the production.

The exhibition is accompanied by a pop-up boutique on the top floor. The exhibition catalog is on display there, perched upon two podiums flanking a copier. The copier is available in case visitors want to copy a page out of the catalog.

The juxtaposition of the free copies along with Off-White brand garments costing thousands of dollars is reflective of the whole feeling of the exhibition, which strives to foster accessibility at varied levels of income and education. Art is no longer solely for the rich, but they are certainly welcome.

One thing that sets Abloh aside from others is his apparent focus on inspiring young artists to find their personal style and place within the ever-changing culture machine. It is exciting to see a young artist focusing not only inward but also outward. Abloh comes off in this work as being generous and challenging—good qualities for a teacher. In fact, Abloh has created a youth design challenge and held workshops throughout the summer.

While both art and design remain beholden to the wealthy, they are undergoing an interesting shift during the 21st century as the rhetoric of inclusivity takes its place alongside (or jars with) that of exclusivity. The demand for accessibility in the arts is being made and slowly addressed by institutions and industries. Abloh’s work engages and plays with the themes of inequality. He has helped bridge the gap between streetwear and high fashion, opening a world of possibility for future designers.

Still only 38 years old, Abloh has carved out a unique place for himself in the world of haute couture. He has returned from that place to Chicago to share his process, prototypes, advice and outlook to the purists, tourists and everyone in between.

By Rebecca Memoli


Virgil Abloh, “Figures of Speech,” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art until September 22.


Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is “The Feeling is Mutual.”



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