Fendi, Calvin Klein, I. Magnin, Bloomingdale's. The names conjure up the fragrance lines, department stores and designer boutiques we all know but few can regularly afford. In big cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and even Seattle -- spotting the beautifully crafted signature shopping bags for any one of these establishments is akin to spotting a sporty red Miata out on the open road. There's a glimmer of recognition first, a mental nod to design, and then at least a few moments musing about the good life lived by the person carrying the bag or driving the car.
The designer shopping bag is, like the Miata, a status symbol in the guise of a utilitarian object. It's also, as a new exhibit at Gonzaga University's Jundt Art Museum can attest, a stunning work of art in its own right.
"Art & amp; Commerce" is the title of the Jundt's new show, and it consists of a wide variety of shopping bags from major department stores to tiny boutiques, from well-known artists to relatively obscure designers. With bags designed by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring and Annie Liebowitz, just to name a few, the show has a deliberate and steady fine art grounding. However, there is just as much attention paid to the power of advertising, both in terms of its influence on individual artists and its influence on the culture in general.
"The question is: Is there a marriage between fine art and commercial art?" asks J. Scott Patnode, curator and director of the Jundt Art Museum. "This exhibit hopefully will move those two areas closer together and show that the fine artists have long been associated with commerce on various levels."
Patnode and others who collect shopping bags find that their portability lends to their being a mobile form of public art.
"I see the shopping bag as being sort of the ultimate public commission," says Patnode, who offers a not-to-be-missed lecture on the exhibit on Thursday, Sept. 21. "We've seen that in billboard art and magazine advertising, that, basically, artists are wanting their images to be more widely spread."
One of the more noteworthy things about the exhibit is how often the advertising is secondary to the art. In many cases, the company logo is nowhere to be found on the bag, or is relegated to a small portion of the face or the gusset.
"It's interesting to look at some of the bags and see that some of them don't have any advertisement per se," says Patnode. "So the companies have hired artists in a sense to be associated with the quality of their work. This emphasis on the art gives a sort of quality concept to that particular business."
Historically, the relationship between advertising and fine art is a longstanding one.
"You take the 19th century poster art, for example. Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was doing posters for singing acts at the Moulin Rouge, and Pierre Bonard did a poster for champagne," Patnode observes. "Those particular works weren't considered that serious at the time, and now we look upon them as fine art."
While the new show is not meant to be a historical overview so much as a sampling of the art form, some of the bags are several decades old and show the growth of the designer shopping bag from an infrequent curiosity to its explosion in popularity through the 1980s. The oldest bag in the show is a 1961 design patterned after the tarot card for Bloomingdale's.
"This was one of the very first bags that was done for image's sake, and this is what kicked off all the designer bags for Bloomingdale's," explains Patnode. "What is ironic is that the image is of a tarot card, which were the first woodcuts produced in the early part of the 15th century. So in a sense, it brings us full circle from printmaking to fine art to advertising, back to printmaking."
Bags from Bloomingdale's are a significant share of the show, with one mini-exhibit of store promotion-related bags and one of Christmas bags.
"In the old days, they would put out eight bags a year for different promotions," Patnode says. "They would have a spring bag, a summer bag, and so on. And then bags for specific promotions, for instance, this Vive la France bag, which was a promotion in the store that covered everything from French food to French wine to French furniture to French posters, and the store would completely convert itself into that particular theme for a month or a few weeks."
Twelve different Bloomingdale's bags are exhibited on one wall, front and back, and show the sheer variety of artistic representations available to shopping bag designers. A bag with Al Hirschfield's instantly recognizable caricatures ties into a Bloomingdale's Broadway promotion while the French and Spanish bags are as noteworthy for their gorgeous art photography as they are for clever merchandising. Of special interest to Spokane viewers is a bag designed by prominent artist Tim Girvin, originally of Spokane.
"Tim Girvin is the son of Dr. George Girvin and the artist Lila Girvin," says Patnode, gesturing to an elegant bag in magenta, purple, aqua and gold. "He designed this for a South China Seas promotion to highlight wares from Thailand and the Philippines and Indonesia. One of the signature elements in his design is his calligraphy, which you can see here on the gusset. It's free form and works well with the overall design."
