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Art wraps itself around the hoodie

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2013 - Once, the hoodie was merely a garment for warming heads and bodies. Now a cultural symbol, it’s heating up the art world.

Two local exhibits opening Jan. 18-19 present hoodie images. One, Good Citizen Gallery's “Dark Star” featuring the work of Daniel McGrath, focuses exclusively on hoodies. Another, Art Saint Louis’ “Misperception,” includes photographer Linda Mueller’s hoodie image in the show's exploration by 55 artists of objects and people that aren’t always as they appear.

The ubiquitous hooded sweatshirt has been around for many decades. In 1992, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it first became known as a hoodie, popularized by rap artists, skateboarders and unlucky “South Park” character Kenny.

“It’s a very interesting subject,” McGrath said. “When they look back on us in 100 years or even 1,000 years, it may come to define us in certain ways.”

Hoodies in history

McGrath, an adjunct professor of art at Webster University, was visiting family in England in August 2011 when the economy-driven youth protests erupted. Demonstrations spread from London to Manchester to Birmingham as young people -- many wearing hooded sweatshirts -- used cell phones to gather their forces and broadcast their looting and other activities.

“You saw this event metastasize almost like a zombie apocalypse,” McGrath said. “I was struck by the image of the hoodie, which is sort of this anti-establishment symbol.”

Hooded figures are abundant not just in popular culture but throughout history: the Grim Reaper, Egyptian mummies, Ku Klux Klansmen. They hark back to ancient Greecian figures known as kouros: nude, standing statues representing not one specific boy but the image of all youths. They’re also represented in Renaissance art, including Bernini’s 1652 “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.”

A 1635 painting Mueller saw at the St. Louis Art Museum -- Francisco de Zurbarán’s “St. Francis Contemplating a Skull” -- inspired her photograph.

“It’s a picture of a Franciscan monk with a hood concealing his face,” Mueller said. “The concealment and that dark solitude drew me.”

Extreme darkness is associated with numerous modern-day hooded figures including the Unabomber artist’s sketch. So feared is the hooded-face image that the simple act of a boy shielding his head from the rain with a hood allegedly figured into George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last February. Fox News host Geraldo Rivera went as far as to blame the hoodie for Martin’s death.

In the aftermath of the Florida tragedy, wearing a hoodie became a symbol of solidarity with the slain boy. A month after the killing, hundreds donned hoodies to join New York’s Million Hoodie March for justice.

Bad hoodie, good hoodie

The centerpiece of “Dark Star” is a mural of hoodie images. Other works include line drawings and sculpture. The exhibit was named for a John Carpenter movie of the same title.

“You have this space crew and they’re blowing up unstable planets,” McGrath said. “They’re sort of entertaining themselves, and I thought it kind of relates to that boredom and aimlessness around the hoodie.”

Other hoodie-related images beyond those in religious works are more positive: the character of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and in the story of Jesus as he arose from the dead.

“The Shroud of Turin is not a hoodie but it basically wraps the body,” McGrath said. “And when Christ comes from the tomb, he’s not recognized because he’s shrouded; it’s a kind of mystery.”

An opportunity to contemplate the hoodie -- for good and bad -- is what “Dark Star” offers exhibit-goers.

“Someone might say, ‘That’s really cool,’ and someone else might say, ‘That’s a threat,’” McGrath said. “Maybe people can meditate on the issue. There’s no definite message about it.”

Good Citizen Gallery owner Andrew James doesn’t have strong opinions about hoodies either way -- he just believes in McGrath.

“The exhibition is based on the strength of Daniel’s work,” James said. “He proposed it, he had good ideas behind it, and I sort of just let him do this.”

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