The Los Angeles art world, like the broader society, is struggling with how to continue to operate during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Art galleries and museums all over the Southland have shuttered their doors and installations have languished in darkened rooms, without visitors. Interesting solutions have emerged to tackle this difficult challenge. One solution is to create fully digital visiting tools, which enables show-goers to visit an art space from the comfort and safety of their home.
A fabulous 2020 design show entitled “A STEP BEYOND: Contemporary Footwear, Functional to Fanciful” has recently graced the galleries at the venerable Otis College of Art and Design. While the gallery doors for A STEP BEYOND were prematurely closed to the public in mid-March, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, show curator Lauria and gallery staff pivoted quickly and were able to digitize the show experience. The OTIS team has created an online tour of the show including a virtual curator tour, which is coming soon.
Otis is a private college, founded in 1918, which was the first independent professional school of art established in Los Angeles. The Ben Maltz Gallery on campus features a full slate of art and design shows throughout the calendar year. Guest curator, Jo Lauria has created a knock-out show for the space. On the Ben Maltz gallery site, there is now a 60-image slide show complete with didactic information. While nothing can replace the visceral experience of seeing a beautifully designed art show in person, during the time of social distancing this is certainly a healthy and welcome option. The full show can be accessed at:  https://www.otis.edu/ben-maltz-gallery/step-beyond-contemporary-footwear-functional-to-fanciful

“At the beginning of the War we were limited to the prescribed boot for walking…now our choice of shoes has become more unlimited than ever, and the subject of footwear fascinating enough to talk about at length.”– Vogue Magazine, 1918

Humans have an intimate relationship with shoes. In the time of pre-history, our ancestors utilized woven grasses and animal hide to wrap the foot for needed warmth and protection. Fast forward to our modern age, and footwear – even our perception of it – has changed radically. We now universally obsess over the design, concept and look of the shoes we wear and collect. For some, shoes are the ultimate status symbol.

 

 

A STEP BEYOND show, Otis Alumni shoes, L-R: Anna Miller (above), Alexandria Felix and Jacob Kim (below)

Historical shoes on display representing decades from 1900 through 2010, “A Step Beyond”

Rem D. Koolhas, “Mobius” shoe progression for United Nude, 2003-2016. UNITED NUDE, a global lifestyle brand co-founded by Rem D. Koolhaas, combines fashion, architecture, and design to produce footwear with an “alternative attitude.”

Situated at the intersection of art and design, A STEP BEYOND explores the complex relationship between fashion, footwear, society and culture – focusing on the past 110 years. The exhibition features contemporary footwear from a variety of perspectives, including custom shoes designed and handcrafted for a private client; luxury, limited-edition creations made for a privileged clientele; and shoes mass-produced for the consumer market.

“Footwear reflects the imagination, innovation, and artistry of its time.”– Jo Lauria, curator

A STEP BEYOND also includes footwear related artworks and showcases the imagination and technical prowess invested in human foot covering. The show features five shoe collections, (including twenty-one collectible sneakers), and eighty-five historical shoes, dating from 1900 through 2010. Twenty-three international artists, craftsmen and architects are represented including luminaries such as Andy Warhol, Rem D. Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid.

Zaha Hadid “NOVA” shoe for United Nude

Paul Kaufman for pskaufman shoes. Kaufman, has worked for international companies Dr. Martens, Na Na, Fornarina, Rocket Dog, Twin Star, and London Underground.

 The enduring allure of the Cowboy boot, A Step Beyond

The show is smartly divided into seven distinctive categories, outlined by the curator as follows:

The shoe as functional footwear – encompassing custom designed and handcrafted shoes for private clients, luxury, limited-edition creations for privileged clientele, and mass-produced shoes for the consumer market

The shoe as structure, sculpture and performance gear: highlighting artists/designers who successfully merge functionality with freedom of expression and the extend the shoe into other artistic realms.

The shoe as fashion marker: charting fashion trends and key developments in 20th and 21st century design.

The shoe as composition: focusing on the illustrated shoe as fashion’s most important accessory.

The shoe beyond literal object: Featuring the shoe as protagonist in individual artistic narratives.

The shoe as collectible: centering on the phenomenon of shoe collectors and their collections.

The shoe as design challenge: Otis alumni and faculty rise to the challenge of creating footwear with flair.

By separating the exhibit into these distinct categories, the viewer is encouraged to think about the shoe not only in its historical context, but to see it as a practical object and an art/luxury object. The various ways artists and designers think about, and approach the shoe, is the focus.

Ill-fitting or supportive, teetering or flat, silent or squeaky, restrictive or ergonomic, the forms surrounding our feet ask us to weigh nature against desire, and the outcome of this equation, when tipped even slightly toward one side or another, has the ability to impact every inch of our bodies and our understanding of ourselves.” – Amara Hark-Weber, bespoke shoemaker

Highlighting the artists who have participated in the exhibit, it was indeed tempting to try to cover every maker in the show, as they all have fascinating stories and create beautiful work. I’ve chosen a handful of contributors to highlight whom I feel capture the spirit of the exhibit.

