I Am a T-Shirt

by Jason McBride

“It fits like a glove,” the expression goes, when something fits perfectly. But nothing ever fits perfectly: relationships, jobs, identity, or clothing. “It fits like a T-shirt,” might more accurately describe a world that can be variously oversized, shapeless, or confining. Conceived by artists Millie Chen, Emelie Chhangur, Hannah Claus, Stefan Hoffmann and Dan Perjovschi, the T-shirt designs in MIXEDFIT further complicate the possibilities, offering supplementary interpretations of how each of us fit into society and culture or, rather, how culture is fitted on to us. The following thoughts offer additional nuances, shades and contexts about the role of the T-shirt.

This past August, a 32-year-old man named Brunaud Moïse was kicked out of Montreal’s La Ronde amusement park for wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. In the shirt’s design, Marley’s face and dreadlocks are composed of marijuana leaves. The staff said his shirt was inappropriate; La Ronde’s dress code, displayed on its website and on signs throughout the park, states that clothing “with rude, vulgar or offensive language or graphics is not permitted at any time.” Moïse was asked to either leave La Ronde or turn the shirt inside out; he did the latter but then grew more incensed at what he perceived as humiliating treatment. “It was an insult to my freedom to express myself,” he said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette. Moïse, who is black, claimed the park’s staff singled him out because of his skin colour. He has subsequently lodged a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission. When the story was posted on the Gazette’s website, one commenter, MaryJane65, offered this assessment: “Wearing that T-shirt is humiliation enough.”

I’m no art critic. I’m no fashion critic. I’ve been a movie critic, though, and it’s commonly accepted that movie stars made T-shirts the popular fashion item that they are now—James Dean, Marlon Brando. But artists of the same period—I’m thinking of Jackson Pollock, for one—also wore T-shirts. In the prototypical Pollock photograph, he’s always sprawled over a canvas, wearing a black T and dungarees, a cigarette stub jutting from the corner of his mouth. Musing about Lucy Lippard and working-class artists in her new novel, Inferno, Eileen Myles writes, “For a long while the aspiring American artist had to put on the clothes of the worker, the overalls and sweatshirts, clothes for working outside…” I can think of few artists who now feel compelled to identify as part of the working class, and such clothing rarely connotes a particular status anyway. Categories dissolve, and everyone wears T-shirts. Dogs wear T-shirts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Myles in anything but.

Every decision we make, every moment of our lives, can mean the oppression, derangement or extinction of a life that’s not our own. Where is the factory whose workers manufactured the computer on which I’m writing this? How dangerous the mines from which its components were extracted? What poisonous agents dye the paper of this brochure? The T-shirt I’m wearing is printed with Kurt Cobain’s sad, suicidal face, but the person who picked the cotton to make the shirt probably never heard his music and the person who sewed the shirt may have suffered problems much worse than Cobain’s. American Apparel did not make this Kurt shirt, although of the twenty-five or so T-shirts that I own, almost twenty come from Dov Charney’s controversial company. I like how they fit—comfortably snug, not too long. If American Apparel’s button-pushing ads had long ago become blandly solipsistic and Charney’s satyric managerial techniques too predictable, I could still get behind the company’s labour practices. American Apparel pays fair wages, provides health benefits, and even offers employees on-site massage. Suppose its anti-sweatshop-labour stance was just another marketing strategy—would that matter if the company provided a safe working environment for thousands of employees? An FBI crackdown on illegal immigration in 2009, however, forced American Apparel to fire 1,500 employees who didn’t have proper documentation, and the company now teeters on bankruptcy—its current debt sits at more than $120 million, its stock at an all-time low of 66 cents. Charney argues, rather persuasively, that the dismissed employees were subsequently forced into the vast underground American economy that depends entirely on cheap illegal immigrant labour: sweatshops, farms, the food industry, and the porn industry. Some would argue that Charney’s progressive labour policy doesn’t justify his fraught treatment of women, and no, of course, it doesn’t. But Lauren Phoenix, the Canadian porn star he once used in his ads, has, at least, been able to retire.

