The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Thursday, August 4, 2011

Two years ago, artist Luis Gispert was photographing landscapes in Miami when he stumbled upon the Escalade that would change his life. Upholstered entirely in knock-off material from Takashi Murakami's 2009 campaign with Louis Vuitton, the SUV represented a subculture he never knew existed. The vehicle's owner "had no idea who Murakami was," said Gispert. "It was all very low-rent. All fake, and all home-made."

This tricked-out ride would mark the beginning of a two-year "obsessive quest" to document faux-designer cars and the people who covet and create them. Gispert attended regional auto shows, telephoned car clubs, and sometimes relied on no more than word of mouth to track down the niche car owners, who were scattered across the country. (Sometimes in America's dicier reaches: at one point in his search, he accidentally stumbled across a meth lab.) The results of his journey will now constitute the artist's forthcoming solo show at Mary Boone Gallery, opening, appropriately, during the busiest time of year for designer bling, September's Fashion Week.

Gispert, who describes his aesthetic as "hip-hop baroque," rose to fame after his photographs of gauded-out cheerleaders were exhibited at the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Even then, cars had begun to find their way into his oeuvre. In one photograph, cheerleaders sit idly in the back a spacious car parked in front of a green screen, their bejeweled hands touching.

Soon, Gispert started researching car culture more directly, traveling around the country to shoot ornate, fetishized vehicles, from semi-trucks to airplanes. But the Louis Vuitton Escalade introduced him to an even smaller, more mysterious subgroup of car culture. And, as it turned out, this fascination with fake designer materials extended beyond cars to flamenco dresses and even backpacks. "They are not following the tenets of high fashion," said Gispert. "I saw a Jansport bag done up in Dolce & Gabanna."

The goal of these creations, unlike that of, say, a fake designer bag on Canal Street, isn't to pass as real. "Everyone is aware that it's fake," said Gispert. "It's about the obsession with the color, the pattern, and a desire to index wealth." According to the artist, these craftspeople come in all ethnicities and range from "mild-mannered men to people who I surmised were probably drug dealers." As a whole, he said, the series is about "the anxiety of class in America."

According to Gispert, the trend of fake designer duds originated in Harlem in the early 1980s, when an enterprising man named Dapper Dan opened a 24-hour boutique selling the goods. Drug dealers became clients, and celebrities like Mike Tyson followed.

The photographs — printed on a one-to-one scale with the cars themselves — feature the black-market car interiors layered over the idyllic landscapes Gispert had been working on before he began the car series. (Picture a view of the Grand Canyon from the back seat of a Paris Hilton impersonator's car.) By juxtaposing America's most prized landscapes — reproduced the world over in postcards and movies — with poorly-stitched reproductions of European luxury exports, Gispert hopes to examine "how information gets exchanged in culture, the trickle down and trickle up, and what is good taste and bad taste."

In doctoring the photographs, Gispert had another goal as well, but this one was more moral than aesthetic. "I knew I didn't want this to be a straight documentary project, a cultural safari," he said. Adding in the landscapes and manipulating the background, color, and feel of the photographs enabled him to avoid feeling as if he were exploiting his subjects. "I had to turn it into something that is art," he explained.

According to Gispert, this series will close a chapter in his career — he is no longer as interested in what his become his signature baroque aesthetic, or in what has become his trademark subject, hip-hop inspired subcultures. His future work will be "more subtle, more minimal, and more object-based," he said.

The irony of Gispert's most recent project, of course, lies in the juxtaposition between high and low that has characterized his work up to this point. Collectors, many of whom likely own real designer duds, will shell out $25,000 during Fashion Week to buy a picture of a knockoff.

By Julia Halperin in ArtInfo.