12.18.17 — Clothes Make the Man

They say clothes make the man—unless, that is, clothes unmake him. Both came to pass in the darkest hours of World War II, when some of LA’s growing minority population dressed for the jazz age.

White resentment then, fed by thoughts of others living to excess amid wartime austerity, led to the mass assaults of the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943. History has largely forgotten, but not Troy Michie, who creates a chronicle of racism and high style, at Company through January 21. It also cuts across past and present, to the demands of Black Lives Matter. American servicemen led the assault then, just as another point of reference for “the man” has now.

Troy Michie's Fat Cat Came to Play (installation view) (Company, 2017)But really, the Zoot Suit Riots? Their invocation in the press release sounds like a hoax or maybe conceptual art, but they were all too real. They also brought a swift response that puts the present Republican administration to shame. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of the need to address race in America, and Earl Warren, then governor of California and later the chief justice who presided over Brown v. Board of Education, appointed a commission. The contrast with today underscores the persistence of prejudice and the threat. For Michie, though, it is also a matter of art and style.

His larger collage has the bright fragmentation of Stuart Davis and American Cubism, already a stepping back to the jazz age. The Whitney has called Archibald Motley, the black artist, “Jazz Age Modernist.” Smaller work becomes thicker and muter, thanks to button-down clothing and tailor’s specs. Both incorporate photographs of black men and women that could belong to then or now. Michie often excises faces, miming acts of enforced anonymity and violence. Chain-link fences divide the gallery, along with bundled newspapers and an empty suit, and more fencing lies on the floor, rolled up around what could be forensic evidence.

They could be deeply evocative or merely confusing, especially for those like me who had to turn to the Web for a point of reference. They also shift the focus awkwardly from Chicanos and LA to blackness and Harlem. Michie’s title speaks of “Fat Cat Came to Play,” and he quotes Malcolm X. Still, in all fairness, the fences bring in not just racial barriers, but also barriers to immigration. Then, too, that quote is double-edged in its appreciation of dress as identity or rebellion. It describes the zoot suit’s “killer-diller coat” with “shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”

Implicit, too, is another barrier, in gender. All those shows of fashion designers at the Met revolve around not just whites and wealth, but also women, no? Talk of “the black male” may seem provocative, as in a legendary show curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney—or dated to the point of embarrassing, as at times with the Whitney’s current “Incomplete History of Protest.” It takes on more currency, though, for the LGBTQ communities, and Michie also appears in “Trigger” at the New Museum. That show’s account of “gender as a tool and a weapon” can itself seem slippery enough to encompass immigration and race. As with Cubism, though, sometimes it pays not to keep one’s head straight.

Yet another problem for male identity extends to white males, like the ones that voted for Donald J. Trump. Right next door to Michie, Alex Mackin Dolan evokes automation and a crude form of AI as “Particle Accelerator of Angels,” at David Lewis through December 22. His constructions could pass for slot machines, juke boxes, or robots, not least with a mechanical humanoid slumping listlessly forward. It might have replaced workers, or it might share their anxiety. Men, too, might have pushed any number of protruding buttons, illustrated with photos and schematic images, expecting another button to pop out. Then again, men these days are expecting a lot.