"Security Through Obscurity"(Exhibit) Altman-Siegel Gallery Art Benioff, Marc Denny, Simon Fashion and Apparel Income Inequality Patagonia Inc Inc San Francisco (Calif) Scarves Thatcher, Margaret H Uncategorized Uniforms Venture Capital your-feed-fashion

Tech Bro Uniform Meets Margaret Thatcher. Disruption Ensues.

The death knell of the Patagonia vest, at least as a symbol of utopianism co-opted by the tech and venture capital world and transformed into shorthand for a certain kind of unbridled corporate power, was much predicted last summer.

That is when the outdoor recreation company put its puffers where its principles were and said it would no longermake vests branded with its own name and the names of companies that did not share its environmental commitments.

“Woe to the bros!” cried customers and commentators alike, in both glee and horror.

The prophesies of doom turned out to be somewhat overstated. But they may soon be heard again in the land, thanks to an unexpected source: Simon Denny, a New Zealand-born artist who lives in Berlin.

Mr. Denny is the man behind a new show at the Altman Siegel gallery in San Francisco, “Security Through Obscurity,” that combines (of all things) Patagonia, Salesforce (the customer relations digital behemoth) and Margaret Thatcher. The result is a visual treatise on income inequality, global capitalism and the digital world built on shared fashion references.

Also proof positive that clothes are part of the currency of our times, no matter where you look.

After all, Patagonia and Margaret Thatcher are not two names most people would put in the same sentence. Their heydays are separated by decades; their power bases across an ocean; their philosophies of life even further apart.

Yet both Patagonia and the former British prime minister have one thing in common: They each gave the world items of dress that transcended their origins to become emblems.

In the case of Patagonia, the power vest: the fleece or puffer zip-up that is the de facto uniform of the private equity and venture capital world and the tech companies that loves it.

In the case of Mrs. Thatcher, the silk scarf, which, along with the skirt suit and pussy-bow blouse, became signifiers of the Iron Lady, the woman who put on her absolutely appropriate clothes like armor in her battle to liberate the markets and bring “tough capitalism” to Britain.

Combining both, Mr. Denny, 37, found the shape, literally, of an idea.

Mr. Denny is known for work that explores the culture of technology and its effects on society. He grew up in New Zealand and moved to Germany in 2007 to attend art school.

After graduating, as he began developing his signature, he started “following” individuals he saw as paradigm changers: reading their press, their speeches and books; checking in as their careers progressed.

Peter Thiel was one. Mr. Denny’s 2019 exhibition, “The Founder’s Paradox,” held in Auckland, New Zealand, featured Mr. Thiel (for one), the billionaire tech venture capitalist who is known for buying up swaths of land in that country, as a figure called Lord Tybalt, in art inspired by fantasy board games. Dominic Cummings, the architect of Boris Johnson’s electoral victory, is another. Ditto Mrs. Thatcher.

“She was very visible in the 1980s, shaping a new kind of politics that emphasized the individual, deregulation and global neoliberalism,” Mr. Denny said, speaking on the phone from Berlin a few days before the opening.

Though Mr. Denny has previously had exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and the Serpentine in London, and represented New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, this is the first time he has used fashion in his work, and it is partly because of the former prime minister.

In early 2019, a Christie’s auction catalog crossed his desk that included a group of Mrs. Thatcher’s scarves. “There were a number of things being sold,” Mr. Denny said, “but many were quite expensive.” There were suits, jewelry, silver, decorative vases. The scarves, however, were a more accessible story.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these could be quite potent material for me,’” he said. “I knew I really wanted to work with them.”

He ended up winning 17 of them from two different lots after “quite fierce competition.” The estimate for one lot was 400 to 600 pounds, and it ultimately went for £3,250 ($4,218.82); the other was £500 to £800, and the final price was £3,000 ($3,894.30). They include a Nicole Miller scarf with a Forbes print, dollar bills and slogans like “Forbes capitalist tool” and “No guts, no story”; a leopard print that made Mr. Denny think of England’s colonial past; a Chanel design; and one from Liberty of London.

“To me, they represent an era of dress — the feminine but power business look,” Mr. Denny said. “Also the Thatcher policies, which have accelerated global inequality.”

Combine that with the offer of a show in San Francisco, home of both the tech elite and a growing divide between rich and poor that is painfully visible, and Mr. Denny’s thoughts turned to another kind of dress: the vest.

He zeroed in on one example in particular, a Salesforce branded Patagonia vest, like the kind given to Dreamforce conference attendees in 2015. (Salesforce, the company co-founded by Marc Benioff in 1999 that has revenues of over $13 billion, is one of the largest employers in San Francisco.)

