View of “Rick Owens,” 2017–18.

View of “Rick Owens,” 2017–18.

Rick Owens

Triennale di Milano

View of “Rick Owens,” 2017–18.

“I would lay a black glittering turd on the white landscape of conformity,” Rick Owens wrote in the late 1990s. However bombastic this sounds, the next twenty years of the fashion and furniture designer’s career have broadly confirmed his intention. And now that the Triennale di Milano has celebrated him with a retrospective—no less sensationally titled “Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman,” presented by Eleonora Fiorani, the curator of its fashion department—the turd cited in Owens’s manifesto has found material form. In a gigantic sculpture/stage set, a black blob of sand, cement, and organic materials (including the artist’s own hair) twisted and turned, winding above and below the entire length of the exhibition path. Around and beneath the sculpture, Primal Howl, 2017, a crowd of mannequins flaunted some of the clothing for which Owens has gained a cult following. The nonchronological presentation opened with a sizable ensemble of women’s wear in exquisite shades of ivory white, draped in archaic style, with the mannequins positioned high up like temple caryatids—but the figures all had male features. The central section, where black predominated alongside leather hides, helped to explain labels such as “glunge” (a contraction of “glamour” and “grunge”) and “avant-goth,” coined to define Owens’s aesthetic. What stood out in the final portion, which followed clothing from his runway shows from recent years (also seen in a selection of videos), were unexpected explosions of color, while the forms of the garments, increasingly extreme, showed the designer following a sculptural logic that disregarded the lines of the body. Through all these mutations, Owens’s style still remained profoundly consistent, marked by two basic and defining characteristics: the designer’s tendency to ignore the present to address either the distant past or an imagined and often postapocalyptic future, and his indifference to functionality in favor of a strong symbolic charge, in turn priestly or warlike: capes instead of jackets; tunics rather than dresses; high, futuristic buskins as shoes.

Missing here was an examination of Owens’s sources of inspiration, ranging from ancient art to contemporary subcultures, from fin de siècle symbolism to Brutalist architecture, from Constantin Brancusi to Arte Povera. It would have been fascinating to see the designer’s clothing (and his furniture, incidentally, which was underrepresented here) alongside some of the works that constitute his reference points—as one was able to, for example, in the 2016–17 furniture retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where Owens’s monumental benches and tables were juxtaposed with paintings by one of his favorite contemporary artists, Steven Parrino. Also perhaps not examined in sufficient depth was the eccentric and maudit aura that has always been part of Owens’s persona—a halo imbued with queer eroticism, gothic imagination, and Hollywood extravagance. The fact that Owens manages to have these coexist with a vein of gentlemanly irony and tact says much about his originality. The Milan exhibition scrimped on this aspect of his work, crucial to the Owens cult, except for some display cases where viewers could find, among other things, a goatskin cock ring in a toad-skin pouch; a skull; long women’s gloves, tanned in a way that makes them transparent; some photographs of Goddess Bunny, a disabled transgender tap dancer; a package of personalized M&M’s, all a leaden-gray color; the bronze cast of an ostrich egg; a tiny cone-shaped party hat made of leather; and so on.But this was only a small opening onto Owens’s imagination, a door barely left ajar. To go further would have required—more than a ticket for the Triennale exhibition—an invitation to the stylist’s parties, such as the one held in Milan this past January to celebrate this show, where guests were welcomed by valets clad in black tunics and holding the reins of white horses, and where naked, overweight male performers covered in talcum powder, sporting long white beards, executed dance moves atop tall black platforms. A true understanding of Owens’s universe would call for an exhibition that was also a party (or a party that included an exhibition). Until that happens, “Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman” can be classified as the most complete introduction available thus far to the work of this eccentric and visionary contemporary creator.

Simone Menegoi

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.