One recent afternoon, Cheryl Donegan was rifling through a rack of jackets, leggings, and coats, all of which had images of jackets, leggings, and coats printed on them. She was in a classroom on the New Museum’s fifth floor, where a solo show of her work is currently on view, and she was overjoyed. “I haven’t even really seen these all together,” Donegan said. “I literally saw these in the box and just pulled them all out. I was like, ‘Ah, cool!’ ”
The clothes were from Donegan’s latest fashion line, “Extra Layer,” which will be unveiled to the public tonight, at a runway show at the museum. There will be models, both professional and nonprofessional, and among the latter group will be Donegan’s ten-year-old son. (Her teenage son already walked the runway at another fashion line Donegan did for last year’s NADA fair in New York.)
“I follow fashion the way my sons follow the pro sports that they love,” Donegan, who was wearing loose-fitting jeans and black-heeled boots, said. “I don’t go to fashion shows, I don’t party with fashion people, and I don’t really know anybody in the business. I just follow it the way a fan does,” which is to say, on the Internet. Through Google and Tumblr, she’s able to keep tabs on what people are wearing, and she knows a lot about artists interested in fashion, like DIS and House of Ladosha.
Even if she can’t afford haute couture, she tries to be fashionable herself. “Just the other day, Eckhaus Latta had these mint-green baggy pants, and I went on eBay and found a pair of Liz Claiborne mint-green baggy khakis from 1990! Just like a little homage or something.”
Donegan does not immediately come to mind as an artist who has anything to do with fashion or the Web. In fact, she is probably best known for one work: her 1993 video Head, in which she sucks milk out of a hole in a carton and repeatedly spits it back into the top, causing quite a mess. It’s probably the most SFW video about a NSFW topic ever.
Yet even then, Donegan was vaguely interested in fashion. For Kiss My Royal Irish Ass (K.M.R.I.A.), 1993, a video in which Donegan makes paintings using her naked rear end, the artist thought to herself, “I know my body’s going to be seen in this, but what will I be wearing?”
Johanna Burton, the New Museum’s director and curator of education and public engagement, who organized the current show, said, “For a long time, I think she was embarrassed about her intersections with fashion, and then she was like, ‘Why am I embarrassed about this?’ It’s really come out in the past few years, but it’s always been there.” Donegan also has longstanding interests in identity, representation, surfaces, desires, commodities, the digital, and the body—all of which have made her an underrated “artist’s artist,” Burton explained. (Josh Kline has been one of her most vocal supporters, and Wade Guyton and Seth Price, who are both friends with Donegan, are similarly influenced by her work.)
Her new “Extra Layer” line draws inspiration from “the tuxedo T-shirt, which is that sort of trompe l’oeil of one type of formal garment on top of a very casual garment, and also Maison Margiela, which did a sequin gown printed on a T-shirt,” Donegan said. “I’ve always really admired those two for the visual wit and the sort of pun, and even the notion of the garment as a layer, a changing skin.”
In the case of “Extra Layer,” the pun is that the clothes themselves appear to be wearing pictures of clothes, all of which Donegan sourced from eBay. She thought of something a friend once quoted to her: “The body is the excess of the digital.” “That thought of the body as excess somehow implies to me this sense of a cut… The cut, instead of something that eliminates, is part of reforming who really lives inside. That skin is eliminated, not in a negative or problematic way, but in the way of re-creation.”
With that in mind, Donegan cut up, distorted, and doubled the images in Photoshop, and then, using designs for clothes supplied by the print-on-demand service Print All Over Me, she had the images put on jackets, coats, and pants. (Everything in “Extra Layer” is gender-nonspecific, except for a deep-purple coat, which Donegan acknowledges would more likely be worn by a woman.)
Donegan is up-front about the fact that these were made by workers in Shanghai, and that they won’t get any credit. But, she added, “the person who does drop out is the original photographer. I suppose that’s unfair because I am appropriating their imagery, but I guess because of the transformation of that imagery, I consider that part of fair use.” (None of the “Extra Layer” clothing has Donegan’s name on it, either.)
But Donegan also welcomed the possibility that the Shanghai factory workers would do things she didn’t expect. She pulled out a jacket that featured one of the cut-up photographs. In its new form, the eBay jacket’s stripes jutted dynamically from side to side, complementing the physical jacket’s collar, which she had never intended to happen. “Yowza!” she exclaimed. “Totally amazing.”
Donegan walked me over to her show’s Concept Store, an installation in which museum visitors can look at clothes the artist purchased on eBay, scan them, and, using Donegan’s Tumblr My Plastic Blag, find similar items available online that they also may like. Some of the items will be worn under the “Extra Layer” clothes in the runway show, and as an example, Donegan held up an emerald sequined skirt. “I’m trying to show this reciprocation between this, which I would wear in life, and which I intend to wear when the show’s over, and the work,” she said proudly. “I’m like a sports fan, just scratching that itch.”