In some cases, the text is as much a visual element as the art. In the case of upscale Chicago boutique, Chiasso, the stylized fonts are eclectic and bold on a bright red background, intriguing the eye and eliminating the need for any further visual explanation. For the Uzzolo bag, a sense of humor is employed in the photographic representation of a muscular, long-tressed, androgynous figure seemingly inspired by classical sculpture, under which "Uzzolo" is spelled out in chunky letters. The bag could be selling anything from hair care to clothing.
"There's a kind of mystery in some of these bags such as this Uzzolo. People always wonder if it's a male or female figure, and they use the famous Bauhaus line, 'Form follows function.' What do you suppose they're selling?" says Patnode. "It turns out, it's a furniture store."
Photography lends itself exceptionally well to the crafting of the designer shopping bag, from Andy Warhol's painting-on-Polaroid of Giuliana Benneton for Benneton and available only in Europe, to the haunting beauty of a Japanese portrait for the Sacramento-based boutique, Weinstock's.
"This Weinstock bag shows the old and the new, the punk rocker hairdo with the traditional, doll-like painted face from older times," says Patnode.
What emerges in how the bags are displayed is a prevalent, unmistakable attention to detail. One of the most beautiful bags in the show is an Asian-influenced portrait by Japanese photographer Bishin Jumonji. A young girl reclines in a dreamlike landscape of night foliage and bright pink flowers, the shade of which is exactly mirrored in the bag's pink cord handles. At another station in the exhibit, three bags are shown from all four sides, front, back and sides, to show how a two-dimensional painting, drawing or illustration becomes a three-dimensional piece. And two bags for Calvin Klein's Obsession for Hair contrast texture and line.
While most of the bags are strictly mass-produced shopping bags, some are valuable and rare pieces of fine art. A bag sporting a print of a roast turkey by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein is a good case in point.
"What's interesting about this particular shopping bag is that it wasn't commissioned by a retail company per se," says Patnode of the hand screen-printed and signed work. "It was commissioned by a gallery for the exhibition and so it was in essence sort of the poster for that. It was never exhibited in the exhibition, and it was handed out, much like a flyer."
A similar bag by Andy Warhol tells the same story. A silk screen of his neon Campbell's Soup can graces a plain white shopping bag, which was used to publicize his third one-man show. Including the Campbell's Soup and the Benneton bags, one whole wall is devoted to the cow bag created from one of Warhol's wallpaper designs for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of his work in 1988. The presence of his work in the show further emphasizes the relationship between art and advertising.
"The question is always: Is advertising influenced by the arts or are the arts influenced by advertising?" wonders Patnode. "Pop art was influenced by advertising, and a lot of advertising today is influenced by fine art."
That is evidenced by the "I Shop, Therefore I Am" bag by Barbara Kruger. One of the feminist movement's first artists, Kruger comes from a strong advertising background and uses a variety of advertising elements in her work. Plastic bags designed by Keith Haring, one for the Centre Georges Pompidou and another for his own Pop Shop, are similarly eye-catching for those of us raised on a steady diet of advertising.
Patnode maintains that while some members of Gonzaga's Art Department sniff at the notion of a show devoted to shopping bags, for the students the exhibit explores the possibilities of making a living while pursuing their art.
"A lot of our art students end up pursuing careers in advertising," says Patnode.
While "Art & amp; Commerce" shows a variety of bags from high-end department stores, galleries and boutiques, the underlying message is that here is art for everyone.
"This is art for the general public," says Patnode. "Whether you're rich or poor, you have access to a wonderful work of art."
"Art & amp; Commerce: Designs on the Shopping Bag" will be displayed at the Jundt Art Museum, 502 E. Boone, from Sept. 1-Oct. 11. Public reception: Thursday, Sept. 21, at
6 pm. Free public lecture: Sept. 21 at 7:30 pm in the
Jundt Lecture Hall.