In 1913, Marcel Duchamp created a ruckus with an assembled inverted bicycle wheel mounted on a stool. The provocateur stirred controversy soon after with more found objects, most famously a urinal entitled Fountain (1917). Duchamp’s witty play with gallerists and major art shows did more than question what constitutes art; it shone a light on the fabrication of the art world itself – a commercial construct defined somewhat arbitrarily by elites. It’s a tough pill for any institution to admit to, but today many major museums make deliberate attempts to dismiss distinctions between high and low art, decrying elitism in art. But one such line seems to be drawn in vanishing chalk – endorsing private companies in public institutions. At major Québec museum Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, an exhibition celebrating local fashion designer Denis Gagnon’s tenth anniversary features designs from his latest collections. Almost across the street, at luxury department store Holt Renfrew one can purchase some of said designs where they hang in a much more user-friendly context: on regular hangers and clothing racks, with price tags in the vicinity of “too-damn-expensive-for-me-to-even-THINK-of-trying-these-on!” So there you have it: in one place these “sculptures” float esoterically in a white cube and are sold as art; in another, they’re sold as clothes. Semantics and context are everything in art; they can be called upon to strategically craft meaning in the most inconspicuous of ways. Perhaps it is because of these reasons that the museum decidedly chose to steer clear of the “is fashion art?” debate for this exhibition. Instead, a markedly Montreal show unabashedly does more to celebrate local work than it provokes.
As a fashion stylist and an arts journalist, it would be tempting to say that I attended the Denis Shows All exhibition wearing two hats; but I didn’t. For me, both of these seemingly worlds apart spheres inform one another. I like to think that I approach fashion with a critical mind and that I approach art criticism from a productively experiential standpoint as an artist myself who constantly experiments with materials for costume and clothing. When I interviewed the exhibition’s curator Stéphane Aquin, he echoed a similar disdain for the application of airtight categories, citing architecture as an example of (public) art and paintings as design in so far that they also serve a function in covering wall space. Despite our best efforts to champion the theoretical transgression of categories, practically speaking, we often end up enforcing them. Aquin makes the point by having invited acclaimed architect and Governor General medal recipient, Gilles Saucier, to collaborate on the show, allowing Gagnon’s clothing to more justifiably call the gallery walls “home.”
Saucier was responsible for most of the layout of the exhibition which takes place in the museum’s “Carré d’art contemporain,” a high-ceilinged large white room reserved for contemporary shows. Over a dozen outfits (mostly dresses) hang in three straight lines from headless mannequins while a video of Denis Gagnon’s recent runway shows is projected dramatically onto a three-dimensional pyramidal screen that protrudes from the ceiling. Oddly enough, for what the Museum is calling a “retrospective” (including in its press release on the exhibition), the clothes themselves are quite recent, namely from the designer’s Fall/Winter 2010, and Spring/Summer 2011 collections. The clothes themselves involve many handmade and couture detailing — suitable for special occasions but none of them appear to be too costumey to be deemed unwearable.
The most impressive set of garments is architectural: structured black leather with rows of heavy-duty zippers wrapped around the bodice. While the museum forbids visitors to touch the garments (and this really is too bad since clothes are meant to be worn and handled), upon doing so, one can more adequately appreciate Gagnon’s innovative techniques and the integrity of the construction. On a hanger alone, unfortunately, it is difficult for a fashion layman to understand how a pattern may have resulted in something that eventually comes to be hung in a museum or better yet, on people’s bodies. The craft – sewing, draping, pattern-making, and intricate mix of different fabrics – is impeccable on another set of clothes too, which are made of layers of hand-dyed fringe and lace. However, a small set of black-and-white striped silk clothes did not seem innovative enough to be on display in the exhibition and left me longing for works from earlier in the designer’s career which, were very different in style and fabric than the direction the designer finds himself in now. When I asked Aquin about the museum’s choice to only showcase current pieces in the retrospective he cited that the designer “kept poor archives,” pointing out Gagnon’s (much-publicized) financial struggles (he had to close his Denis Gagnon boutique). The exhibition handles Gagnon’s financial woes somewhat ironically, by hinting at it with a displayed floor plan of Gagnon’s notoriously cramped basement studio. Some of these elements seem odd curatorial choices but the show’s obvious omissions reveal an honest portrayal of a local, extremely hardworking and talented artist successful in some ways but not in others. And that is in part what makes the exhibition unique to Montréal.
Usually, museum retrospectives for fashion designers are given posthumously or once an artist is already internationally established (Coco Chanel at the MET, Takashi Murakami’s collaboaration with Louis Vuitton at MOCA, Yves Saint Laurent at Musée des Beaux-Arts). In this case, Gagnon has been granted one in order to celebrate his ten-year career. Would the same happen in a city like Toronto, New York, or Paris — such a large scale show at a prestigious institution for a (relatively) small designer? While many have criticized that the exhibition happened prematurely in the designer’s somewhat nascent career, the fact that the prestigious Musée des Beaux-Arts is bold enough to acknowledge the craftsmanship of one of Montréal (and Canada’s), most talented clothing designers is unprecedented. It communicates what a uniquely supportive system exists within the Francophone-Québecois arts and fashion industries.
One gets the sense that a strong team is behind Denis Gagnon’s work through the coinciding special-edition publication for the exhibition made by Urbania magazine. It includes a collection of photos and revealing interviews with artists from Gagnon’s team, from stylist Yso to jeweler Mirielle Boucher of Harakiri. The publication holds up the collaborative spirit around which the Denis Gagnon label is produced. This exhibition was launched of course, in a characteristically Montréal fashion way: with multiple shows, openings, and parties, and with loads of print, radio, and television press all saying the same thing: “nous aimons Denis Gagnon!” From an outsider’s perspective the whole scene – an outpouring of adoration – may appear a bit delirious but it remains that Gagnon is a tireless artist who has given much to his city’s arts community; last season, two 500-person fashion shows from his collection were filled with curious fans, and line-ups trailing out the door.
Gagnon, Saucier, and Aquin’s collaborative approach with this show – asserting fashion as an object of art and architecture – is old by now and given the recentness of the works displayed, could have been more inventively displayed (something along the lines of current show fashion-meets-performance-art show at PS1), but what it does most effectively is provide pause for considering the effects of institutional support for an artist. Aquin laughed that he had no idea what Gagnon might sell his dresses for in the market once the exhibition was over but stated that maybe the Musée des Beaux-Arts’ celebration of his work would increase the designer’s profile. Maybe? Of course it would. As its cachet comes to include more meaning, more than mere fashion, more than just design, Gagnon’s works are becoming more associated as artworks themselves. After all, as we’ve known since Duchamp, art – what factors define it and how that changes its value – is all about context.