What’s in a Rick Owens Retrospective? Whatever He Wants

What’s in a Rick Owens Retrospective? Whatever He Wants

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.


The snaking sculpture coils through the length of the Triennale horseshoe-shaped gallery.

Alessandro Grassani for The New York Times

“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 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 gauepicntlets 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 Superhuman Inhuman” 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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