Credit…Simon Denny, via Altman Siegel Gallery; Nick Ash
Credit…Simon Denny, via Altman Siegel Gallery; Nick Ash

The result is four Nano Puff power vests made from a variety of Mrs. Thatcher’s scarves with a repurposed Patagonia label taken from an actual Patagonia garment and pasted over one breast, displayed in shallow glass vitrines like collector’s memorabilia, and two Patagonia sleeping bags, which are references to the homeless in San Francisco.

Standing up, the sleeping bags resemble nothing so much as sarcophagi, likewise made from the scarves. All of the pieces are filled with repurposed down stuffing from sleeping bags sourced in resale stores around the city.

The exhibition also includes collages made from 3-D printing Salesforce patents (the kind that Wired magazine suggested could be potential foreign tax havens). Prices range from $7,500 to $60,000.

None of the individuals or brands involved were contacted before the show; this is not a collaboration, like the Louis Vuitton handbags done by Yayoi Kusama or Haruki Murakami, but a commentary. And its implications are hard to avoid.

“The Patagonia vest is something people here will relate to right away,” said Claudia Altman-Siegel, the owner of the gallery. “I don’t know if they will like it or find it too close to home. But I really hope Marc Benioff will come.” (According to Mr. Denny, Mr. Thiel did come to see his show in New Zealand.)

Mr. Denny is not by any means the first artist to use the visual representations of luxury and fashion as a material way to confront cultural dissonance. Tom Sachs did it in the late 1990s when he used luxury brand signifiers to explore consumerism and branding. (Remember the Tiffany Glock, Chanel Guillotine or Hermès Value Meal?)

Wang Guangyi, a Chinese artist, did it with his “Great Criticism” series of paintings, which superimposed brand logos on Mao-era Communist propaganda posters.

“More and more artists like to use fashion as a way to help deliver a message because it’s an accessible point of entry for so many people,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor of W and now the creative director of L’Officiel Group. “It’s a way of talking not to a niche, but to a larger audience.”

None of this has escaped fashion itself, which as a rule has attempted to embrace artists who use its products as material, thus defanging the critical potential of the work. “I don’t think he’s the kind of artist who, if Dior called and said, ‘Let’s do a bag!’ he would want to say yes,” Mr. Tonchi said of Mr. Denny.

Though Mr. Denny has many artist friends in Berlin who are close to Demna Gvasalia, the designer for Balenciaga, and though Mr. Denny himself has been featured in L’Uomo Vogue and the magazine of the Canadian retailer Ssense, he has no plans to parlay his current dalliance with clothing into a sideline.

He seemed taken aback by the suggestion that he collaborate with a brand — though he does hope the show has an effect on how we dress.

“I think it would be hard not to think about the Patagonia vests differently,” he said. “I hope it puts all the super-contradictions of how we live into a frame that is impossible to ignore.”

Or, perhaps, wear — except in the wilderness, as the company originally intended.

Art Bertoldo di Giovanni Frick Collection Hill Art Foundation Hill, J Tomilson Ray, Charles (1953- ) Sculpture Uncategorized

In the Swim of Digital Images, There’s Nothing Boring About Sculpture

In 1846, back when critics were not yet afraid of rendering judgments, Charles Baudelaire went to the Paris Salon and wrote a review that aimed to put an entire art form out of business.

Under the title “Why Sculpture Is Boring,” Baudelaire argued that bronze and marble statuary was vague and elusive, and “presents too many faces at once” — 100 different angles — to the spectator. He thought sculpture lacked the authority of painting or architecture, which both made clear where they stand. When “a chance illumination, an effect of lamplight, reveals a beauty which was not the one he had thought of,” the sculptor must sadly accept that three-dimensional art is always fated to depend on the circumstances of its display. That makes it, the poet insisted, nothing but “a complementary art.”

Baudelaire’s critique was just one of many anti-sculpture broadsides over the last two centuries, mostly delivered by painters — and by those critics in the tank for them. (Ad Reinhardt, maybe apocryphally, said in the 1950s that sculpture was “something you bump into when you back up to look at the painting.”) But something interesting has changed in the camera phone age: Suddenly, a sculpture’s infinite perspectives and mutable viewing conditions provide new prospects in the gallery and on the web. To Baudelaire, sculpture disappointed by refusing to resolve into a single point of view, but to the camera phone-conditioned eye, that refusal is an opportunity. Every sculpture, to the contemporary viewer, is first a solid thing in the gallery and then a font of subsequent images, co-authored by artist and viewer.

I’ve spent a lot of the past season thinking about the contemporary relevance of sculpture, and how we experience solidity, weight and dimension in the era of the cloud. It’s a question that framed my viewing of Verrocchio’s works in bronze and terra cotta, on view through Jan. 12 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It exercises contemporary sculptors as different as Richard Serra, Rachel Harrison, Nairy Baghramian and Andra Ursuta, who all presented major new shows recently in New York. It looms over the rolling controversies over public monuments, which solidify history in metal or stone, then deliquesce into pixels on Google Street View. And it provides the unexpected link between two extraordinary sculptors, working five centuries apart, who each updated the classical sculpture tradition for new audiences looking with new eyes.