A closet lining the hallway of Toronto artist Micah Lexier’s apartment contains two shelves where he keeps his T-shirts. One shelf is devoted to long-sleeve shirts, the other to short. Lexier assembles this collection with the same conceptual rigour found in his art: there are three stacks of shirts on each shelf—one for plain, coloured shirts; one for shirts printed with graphic patterns; the third for non-crew neck shirts (V-necks, tank tops, etc.) or shirts which Lexier will need to gain or lose weight to comfortably wear again. A box at the bottom of the closet contains shirts that Lexier no longer wears—but which he keeps for their notable pattern—and shirts of his own design. (One wry design, for the Toronto coffee shop T.A.N., has the words DOUBLE DOUBLE crossed out.) Lexier primarily collects two types of T-shirts, and those familiar with his art will not be surprised to learn that they feature either very simple, strong graphics (an orange rectangle on a grey background, for example) or unadorned, if suggestive, type (DRUMMER WANTED). Lexier rarely wears collared shirts, but when he does, he also wears a T-shirt underneath. It gives him a youthful aspect. He favours muted colours—a dusty pink, say—and never wears black. It’s too extreme or definitive; as in his art, where he likewise never prints with black, Lexier prefers a dark grey or deep blue. His favourite shirt of all time is a white long-sleeve T, designed by Belgium’s Walter Van Beirendonck, which reads AESTHETICTERRORISTS.

In The T-shirt Book, authors John Gordon, Alice Hiller and Mandy Ollis write, “Genuine T-shirt art brings together flat and print skills and turns them into a wearable, three-dimensional experience. It also provides a new way of viewing conventional images and as such is a very exciting art medium.” What makes a T-shirt a work of art? (And, more elusively, what makes a work of art a T-shirt?) London-based artists Gilbert and George have designed T-shirts, as did Andy Warhol and Peter Max. I own a T-shirt with a Yoshitomo Nara illustration on it. Classic, clichéd works of great art are printed on T-shirts as readily as they are on cheap posters that hang in undergrad dorm rooms. A T-shirt is an obvious and portable canvas but even so, it is less about the production of a sensibility (one definition of art) than the advertisement of one. The T-shirt company Threadless sells shirts whose designs are created via an ongoing, open call, with new designs released every week. “Artists” (i.e. anyone) are invited to submit their ideas, which are then rated by the public online; the most popular designs are put into production and sold. Designs range from clever to cloying. The “Bestees” are the shirts ranked highest each month. My favourite this year, though it’s not something I would ever wear, is a punning soft sculpture of Mr T’s face, composed of other T-shirts. As of July 2010, 85,000 artists had submitted 300,000 designs. “After all, art is not philosophy,” Canadian artist Steve Reinke said in The Hundred Videos, “We’ve got things to make and things to sell.”

MIXEDFIT, installation detail, 2010.
MIXEDFIT, installation detail, 2010. Photo: Isaac Applebaum.

MIXEDFIT is a limited edition of artist-designed T-shirts that explore notions of displacement and interaction between cultures and identities.

Millie Chen (Ridgeway, ON) reinterprets the idyllic chinoiserie motifs of Stroheim & Romann Inc.’s wallpaper design “Cathay Pastoral Vine,” commenting on the domestication of the fabled Orient as a projection of European desire. Chen’s work has been shown widely in Canada and worldwide and is included in several public collections. She is Chair of the Department of Visual Studies, University at Buffalo, SUNY.

Emelie Chhangur (Toronto, ON) considers the history of discrimination practiced against those of mixed identity. Her T-shirt is a response to Canadian women’s rights activist Emily Murphy’s intolerant views on immigration and race, which have overshadowed her contributions to feminism. Chhangur’s single channel videos have been shown nationally and internationally. She is Assistant Director/Curator at the Art Gallery of York University.

Hannah Claus (Montreal, QC) based her design on a Victorian crocheted doily – an allusion to the Protestant work ethic – transforming it to symbolize a colonial wound that reflects Native peoples’ forced assimilation into the dominant British culture. Shown throughout Canada, Claus’s work provokes a re-thinking of cultural, historical and personal boundaries, often referencing her Mohawk and European-Canadian heritage.

Stefan Hoffmann (Rotterdam, NL) reinvents pictographs and urban signage to comment on the alienation and longing of city dwellers separated by invisible but pervasive boundaries. His unique designs were part of an installation for Basili’s storefront window and were silkscreened on T-shirts during a public event. Hoffman has been involved in projects across Europe and North America.

Dan Perjovschi (Bucharest, RO) contributes an iconic image of two shadowed figures, poignantly expressing the immigrant condition and the inherent dislocation of individual identity. Perjovschi gained international recognition for his insightful, pithy drawings that comment on current global events. He has played an active role in the development of civic society in Romania and its contemporary artistic scene.

Jason McBride (Toronto, ON) is a writer and editor who frequently contributes to Toronto LifeThe Globe and MailThe Believer, and many other publications.

Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson | Photography: Isaac Applebaum
Digital publication to the exhibition MIXEDFIT
Presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at Balisi stores in Toronto | September 21 to November 28, 2010
Curator: Mona Filip

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2010, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved.
ISBN 978-0-920863-92-3.

Koffler family FoundationCIBC Wood GundyOntario Arts Council | Conseil Des Arts De L'OntarioToronto Arts Council | Funded by the City of TorontoCanada Council