Annie Pedret eyed a standard-issue sawhorse improbably dressed up in fleece. “I’d love to have that in my bedroom to put clothes over,” she said, apparently prepared to part with US$750 to turn that conceptual artwork into a high-ticket coat hanger. Pedret, an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, could have been forgiven.
The sawhorse, one of several by Cheryl Pope, a local artist, was on view, after all, not in a gallery, but at a fashion boutique on North Damen Avenue, a mercantile thoroughfare that is home to the likes of Marc Jacobs and Club Monaco. That it vied for attention with satin cocktail dresses and oversize cardigans was fine with Robin Richman, the owner of the shop that bears her name. She is mounting the works of emerging artists to fill space once reserved for fashion labels she can no longer afford to sell, and to pique the interest of her worldly clientele.
“In this economy,” Richman observed, “we have to be really inventive.”
Those words would surely resonate with merchants across the US who have transformed their boutiques into one-stop emporiums offering gladiator sandals alongside rare lithographs and vivid oils on canvas. And these days they have as compelling a ring for scores of artists forced by a rocky commercial climate to seek new settings for their work. As the galleries that once embraced them succumb to soaring overheads and declining sales, some have taken to exhibiting in restaurants and hotel and condo lobbies. Even more are seeking refuge in the fashion world.
Exhibition in a dress shop? “You can’t say no,” said Monica Serra, who agreed to show her moody portraits, priced at about US$10,000 each, at Mina, a boutique in downtown Manhattan, after the Miami outpost of her German gallery shuttered last month. “If the economy was different, I might have thought twice. I might have been worried that the art world wouldn’t take me seriously. But what are you going to do — stockpile your paintings because the venue is not right?”
Quite a few of her peers have adopted a similarly flexible attitude. In exhibiting alongside camisoles and candles, they have stood convention on its head: If their presence once lent cachet to the clothes, today it is the artist who seeks to borrow fashion’s luster.
Juan Angel Chavez, whose sculptures and large-scale artworks have been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, did not hesitate to mount an installation — a raffish collage of urban street signs — in the designated gallery space of Richman’s store. “I’m a very opportunistic artist,” Chavez said as he scoped out the room, which was filled with the collectors, scholars, artists and architects who are among Richman’s clients. “If you stay in your studio, none of these people will see you.”
Artists like Chavez have put a literal spin on Andy Warhol’s dictum that a store is something of cultural repository, the contemporary equivalent of a museum. That notion is not lost on Confederacy, a cavernous retail space in Los Angeles selling frocks by Zac Posen and Jacobs, and etchings by blue-chip artists including Francis Bacon and Francesco Clemente.
When Baco, a cafe-boutique-and-gallery opens in Dumbo in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge next month, visitors will be invited to sip mocha lattes as they try on jewelry and inspect the paintings on the walls, priced up to US$3,000. Neighborhood artists are pleading with him to show their work, Motti Berco, the owner, said. “They come to me because they expect there will be a lot of traffic here.”