Artist Jason Villegas has an obsession with polo shirts. And in a certain dark period in the '80s, an unhealthy number of America's youth shared that obsession. The Izod Lacoste shirt with a tiny alligator appliqué over the left breast was the most coveted of polo shirts, and beneath it were the cheap off-brands who came up with their own animal logos. The Izod alligator begat the JCPenney fox, which begat the Le Tigre tiger, which begat the Sears Braggin' Dragon, which begat the Montgomery Ward hare. The theory was that one animal was as good as another, but teens knew the difference, and those concerned with status were emotionally traumatized when Mom brought home a fox instead of a gator.
Villegas isn't old enough to remember the pinnacle of polo shirt popularity, but like some monomaniacal archeologist, he has excavated myriad examples from thrift shops. The results are on view in "Perspectives 167: Jason Villegas," organized by curator Valerie Cassel Oliver at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Cast-off clothing, polo and otherwise, is the artist's material of choice. Villegas deftly cuts, stuffs and glues it to make vividly colored collages and sculptures. And he has used the animal appliqués from polo shirts to create what amounts to a goofy pantheon of animal gods, an oblique allusion to the Asian sweatshop labor used to manufacture most clothing.
Villegas's work doesn't summarize easily, which is not a bad thing. Basically, using his fabric sculptures, collages and videos, the artist explores the imagery of his private universe, one packed with thrift-store fashion, both prestigious and pathetic, obscure pop-cultural references, the sexual and the scatological. Villegas's world is one that, no matter how well versed you are in '80s trends, you won't really get without being privy to the inner workings of the artist's brain.
The most straightforward works in the show are a charmingly quirky series of framed portraits in which Villegas depicts himself as various polo mascots. For Self Portrait as Lacoste Brand (2009), Villegas glued a pink-and-white striped polo shirt with a Lacoste alligator onto a board. A smiling green alligator head sticks out of the collar, created by cutting and collaging fabric from old clothes. My favorite is Self Portrait as Le Tigre Brand (2009), in which Villegas renders himself as a tiger in a pale blue cotton knit with bulging, bloodshot eyes created from a polyester print fabric.
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The most dramatic piece in the show, Third World Textile Spirit (2009), is a riff on the Chinese fu lion. Teeth/tusks curve out from the creature's mouth, each adorned with one of six different animal logos. A blue tongue sticks out in the middle, and torn strips of red T-shirt fabric hang down from the jaw like shreds of bloody flesh. The body is covered with layers of vividly colored fabric sewn into stuffed, drip-like forms. Crafted from cast-off socks, old T-shirts and the like, they look like they were shat from a used-clothing-devouring monster. Somehow glorious and pathetic at the same time, the work blends a kind of lovable homemade quality with something deeply disturbing. I imagine it being fed rows of gaunt, underpaid sweatshop employees in an attempt to sate its hunger.
Lacoste Brand All-Terrain Coffin (2009) is the other epic sculptural work in the show, a cartoonish piece that appears to be an upholstered coffin on tank tracks, with alligator-like ornamentation. A video monitor is set into the coffin's open lid; it plays Villegas's LacoSTD Advertisement Ad-on (2009), an engagingly clunky animated video apparently promoting the destructive capabilities of the vehicle using garbled audio that sounds like it was salvaged from a Japanese infomercial. A shiny little pillow rests inside the grey, foam-lined interior, and a pink anus-like orifice in the back of the "vehicle" fires what look like miniature car-lot flags. It's a completely absurd manifestation of the artist's subconscious.
A former Houston artist and University of Houston grad, Villegas left town for grad school at Rutgers and now lives in Brooklyn. His CAMH show is centered around individual pieces and lacks the free-flowing installation approach of some of his previous shows. I miss that uninhibited unwieldiness, but Villegas does seem to be shoring his work up a bit. With some of the artist's earlier installations, I had a sense that he wanted the viewer to decode things, which I found more than a little frustrating. But here, he seems slightly more content to just put his work out there and let people take it in, following whatever conceptual (or actual) threads they choose. That is a good thing. Villegas can be inspired by all kinds of weird narratives and tangents, but he can't expect everyone to get them all if they aren't decodable in the work.
I do wonder what the future holds for Villegas's work. He's been fixated on these logos for years, but his beloved polo shirts, knockoffs and all, are now being sold to twentysomething hipsters on vintage clothing Web sites. It'll make the thrifting harder, or at least slightly pricier. But what happens to your work when your quirky little obsession suddenly becomes fashionable? In any case, it's good Villegas has a solid museum show under his belt — that kind of professional cred will hopefully free him up to go a little more nuts in his next institutional show. We certainly know he's capable of it.