Inspiration: Americana, John Chamberlain, and Prada’s Hotrod Hotties


Have you seen the Spring ’12 Prada campaign and are you feeling it?  I immediately loved it as it looks like film stills from a sophisticated bad girls movie about chicks and Chevy’s from the 1950’s.  Steven Meisel succeeds in capturing a distinctly American cultural reference for the Italian fashion brand.  It’s a fantasy I want to buy into– hotties at the gas pump, filling up their cherry hotrods in flaming heels.

On a related (or completely un-related) note, yesterday I went to see the sculptor John Chamberlain’s show at the Guggenheim, as well as an accompanying lecture by art critic Dave Hickey about the show.  (Sidenote: If I could have a fantasy dinner party with 10 guests, Dave Hickey would make the list– he is an irreverent, hysterical card, with a lyrical way of speaking and a thick southern drawl.  He is hyper-informed on everything from pop culture to the infinite details of art history and says things like, “that sculpture just breaks my heart”- meaning it’s great! It’s refreshing to find someone to whom very little is sacred. Read his book Air Guitar!)

As I was looking at the show, the new Prada adds kept popping into my mind.  It wasn’t just about the cars though, it was about the use of color, the confidence, and the distinct American-ness of it all. The historical and cultural references that Prada is fetishizing in their ads, are happening in real time in John Chamberlain’s work.

Chamberlain was born in Indiana and served in the US Navy on an aircraft carrier (machinery, engineering, technical know-how). He lived in Detroit (cars, manufacturing). He then spent time as a hairdresser and make-up artist in Chicago (interest in surface and sheen) and eventually found his way to study art at Black Mountain College in North Carolina (composition, poetry, modern art).  He collected all the pieces in his work from salvage yards across America and he set up studio in a run down part of Sarasota, Florida.  He came from a time when more Americans worked with their hands in factories, when people built things. He re-appropriated scrap into something more poetic, and maybe something distinctly, culturally American.

A car itself doesn’t have a personality– it’s a thing with a practical purpose, but when you take it apart, crush it, bend it, wad it up, pair it with plastics and spray paint, and reassemble it, it takes on a whole new identity.

Is it too much of a stretch that when looking at Chamberlain’s work, I can see a supremely confident woman? Well dressed, balanced perfectly on her flaming heels, staring me down? And maybe she’s messy too, complicated and bent up, colorful, vulnerable in the spaces between all that hard metal– much like these fantasy characters in Prada’s campaign- rebels without a cause, tough, smart, well-heeled, sexy, and American built, or at least born of the cultural myths of the American consciousness.

I know, Miuccia Prada probably wasn’t thinking about Chamberlain– and Chamberlain could have no premonition of the fashion world of 2012 when making his work in the 60s and 70s– but in the spirit of Dave Hickey’s philosophy, “it’s kinda fun” to think about these possible relationships.

You can see John Chamberlain: Choices at the Guggenheim in NYC through May 13.






all images from Prada and the Guggenheim

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