Virgil Abloh’s Figures of Speech Tries to Find Balance Between the Tourist and the Purist

I should start off by saying I’m a big fan of Virgil Abloh’s work. From his deconstructed shoe designs and minimalist accessories to design work, it all has an aesthetic that really draws me in. However, with price tags requesting hundreds of dollars at times, I’ve never been able to don the clothes or shoes and have been left just staring at them from afar. With Figures of Speech, Virgil Abloh is trying to erase the dividing lines between the two groups in hopes of creating artists like himself. He is directly speaking with those that feel like outsiders in the world of fashion and art.

Figures of Speech takes a look at the various fields that Abloh has dipped his creative talents in, from his architectural work as a student to his Off-White fashion designs that makes the hypebeasts come out in droves–and everything in between. Abloh has collaborated with tons of companies, the most front facing of which has been Nike with his highly coveted shoes, but you can’t forget about the high fashion of Louis Vuitton and the furniture for everyone at IKEA. Abloh’s multifaceted mind is on full display at the exhibit, truly giving you a look at his unwavering desire to create.

While it is the aesthetic forward art that is the main attraction of Abloh’s Figures of Speech, one of the most interesting aspects of both the exhibit and his talk during the preview comes from the idea of “Tourist” v. “Purist,” the consumer and producer, and the attempt to bridge the gap between the two. Both of these labels embody the good and bad of their respective representation, but tends to side on the good of each. Abloh is dead set on inspiring those who come in to the exhibit to feel welcome in a place that can be unwelcoming for those not in the know, for the “tourists” that are often put down by the “purists.”

During the preview discussion for the exhibit, Abloh made a quick comment on critics, mirroring a few other creatives’ outlooks on critics on the whole. He equated negative criticism (or more likely cynical) as something that can stifle creativity. While I fully understand where he is coming from, I simply do not agree. It’s actually quite funny that this one comment stood out so much to me, but after walking through the exhibit it became apparent why. Much of his work is in conversation with that idea of criticism, both its effects on art and the art itself critiquing perspective. There is a black flag outside the building welcoming the thought to “QUESTION EVERYTHING”. It’s unfortunate that a simple quote “I’m a critic of critics” can over-shadow some good work.

Take the spot in the exhibit where the words “you’re obviously in the wrong place” are on display.  This piece is a neon light that was used in a fashion show. It’s surrounded by mannequins in more lifelike poses; standing casually on the wall or lounging in a chair. The clothing they wear isn’t real but literally a part of the mannequin, having no choice to lay perfectly on it as it was sculpted. The nook in the exhibition immediately strikes back at the very idea that Abloh, his art, and the people who adore it do not belong in a place like MCA, a high fashion boutique, or even mass culture in general.

If anything, what is most exciting about this exhibit is that Abloh’s streetwear, design, and products are even being presented in this manner at all. It has nothing to do with whether or not they need to be inside a museum, but rather that they should be. Some aspects of the show are presented perfectly, from his fashion products displayed on industrial racks to his early screen-printing plates laid out in all their glory on the wall. But pieces like the DJ set covers he diligently created for his Instagram over the years, prompting a great cease and desist letter from the United Nations, which is actually displayed wonderfully, is a little lacking. Dozens of those uniform designs were made into real album covers, but instead of presenting them in their entirety, they are stacked against a wall, with only three clearly on display. It’s aesthetically interesting, pleasing even as a DJ stack having already been spent after a night, but it does a disservice to the individual works in the piece.

Other works, however, are set incredibly well and really hit home with what they’re trying to communicate. There is a lot of playful interaction with reapportioning items and logos that carry a long history on their shoulder. The black textured billboard with advertising giant JCDecaux’s logo perched beneath it; the all black Sunoco gas price board sinking back in the ground; the colors of the Cotton logo being flipped. Each one of these practically screams it message to you, which could be interpreted as heavy-handed, but here feels apt. Even better is the realization of what’s happening beyond what you initially see. Graffiti on the back of the billboard; the title of the Sunoco piece being “Dollar A Gallon,” which its bright numbers do not reflect; placing black as the primary color of the cotton markedly recalling its disgusting history in America. It may be obvious, but it’s good work.

Beyond the confines of the exhibit lies a pop-up shop in the corner of the fourth floor, another attempt to blur the line between Tourist and Purist, store and art. With a name like “Church and State, playing off their needed separation but undeniable cohesion in certain societies,” the store feels like a direct extension of the exhibit. Almost too direct. If you were to place it in the fashion forward section of the Figures of Speech, I think you would have a hard time differentiating between them. Again obviously that’s the point, but it seems to lose out to the Purist of it all. While the shop tries to bridge prices for both tourist and purist, it’s hardly successful. Beyond a flip book ($13ish), a water bottle ($11ish) and postcards ($1ish), everything in the shop is catered to purist. $60+ shirts, $40+ hat, $90 phone cases, and clothing in the hundreds if not thousand dollar ranges, most already reselling for far more online.

Even with some of those failing to successfully merge the idea of Tourist and Purist, Virgil Abloh’s exhibition should undoubtedly succeed in its goals of inspiring a new generation of young artists. Abloh described what he would do if he were a 16-year-old coveting the new pair of blue Off White Nikes: go to Footlocker, buy the white ones for $60, paint them blue, go to Home Depot and get a red tag. “He’ll have a unique thing, 1 of 1,” Abloh uttered. Even with the unclear message in some of the pieces and the overtly obvious messages in others, Figures of Speech thrives with a sense of creativity. However it’s difficult to fully understand where that impetus comes from when his “Church & State” gift shop is selling card wallets for nearly $300. Is this a statement on consumerism or just consumerism? I certainly left the exhibit inspired to create something, anything. I just don’t know if my inspiration came directly from admiring Abloh’s work or in spite of it.



The Virgil Abloh exhibit continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., through September 22. Timed tickets are available in advance but you can also buy walk-in tickets.

Julian Ramirez
Julian Ramirez