It's hard for me to know where to mentally situate "Eckhaus Latta: Possessed," currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, until I remember that it's the museum's first fashion-centric show since an Andy Warhol exhibition in 1997.
Though designers Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta met at art school and have shown their work in galleries before, their ouevre fits more comfortably into the confines of one medium — fashion — than the wildly interdisciplinary Warhol's ever did. Still, their presence in the Whitney makes the most sense when considered in the context of Warhol's legacy, which degraded the barrier between the artistic and the commercial in ways the art world is still grappling with today.
The dissolving of those lines is what strikes me most as I walk through "Possessed," which could be described as a museum-curated concept shop as easily as it could be called an exhibition. The show is composed of three rooms: In the first, there are what appear to be traditional advertising images displaying Eckhaus Latta clothing; in the second, shoppable Eckhaus Latta clothing itself is displayed alongside one-off art objects by the designers' art-world collaborators; in the last, screens broadcast surveillance footage from retailers that sell the brand and from within the second room of the exhibition itself.
Embedded within this three-part framework are plenty of the kind of self-aware winks and meta-narrative nods I've come to expect from a contemporary art installation. There's a full-length mirror in the shopping room that seems tailor-made for selfies, until I realize it's a one-way mirror where viewers in the surveillance room can observe the mirror-gazers unseen. One of the art objects, entitled "I'm a fan" by Jessi Reaves, is quite literally a working electric fan that has pictures of Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta affixed to the front, flapping in the manmade wind. The "advertising" imagery in the first room features slick aesthetics and big-name models like Gemma Ward as a kind of insider joke aimed at those familiar with Eckhaus Latta's typical imagery, which tends more toward nontraditional models and photographs that feel less commercially perfect.
But the biggest coup of all, of course, is that the clothing on "display" in the room that makes up the bulk of the exhibition is actually for sale. Ranging in price from $24 to $7,200, the pieces include everything from printed socks to sweaters knit from plastic grocery bags to department store-ready jeans. What the main room evokes more than anything is the kind of underground Brooklyn marketplace frequented by the ascendent models and young designers I follow in the back alleys of Instagram. Only instead of being housed in a poorly-lit, respectably gritty warehouse-cum-performance space, it's been reassembled inside the impeccably pristine walls of a Manhattan institution.
As much as the formalized plaques on the wall and museum setting may try to communicate that it's all part of a larger, cleverer dialogue about consumption and desire and surveillance — because it is, in a way — it's also very much a functioning store, complete with price tags, a fitting room and an ever-present sales associate.
"Unlike traditional museum displays of fashion on mannequins set at a distance from the viewer, the installation here fosters intimate interaction with the garments," reads the exhibition statement.
Indeed, when contrasted with the barrier ropes, panes of glass and raised pedestals that serve to create a sense of distance and even reverence around garments at something like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's ongoing "Heavenly Bodies" exhibition, "Possessed" seems to state the opposite about its own pieces: These clothes are not separate or sacred. They are made to be tried on, worn and yes, purchased.
The seemingly democratic ethos arising from the fact that the museum pieces can be taken home, and that the Eckhaus Latta exhibition is free to enter while the rest of the museum is not, belies an underlying exclusivity. Sure, visitors can own a piece of "Possessed" in a way they can't own anything from the the David Wojnarowicz exhibition happening upstairs. But the special tags on the T-shirts and wall text declarations about "limited-run" items underscore to visitors that buying Eckhaus Latta product here means being part of an exclusive group.
If Eckhaus Latta walks the line between democratic and elitist, inclusive and exclusive in this exhibition, that's just one more connection the designers have to their predecessor Warhol, who replicated some of his own works as if they were cheap prints while selling others as one-offs for hundreds of millions of dollars. Whether you like the premise of "Possessed" or not, you'll have to admit it works: Even visitors who walk in muttering "Is this a scam?" may walk out swinging a branded bag carrying Eckhaus Latta merch.
At least, that's what I did.