The Los Angeles–based artist and musician Brendan Fowler has cut an idiosyncratic path through culture for well over a decade, building a deep and varied body of work that defies easy summary. Fowler’s most recent exhibition, “New Portraits,” currently on view at Richard Telles Fine Arts in Los Angeles through February 11, extrapolates on the artist’s recent work in portraiture with industrial embroidery machines, adding a newfound looseness inspired by Election Reform!, Fowler’s political streetwear brand. I recently spoke with the artist on the phone, where we talked about the new show, his work in fashion, and Kanye West.
Fowler’s heavy résumé spans numerous media and traditions. As a visual artist, selections from his “crash piece” series of works—assemblages of framed photos that appear to have been violently smashed through one another—were included in the 2013 New Photography show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Fowler’s 2000s-era performance project BARR toured the underground music circuit and released material on the esteemed indie label Kill Rock Stars. Along with Ed Templeton and Aaron Rose, he was the editor of the influential art and culture magazine ANP Quarterly. More recently, Fowler has interfaced with the worlds of contemporary streetwear and fashion through both Election Reform! and the collaborative brand Some Ware, which he runs in tandem with the artist Cali De Witt.
Fowler began making work using an industrial embroidery machine in 2012. These pieces range from abstractions to, more recently, his first stab at earnest portraiture. “I got the embroidery machine to make pictures, and the pictures, the way I was making the pictures, was really, really, really crazy,” Fowler told me, adding that one piece took four months of working a minimum of seven or eight hours a day to finish. That kind of work got the artist pining to make something less rigorous. Enter Election Reform!, which uses the formal language of fashion as a pathway to start a dialogue around the flaws of the American electoral system.
With the project, the artist was trying to figure out “how to make a thing that’s like an art edition and then how to also make a clothes thing,” Fowler said. “Because I do love clothes and I’ve always been really obsessed with clothes as a sculptural thing and an art thing and a formal thing and as a vessel as a language space.” Each piece comes with a reader on the electoral system, which can also be downloaded as a PDF on the brand’s website. It features, among other pieces, a Brent Staples New York Times article titled “The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement” and a piece by Victora Collier in Harper’s called “How to Rig An Election: The G.O.P. Aims to Paint the Country Red.” (Fowler calls Election Reform! a “non-partisan” project, even though he admitted that “my politics are pretty obvious and on my sleeve, you know how I vote.”)
All Election Reform! hoodies are one-of-a-kind collages on recycled clothing and have a tactile, handmade presence. The brand’s T-shirts are screen-printed over thrift store finds, a common practice of punk and noise bands. In a sense, Fowler is taking aesthetic cues from DIY and craft communities and inserting them into the world of streetwear, fostering intriguing cultural crossover possibilities in the process. The political component of the project feels congruent with the ethos of the garments themselves.
Fowler told me that working with Election Reform! got his art into a more “collage-y” space. The fruits of this experimentation can be seen in “New Portraits,” which throws polyester, found fabric, and acrylic-on-canvas into the mix with industrial embroidery and beyond. Speaking about the opening of the Telles exhibition, Fowler told me, “I think a lot of kids came to the show who have become aware of me through clothes channels,” which, he noted, speaks to the cultural strength that fashion currently wields. “I think that has a lot to do with social media and Instagram, and the fact that the power has shifted a lot also within the clothing, style industry,” Fowler said, referring to the newfound democratization of an industry that “used to be just sort of run by magazine editors.”
Within this newfound structure, there is room for experimentation. The fact that Fowler’s clothing has shown up on everyone from Kanye West to Abel Tesfaye—also known as The Weeknd—speaks to an interesting moment in culture when ideas from the worlds of contemporary art and underground music are being shot into the public consciousness via clothing. For a brand with a set of motivations that stretch beyond aesthetics, this populism can be a way to communicate ideas.
“Anyone that wears a garment that says—really big, italicized, explanation point—Election Reform!, is saying election reform,” Fowler said. “So far I have yet to produce anything that’s like low key, it’s all really very, like, high key, [like] Election Reform! hella big.” When a musician wears the brand, he noted that “their fans don’t know anything about Brendan Fowler, they don’t know anything about ARTnews, they don’t know anything about Richard Telles Gallery,” but they do get a simple message that is easily googleable, perhaps leading them to the PDF reader on the Election Reform! website. This pathway to political engagement is an interesting and accessible counter to more codified forms of activism.
Last fall—and, it should be noted, well before his meeting with Donald Trump—a photo of Kanye West wearing an Election Reform! shirt started floating around the internet. For some time now, Kanye has been known for supporting new brands, opening them up to a totally new market in the process. For struggling young designers, the “Kanye bump” is a real, potentially life-changing event. “Whoever took the picture, the picture was super dark, and you can’t super see it,” Fowler said. It got reposted a bunch, but nobody could figure out what the brand was. “That’s sort of the irony,” Fowler noted. All things considered, though, that was maybe not the worst bad break.