At Philly museum, the art of old clothes embraces individual connections

Cast-off clothing is the raw material for an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Brooklyn-based artist Jean Shin collected shoes, sweaters, military uniforms, and fashion industry fabric remainders to make the large installation work.

The gallery in the museum’s Perelman Building annex normally displays fashion and textile exhibitions. In “Jean Shin: Collections,” she methodically deconstructs clothes into their parts and reassembles them into displays that evoke communities, however invisible.

Shin thinks a lot about bodies and how they fill out clothes, occupy spaces, and interact with each other.

“The materials talk about the presence of people, but it’s with the absence of a body,” she said.

One of the pieces in her show, “Unraveling,” is an installation she has been working on for 12 years. Shin solicits used knit sweaters from friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and so on, then pins them to a wall. Starting in 2006, she has gathered 182 sweaters, including two dozen from Asian-Americans living in Philadelphia for this iteration.

A strand of yarn pulled from each sweater is stretched to another that had been owned by a friend. Like a social network wrought in thread, the web of interconnection creates a dense canopy overhead.

“It’s like a chain mail to map how we are connected, not who we are as individuals,” said Shin.

Shin’s work is a push-pull: She amasses large quantities of previously owned objects into a thick communal installation, while eking out the individuality of each object. For “Worn Soles,” Shin arranged hundreds of soles of shoes — all found randomly on the street, all separated from their leather uppers — on the floor of the gallery.

The flow of steps resembles eddying water, more than foot traffic. Each sole is turned bottom up, so the close observer can see how the former owner of the show had walked. Some soles have deep pavement scratches, some don’t seem to have ever been worn outside; some heels are worn down unevenly, some have holes under the ball of the foot.

Shin’s more recent pieces have involved collecting items with known histories. For “Armed” (2005) she met and interviewed veterans who had saved the fatigues they wore while in combat, sometimes decades earlier. She deconstructed each into its sewing pattern pieces, and reassembled them into a wall mural.

From a distance, is seems to be a study of camouflages — both jungle and desert. Closer inspection shows that some of  soldier’s names are still stitched over the shirt pockets.

“They’re not just leftover, thrift store surplus. These are individuals who didn’t pass it along. They gave it to me,” said Shin. “That has a level of material exchange that’s extremely powerful, rather than just finding discards on the street.”

“Jean Shin: Collections” is on view until July 15.

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