The older of these two artists is Bertoldo di Giovanni (circa 1440-1491), whose small but varied output in bronze, wood and terra cotta anchored the fall season at the Frick Collection. Bertoldo enjoyed the patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the biggest hot shot of 15th-century Florence, and yet he produced relatively little; today he is most often spoken about as the student of Donatello and teacher of Michelangelo. This first-ever retrospective, which closes Jan. 12 and contains almost every surviving work, sticks up for Bertoldo as a multimedia resuscitator of the art of classical Rome, whether in Lorenzo-celebrating portrait medals or in an entire terra cotta frieze that topped the entrance of a Medici country house (a striking loan from a Tuscan museum).

Nude men and gods, twisting and writhing, were Bertoldo’s predicament and prize. An arresting, full-scale statue of St. Jerome, made of painted wood and credited here to Donatello and Bertoldo working together, embodies the hermit priest as a lithe but wretched penitent, face pained and abdomen collapsed as he strikes his chest with a rock. Yet to a 21st-century eye, the most challenging and surprising work here is a serpentine bronze statuette of Orpheus, done around 1471 and on loan from the Bargello in Florence.

Just 17 inches tall, with a tiny waist and unmuscled thighs and buttocks, this Orpheus looks more like a boy than a man as he sings, dances and plays a Renaissance string instrument called a lira da braccio. Get up close and you’ll see that the bronze is abraded and unfinished, especially on Orpheus’s lyre and on the animal pelt draped over his chest — the result of an only partial mastery of the lost-wax process of metal casting, which involves forming a clay mold around a wax figure, heating it so the wax melts away, and then filling the cavity with liquid metal. It was an ancient technique that Florentine artists had only recently rediscovered. Bertoldo’s “Orpheus,” for all its antique inspiration, is a work of a new, or newly revived, engineering process, whose glitchy rusticity has both a human and a technological derivation.

Bronze statuette works grew in refinement and finish later in the Renaissance and into the Baroque era. The financier and art collector J. Tomilson Hill, whose collection of bronzes went on view at the Frick in 2014, now exhibits his cache of statuettes in an airy, white-walled space in Chelsea — alongside works of contemporary art. Right now at the Hill Art Foundation you can see five Renaissance bronzes alongside the sculpture of Charles Ray, the deep-thinking and slow-working Los Angeles sculptor who has rethought the classical tradition for our age as profoundly as Bertoldo did for his.

For Mr. Ray, sculptural invention takes the form of an excessive perfectionism, in which new scanning and casting technologies permit thrillingly off-key riffs on ancient forebears. In the low-slung sterling silver sculpture “Mountain Lion Attacking a Dog” (2018), for example, the artist embodies a predator sinking its teeth into the flesh of its upturned prey, updating the Greek and Roman taste for group sculptures of animals to today’s Hollywood Hills. (This work’s most evident art historical precedent is the marble sculpture “Lion Attacking a Horse,” at the Capitoline Museum in Rome — a favorite of Bertoldo’s disciple Michelangelo.)

The lion’s painstakingly chased fur recalls the contrasts of clean and striated bronze in Bertoldo’s “Orpheus,” though now the technology at hand is different. For Bertoldo, the intermediate step between the initial figure and the metal cast was a layer of wax. For Mr. Ray, it is 3-D scanning and CNC machining: highly precise technologies that translate objects into data that can be output to a robotic mill.

For both the metal sculpture stands as an uncanny replica or transformation of bodies we know, given new integrity and new value (literally, in the case of silver and bronze casts). What makes these sculptures compelling — and what Baudelaire hated about them — is the cryptic and unfathomable faces they offer as we circle them in the gallery, beholding them from all sides, scrutinizing their chasing and their patinas.

What interests me now is how young audiences may perceive these sculptures, and how the social photo has transformed our appreciation of them. For more and more viewers, the phone screen conditions almost all visual perception — and this is true even at a museum like the Frick, where, nearly alone among New York museums, you cannot take photographs. Whether the smartphone comes out or stays in your pocket, our eyes are already being reformatted to follow the logic of digital images, where life becomes pictures and pictures become information.

Sculpture, much more than maybe any art form, can offer viewers the satisfaction of oscillating between reality and virtuality, between object and image. (Unlike installation art, which too often recedes into a selfie backdrop, a sculpture retains its potency as it’s channeled with light and shadow from gallery into the social media feed.) Baudelaire’s anxiety about sculpture as a “complementary art” has drained away. The new challenge, when we look at Renaissance or modern sculpture, is to somehow still appreciate mass, volume and scale when all that is solid melts into the screen.

Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence

Through Jan. 12 at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, Manhattan; 212-288-0700,

Charles Ray and the Hill Collection

Through Feb. 15 at the Hill Art Foundation, 239 10th Avenue, Manhattan; 212-337-4455,