As evidenced by the viral, plasticine hoodies and shorts debuted at London Fashion Week on Saturday, the fashion brand J. W. Anderson never shies from eccentricity and experimentation. At the heart of creative director Jonathan Anderson’s myriad projects is a love for and deep knowledge of art – and it shows. His runways are just as much about ideas as they are about clothes, and the same spirit carries through to a new exhibition curated by Anderson at London’s Offer Waterman gallery.
“On Foot” opened today and runs through October 28. An ode to his beloved London, the show’s mix of modern British and contemporary art and ceramics has been arranged by Anderson to invoke the experience of walking around town. “It is just a little snapshot into the things that I love, the people that I love, and the city that I love,” Anderson said last week when we met for a walkthrough of the show. He was dressed casually, but not uncharacteristically, in a grey hoodie and blue jeans.
Exemplary works by David Hockney, Lucien Freud, and Frank Auerbach are interspersed with some of Anderson’s more outré and arty designs. While the idea that a sequestered suite of galleries in Mayfair could convincingly take on the character of bustling streets between Shoreditch and Soho is a bit of a stretch, the conceit allows for some effective and often humorous touches.
“Since Brexit, I fell out of love with London,” Anderson said and elaborated on the frustrations of traveling back and forth from Paris, where he lives part-time to fulfil his duties as creative director of Loewe (the Spanish luxury house has been at the forefront of fashion since Anderson took the reigns in 2013). “This was about being humble, refinding the love of a city that I became used to, and looking at how its subconsciously inspired me.” In locating and rekindling this passion for London, Anderson makes a point of reveling in the city’s more unseemly elements. He insists that these have informed his creative vision just as much as the more rarified influence of fine art.
The first room, the show’s most serious, offers a somewhat abstracted take on the urban populous, whether as the hazily swarming mass in Leon Kossoff’s Outside Kilburn Underground March (1985) or a remote cluster of silhouettes elegantly evoked by Akiko Hirai’s “Morandi” bottles. The formal affinities between a 2017 ceramic by Magdalene Odundo—”a very dear friend”—and two bulbous, layered dresses from J.W. Anderson’s AW20 women’s collection provide a clear curatorial throughline.
Ditto, a 1940 drawing by Henry Moore that hangs opposite Barbara Hepworth’s Elegy (1945). “I have always loved her philosophy that through touching sculpture you get to know sculpture,” Anderson said, and hovered before the piece in rapture. “There’s such a physicality to it. I always find her work strong in its conviction, very different from Moore. Moore can be way more romantic, whereas with Hepworth, there is something more psychological and poignant.”
A much more colorful celebration of contemporary youth culture follows. “I like this idea that when you go to a park most people are on their phones,” he said, gesturing to a typically eclectic canvas by Richard Hawkins in which one man is texting a nude pic. “Popular culture has become part of our phone and has become part of what you see now,” he added, raising his palm in front of his face.
The art is echoed by semi-sculptural pieces from the recent J.W. Anderson men’s SS23 collection such as a blue sweater pierced by a fragmented skateboard and a Breton jersey tied around an actual BMX handlebar. These surrealist additions refer to “how youth culture has become broken through the idea of naivety, non-naivety, growing up too quickly,” according to Anderson.
Attentive viewers will spot evidence of Anderson’s exacting eye for detail. One example is the pairing of a 2020 painting of two young men play-fighting by Florian Krewer with a typically nondescript, uniform group of marching figures by L.S. Lowry. “What is interesting about Lowry is he cuts down into the face,” Anderson explained, “so you get this relief and the head becomes sunken as he scrapes back the oil paint. In Krewer’s work you have a similar technique.”
Tucked around a corner is an array of J.W. Anderson’s pigeon clutches, some “camouflaged” in a new design by Anthea Hamilton. “Obviously the pigeon became synonymous with the brand, somehow, by mistake,” said Anderson, referring obliquely to the bag’s viral appeal after Carrie Bradshaw was seen sporting the accessory on HBO’s And Just Like That in 2022. “Pigeons have been used in art for time immemorial. They featured in Renaissance paintings but somehow they’ve become a pest and we’ve demoted them.”
The works have been paired with new drawings by another of Anderson’s past collaborators Pol Anglada, in which pigeons swoop over basking male torsos. “I liked the idea that this becomes a peep show and a coop,” Anderson said. “They’re all looking at you.”
Where do so many walks through London end? As visitors arrive to Anderson’s pub, they are met first with a series of plant paintings by Christopher Wood, Cedric Morris, and Eliot Hodgkin beside garish anthurium flowers from Loewe’s SS23 collection. “For many, many years I’ve had an obsession with curated flowers,” Anderson explained. “In Britain, we like to arrange flowers in bizarre ways or cover pubs in grotesque plants.”
Once inside, the pub is conjured by a circular space closed off by red screens and lined with portraits by the likes of Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Walter Sickert, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. These faces float over vessels by Jennifer Lee, scattered in a manner familiar to anyone whose enjoyed a pint or two too many. The gathering gives new meaning to the classic art speak cliché of putting works “in conversation.”
“Pubs should be one of the most protected things,” said Anderson, lamenting their slow backslide into cultural irrelevance since the rise of wellness trends. “I don’t think you could tell the history of British art without the pub. The pub creates debate, the pub creates characters,” he added with a grin, citing Freud, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, and Maggi Hambling.
“For me, the whole thing about the show was a very simplistic look at the mundane, that we sometimes forget but is actually so important to be able to be creative,” he adds, suddenly getting to the heart of the matter. What connects Anderson’s interest in pigeons, “grotesque” plant boxes, and everyday pubs is an unusual aesthetic curiosity that feels almost daringly indiscriminate and comically unpretentious.
This instinct surely powers the originality of Anderson’s collections, as well as his cultivation of a close coterie of longterm artistic collaborators and friends, among them Anthea Hamilton, Lynda Benglis, and Gilbert & George, and the estates of Tom of Finland and David Wojnarowicz. The thoughtful intentionality behind their designs and campaigns for J.W. Anderson and Loewe has set these heartfelt projects apart from the glitzy gimmicks that are more often expected when luxury brands dabble in contemporary art.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Anderson primary achievement with “On Foot” is layering his great appreciation for London’s grittier past—”I don’t think I would be the designer I am without those legacies” – with an uplifting and relevant reflection of the city as it is today, thanks to a lively array of contemporary names.
“I think sometimes we forget how multifaceted Britain is,” he said. “This is why I find the whole immigration policy so ridiculous. Britain is built upon immigration and that’s why some of the most exciting things have happened.” It is a point Anderson, who grew up in Northern Ireland, demonstrates repeatedly, placing works by early innovators like Lucie Rie, who fled Nazi Austria, and Bavarian-born Walter Sickert alongside those by London’s living artists, including Akiko Hirai from Japan and ex-New Yorker Shawanda Corbett.
“This is why I wanted all these characters in the pub,” he added, gazing at the unlikely encounters that surrounded him. “I wanted the debate. I’m fed up of non-debates. A tiny bit of alcohol can help debates to let go. They shouldn’t be filtered, they should be uncensored so that there can be solutions.”
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