 

The shoe as collectible, A STEP BEYOND, featuring a selection from the sneaker collection of Twin Daniel, and high-fashion shoes from the collections of Jean Concoff and Pamela Weir-Quiton.

Elisabeth Thorsen wearing her handcrafted leather Rose Maling shoes embellished with fresh water pearls, antique beads and gold thread, with hand-carved wood soles and heels, 2013; and on dinner plate is her handmade shoe Tsar Saltan, embossed leather, hand-carved wood soles and heels, 2013.

Elisabeth Thorsen, L-R: Easy Ticket to Hoppa-Hage, 2017, marbleized vegetable leather-chalk heels; Polka, 2018, Goodyear welted shoes, vegetable leather , hand-painted and hand-stitched details, in collaboration with Mari Jaeger, designer and Paint Me a Birdie (shoes), 2015, embroidery and EVA materials, in collaboration with Jens Stegger Ledaal; and Print from Print Me a Birdie shoes, 2015, ink on paper.

Elisabeth Thorsen is a Norwegian shoemaker and performance artist who draws inspiration from “nature, art, fairytales and 1970’s movies.”  Thorsen graduated from the Norwegian school for shoemaking in 2008 and has been making art using shoes as her primary focus ever since. Thorsen views her work as pieces of art, not merely functional objects. Her performances are both live and captured in digital video. She prefers to craft her shoes with experimental, non-traditional materials such as “carpets, furniture, carved sculptural elements, drapes and even ice, sugar, pencils and sports tape.” (1: From Artist Bio, Elisabeth Thorsen)

In Gaza Bowen’s series, Shoes for the Little Woman, the shoes are fabricated mostly from cleaning products that serve as a parody for the stereotype of the happy housewife who “enjoys” housework.  Gaza first learned her craft in 1976 at Colonial Williamsburg from a master cobbler. Gaza dedicated nearly twenty years to honing her construction skills and representing the shoe’s “cultural meaning and social significance” in both functional footwear and sculptural applications. 

“The works on display provide a focused look into the extraordinary life of Gaza Bowen. If anyone can claim the territory of “progenitor of sculptural shoes,” it is Gaza: she originated the concept of ‘narrative’ footwear that combines humor, unusual materials, invention, attitude, and social commentary.” – Jo Lauria, curator

Gaza, who passed away in 2005, noted “there’s more (to the shoes) for the person that cares to look. In that humor, I’m trying to make a statement about women and fashion, and women and household cleaning, and women as sex symbols.”

 

Helen Chung is an LA artist who works in multiple medium including installation, painting and photography. Drawing on popular culture, literature, and her former experience in accessory design, the artist attempts to “debunk social and cultural myths surrounding the notions of possession, desire, objectification, commodity, and commerce.”   “The two bodies of work on exhibit,” adds the artist, “are displayed in a boutique style with shoes and bags, except the items displayed are only containers of such objects. The boxes and the deconstructed shopping bags engage in a dialogue between intuition and intention, outlining two different processes: one planned with specific outcome, the other, a spontaneous process allowing whim and chance. The work ironically challenges the fixed notion of containers, as merely an external protection or subordinate transporting aid, not quite qualifying as an entity in itself.”  By focusing on the container, and the concept of containment, curator Jo Lauria notes “Helen maintains the integrity of the shoebox and the shopping bag by not adding anything or taking anything away.”

Bespoke shoemaker, Amara Hark-Weber considers the shoe “an extension of body, vehicle, representation of personal identity, inhibitor to/enhancer of movement, metaphor, fetish form, or simply utilitarian object.” Through sculptural footwear, Hark-Weber seeks to question our ideas of function and what we are willing to subject our bodies to. 

‘My sculptural footwear is an exploration of human movement, building techniques, and visual metaphor. They are objects that come alive with personal narrative when worn, with the power to challenge the viewer’s ideas about form, function, body, and movement.”– Amara Hark-Weber

 

Elisabeth Thorsen, Shizaru (4th Monkey Boot), 2018, leather, hand-carved wood heels. Carving by Trude Johansen, detail.

Gaza Bowen, “Little Woman AM” shoes, 1995, leather, rubber foam, linoleum, plastic bottles, dish scrubbers.

Gaza Bowen, Shoes for the Angry Little Woman, 1990, knives, potato peelers, rhinestones, skewers, scouring pads, kidskin, wood, paint, embroidered cloth, rose twigs, nail polish.

 

Helen Chung, Shoe Boxes and Shopping Bags

Amara Hark-Weber, shoe designer-maker in her studio.

Amara Hark-Weber, L-R: Muscle Memory: Equilibrium, 2013, cork, kidskin, thread; Muscle Memory: Opposition, 2013, kidskin, thread, hardware; Muscle Memory: Regrounding, 2013, basswood, kidskin.

“Andy Warhol glorified the shoe by using it as the sole seductive element of his still-life drawings, devoting entire portfolios to illustrations of women’s footwear.” – Jo Lauria, curator

The show also features artists who use images of shoes in their work. Spirited pen and ink drawings of shoes by Andy Warhol are included. According to the exhibition didactic, Andy Warhol began his career as a commercial artist in New York City in the 1940s and self-published hand-colored prints of his campy and glamorous shoes. 

