Jackets and Backpacks Stand In for Self-Portraits in James Viscardi’s New Work
Long before selfies, painters were the first to turn a mirror on themselves, rendering their features as accurately as possible. Since then, self-portraiture has expanded beyond its mimetic roots. Even the most abstract examples—objects or colors standing in for the self—can offer an intimate glimpse into an artist’s identity. This is the case with James Viscardi’s “Wash and Fold,” a new show of self-portraits informed by the artist’s wardrobe rather than his likeness at Last Resort.
“I always felt really exposed when I showed my paintings,” admits Viscardi during a visit to his Gowanus, Brooklyn studio. “I wanted to protect my work, so I came up with this idea of covering a painting with my t-shirt, and the project evolved from there.” Last year, Viscardi temporarily stopped painting—his medium of choice since his days at RISD, where he studied from 2004 through 2008. Instead, he picked up a sewing machine and began shuttling back and forth from the garment district.
What resulted is a series of handmade oversized garments big enough to cover a very large painting. Hung over traditional stretchers that would usually support canvas, the floppy, alluring forms blur the line between process-based abstraction and sculpture. “I know people like to call them sculptures, but I do consider these paintings,” says Viscardi of his wall-mounted works, which he sews together before hanging or zipping them up over the frame.
This series is Viscardi’s first foray into sewing (and self-portraiture), and the process presented the kind of challenge the artist revels in. “It was a learning curve, and a lot of trial and error,” the artist admits of his hands-on approach. “Each material presented something new.” The evidence of Viscardi’s handiwork is embedded in each piece. Large, imperfect stitches become intimate indications of his hand and its unfamiliarity with a new material; expressive gestures rather than production mistakes.
Rendered in fleece, bleached denim, and cotton, Viscardi’s cloth creations have an undeniable tactility. “I want people to touch them,” says Viscardi, pulling a sleeve away from the wall and placing the cuff in the pocket. “I saw someone style one of my jackets like this. I loved it.” This playful interaction only serves to collapse the space between the viewer and the artist. “I consider these very personal works,” explains Viscardi, before scooping up his loyal studio mate, a pet dog named Marty, in an embrace. “They’re self-portraits derived from my uniform. We dress ourselves the way we want to be seen.” Colorful but simple, his choice of outfit is echoed by the work.
In this way, Viscardi’s new work uses personal fashion as a visual substitute for the self. Coming from a background where he was surrounded by other creatives and friends in the fashion industry (like his fellow RISD grads Eckhaus Latta), he recognized the powerful language of clothing and how it operates in urban social circles. He describes his own wardrobe as anything but high fashion, noting that he prefers items that are more timeless than trendy. Taking the form of his most recognizable staples (fleece jackets, chunky backpacks, and white t-shirts), Viscardi’s works are as familiar as they are uncanny—thanks to their larger-than-life scale. “What is more intimate than offering collectors a chance to buy the clothes right off my back?” asks Viscardi, pointing to a bright Patagonia jacket hung by the door and then to his fleecy recreation. “These days, everyone is obsessed with owning a piece of the artist. I wanted to explore the dysfunction of this relationship.”
At the gallery, Viscardi’s works are spaced apart on the wall—but at his studio, they hang next to the item that inspired their creation. This contextual juxtaposition teases out ideas about standardization of the body in today’s culture. The rigidity of the frames hints at the paradoxically personal and impersonal nature of the clothing industry—not to mention, less-than-bespoke methods of production. Touching one of the pieces, Viscardi is careful to mention that his work is only partially about fashion and its symbology—the rest hangs on the beauty of the object and the complex relationship between the external and the internal self.
Cheeky and bold, Viscardi’s works have a Pop sensibility reminiscent of artists like Kathryn Andrews and Rob Pruitt, who adapt the readymades of the zeitgeist for their own gains. However, since each piece is manufactured by hand, the jackets, t-shirts, and backpacks also exist as heirlooms—one-of-a-kind creations inspired by mass-produced aesthetics. In a rare, enticing reversal of the norm, Viscardi subverts the mainstream with the personal. The very Instagrammable nature of the exhibition appears to only further Viscardi’s tongue-in-cheek agenda. Styling themselves among these gigantic personal artifacts, the viewer gets the chance to see themselves closer in Viscardi’s reflection.
“Wash and Fold” is on view at Last Resort, Copenhagen, Oct. 10–Nov. 14, 2015.