The strawberries in visual artist and menswear designer Brett Westfall’s signature “Fresh” produce motif are inspired by ten days in 2007 he and a colleague spent stranded in Patterson, California, a rural farming town known for its apricots. Westfall, a friend and collaborator of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, studied weathered ads for fruits and veggies hand-painted on wood boards in a style meant for rapid replication, given added character from years of exposure to the elements. Westfall’s attraction to the ads made him reflect on the people and labor connected to the food supply chain, an issue now under fresh political focus in Oregon after farm worker Sebastian Perez was among the hundreds killed in the Pacific Northwest’s record-breaking heat dome last June. Westfall also says strawberries can mean anything viewers think: youth, sweetness, fertility, blood, life, and everything they’ve ever represented across global art history.
Portland's One Grand Gallery is currently hosting the global conclusion of Westfall's touring art show, Signs of Life, featuring strawberries painted on Nike shoes as an LA love note to Portland.
“With [my daughter] Moon, I try to enforce the idea of concepts behind your work, the ideas of the work, because it has to be more than visually stimulating, it needs to be intelligent and well thought out,” Westfall told Mercury of his 12-year-old collaborator at a Saturday, December 11 evening opening reception at One Grand Gallery in Portland. “What’s the reason you’re doing it, what’s the purpose, what’s the meaning, what is your message and everything?”
The Westfalls’ touring art show and market, Signs of Life, is a collaboration with the electronic musician Baseck that came about at the pandemic’s outset, from an informal residency in These Days, an LA gallery and shop space. After watching the Westfalls paint and arrange installations, Baseck composed a nearly 15-minute ambient soundscape. His soundtrack runs a full emotional gamut, starting sparkling and hopeful before going brooding and isolated, turning adventurous and mysterious, then building energy for a cryptic end. It checks the boxes of a rave, a video game, a haute runway, and an unwritten Tron sequel about NFTs.
Signs of Life features paintings, conceptual installations with repurposed objects, a score listeners can scan to hear on their phones, and a pop-up shop that, on opening night, centered pairs of Comme des Garçons x Air Jordan Carnivore and Nike Cortez shoes adorned with Westfall’s miniature strawberries, and a canvas day bag featuring strawberries and Snoppy, Moon’s take on Charles M. Schulz’s iconic black and white beagle. Strawberry-painted CDG wallets were displayed on a merch table with posters, prints, and art notebooks by blue-chip artists like Ai Wei-Wei and the late Virgil Abloh and Basquait.
“I like it to look very in the moment, like how those fruit signs were in the beginning when I saw them,” Westfall said. “They were done as quick as they can, just get them done and get the message out there, and I love that feeling, so I try to keep that in there regardless of whether it takes me a minute.”
Westfall’s strawberries are dollops of consistent color in a familiar but irregular pattern, suggesting a balance between individuality and commonality, uniformity without conformity. Westfall clarified that his painted shoes are not official collaborations commercially available, but art pieces using privately-purchased fashion as a material, interpreting his and the French-Japanese luxury line's take on Oregon's original sportswear giant as a borderless love language. When asked, Westfall said there were similarities and differences between his work and shoe art's most controversial rework to date: MSCHF's hundreds of altered Air Max 97's into Lil Nas X's court-recalled human blood-tinged “Satan shoes.”
“It’s weird, because once you buy something, it’s yours, you own it, so regardless of if you want to work on it and resell it or not, in a sense that’s no one’s business,” Westfall said. “But at the same time, if you’re doing it with thousands of pairs and making a business out of it, then I could see the brand asking ‘What’s going on?’ But if that’s the case, then it’s like, why don’t we work together? It’s a weird one.”
Through its layers of color, texture and symbology, Signs of Life invites viewers to honor their differences while celebrating shared connections, traits and experiences. Westfall and Baseck use Signs of Life in part to honor their friend Ignacio Nava Jr., best known as the legendary queer nightlife producer Nacho Nava, who died in 2019. The show's bleak colors acknowledge grief as natural, just as the joyous, vibrant colors of the forefront too are natural.
Installation pieces include objects held back from trash heaps for years, sometimes decades. Healing Through Loss With Self-Medication (2020), an altar of white-painted beer bottles on a found stump surrounded by soil and house plants, represented death and rebirth. Experimentus Organicus #3C & #1A (2004) are the preserved remains of plain white T-shirts Westfall buried and exhumed from his garden to connect with the planet and soil’s life force. Failure to Thrive (2020), a smashed cello suspended from bound rope, is a meditation on post traumatic stress disorder. Baptized millennial pink in acceptance of the cello's new state of being, Failure to Thrive feels like a defiant response to early calls for people to capitalize on quarantine shutdowns. You Are The Best Chef In The Universe (2020) was Moon's toddler-era toy kitchen painted white and dotted with strawberries, set against a canvas wall decorated with strawberries, mutant Snoppies, and stone-hue textures and stylized words to a poem Westfall dedicated to Moon and her mother.
And to quote spiritual leader-turned-reality star Mary M. Cosby, One Grand Gallery “smelled like hospital” on Signs of Life’s opening night, and into the next afternoon. The freshly swabbed antiseptic cleanser scent, if artistically intentional, was an unexpected twist on Westfall's motif, perhaps a nod to CDG's odd colognes of concrete, tar, and garages. Or, more likely, it was the result of guaranteeing sterility for a crowd that sees beauty in grit, during an age that demands sterility.
Signs of Life's opening reception was the beginning of the end of a show that has toured for over a year, visiting New York, LA and Tokyo in the process, and will remain at One Grand Gallery through January 22. If Moon —who Westfall notes was ten years old when the pandemic and the project started —had attended her first Portland art opening, she would have seen more play on display than CDG x Converse, but in honor of her work. Moon’s contributions include experimental brushstroke techniques, adding 3D found objects to 2D paintings, and stacking acrylic paint like viral nail polish videos, giving her work a delicious candy-coated quality.
“Moon said she wants to be a professional artist when she grows up, so I said ‘Okay, just like if you want to do sports, you have to practice, you can’t just do it whenever you want, it’s discipline, and sometimes it sucks, but you have to keep working or you won’t develop your own style,’” Westfall said. “It’s easier when you develop your own style, you just have to come up with concepts.”
Signs of Life runs through January 22 at One Grand Gallery, 1000 E Burnside. The gallery is open Tuesday-Sunday, 12-6 pm.