“Widely distributed in fashion magazines such as Glamour and Vogue, Warhol’s illustrations elevated the pump to an object of desire.”  – Jo Lauria, curator 

Joshua Wong’s artwork of glamorous shoes, reflects his life-long love of footwear as luxury item. Inspired by the Upper East Side ladies of Manhattan hailing cabs in their 4-inch heels, Wong launched a successful career designing women’s footwear and handbags. Wong’s love for fashion illustration began in childhood when he was four years old, when his parents noticed that he was drawing high-heeled shoes and racing cars. He later mastered these skills at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. 

After a career in advertising Ralph Lauren hired Joshua to be his women’s collection footwear designer. There, he was involved in “the fast-paced world of runway shows and super models.” While traveling to Paris, Milan and London, Joshua was inspired to capture even more stories of fashion and design. Later on, he became the vice president of footwear design at Banana Republic.  Joshua currently enjoys developing the next generation of designers as a mentor at various schools and is an official mentor at his alma mater, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. (2: From Artist Bio, Joshua Wong)

Amara Hark-Weber – Measurements, a work in progress

Andy Warhol, reproductions of original ink and pen drawings of shoes. Courtesy of Sotheby’s photography.

Joshua Wong, “Snake Shoe” ink and pen drawing on paper

Gregory Weir-Quiton is a legendary fashion illustrator who can usually be seen at Los Angeles art events, sitting in the middle of the crowd, drawing from life. 

“My passion is drawing the contemporary figure. Fashion design obviously influences my work since what intrigues me is how people design themselves (and everyone does). The drawing is an end in itself and I rarely add anything once the pose is over.” – Gregory Weir-Quiton

As a young person Weir-Quiton saw a fashion illustration in the local Detroit newspaper, and he knew he had found his calling. He graduated from Cass Tech High School, majoring in fashion illustration and then received a scholarship to Art Students League. He worked in New York and Chicago before moving to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, he met and married his wife Pamela Weir-Quiton a celebrated wood worker. Her fantastic collection of shoe wear is featured in the exhibit. For 35 years, Gregory worked with major California retailers in the fashion industry including, THE MAY COMPANY, ROBINSONS, BULLOCKS, THE BROADWAY and I. MAGNIN. In this role, Gregory honed his skills of drawing shoes for advertisements. He would later refine these skills to create his more personal fashion illustrations of the human figure, accessorized.  After a long career in fashion illustration, Gregory reinvented himself at Hollywood advertising agency, BLT & Associates, where he works on major film and television releases. Gregory’s original concept sketch, drawn on a napkin for Stephen Spielberg, eventually became the iconic DREAMWORKS logo of the boy fishing on the crescent moon.

 

Gregory Weir-Quiton, ink and pen drawing

Gregory Weir-Quiton, pencil drawings on paper, for Bullocks Wilshire.

Gregory Weir-Quiton, Pencil on paper drawing for Bullocks Wilshire.

Through painting and object making, Alex Becerra pays homage to the lowly footwear traditionally worn in rural settings by Mexican laborers or in urban environments as “Gang-style Street wear” when the sandals are worn with white tube socks. The painting and object combination of huaraches references the artist’s Mexican-American heritage. The artist constructed traditional Mexican huaraches out of sheets of dried acrylic paint that were cut and woven by hand, to mimic the authentic leather sandals. Becerra’s engaging oil paintings are placed on the wall behind his real-life shoe subjects for maximum effect.

Phyllis Green is a Los Angeles artist, educator and curator who is interested in “integrating gender politics and craft.” Primarily a sculptor, she also works in performance, installation and video. Her contribution to the show is a soft sculpture, a lotus flower shape, crafted from sheepskin and topped with sheepskin slippers. Born in Minneapolis, Green grew up in Winnipeg Canada and attended the University of Manitoba. In 1978 she moved to Los Angeles and earned an MFA from UCLA in 1981. Green has lectured globally and has held various teaching positions at UCLA, USC at Loyola Marymount University. (3: From Artist Bio and Wikipedia, Phyllis Green)

Green’s “formally beautiful body of work somehow engages art history, contemporary social and political issues and heartfelt mystical spirituality without missing a beat” – Doug Harvey

 

Alex Becerra, L-R: NIKE Waffle Racer, 2019, oil on linen. Actual NIKE Waffle Racer shoes displayed on shelf below. Self Portrait with Huaraches, 2019, oil on canvas. Huaraches, 2013, hand-woven acrylic paint, displayed on shelf below.

Artist Phyllis Green, with her sculpture “Stepping on a Lotus”

A Step Beyond: Contemporary Footwear, Functional to Fanciful curated by Jo Lauria now showing virtually at the Ben Maltz Gallery, OTIS.

Katie Nartonis is a 20th century design specialist, curator and filmmaker with over 20 years experience in the auction field. She is passionate about the work of the post-war California studio artists and craftsmen. She is currently co-authoring a book on the San Diego maker Jack Roger Hopkins. More info at at www.thenartonisproject.com.
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