Douglas Abraham, founder of the idiosyncratic jewelry and fashion line and Manhattan Wunderkammer Bess, decided if he was going to continue to use Instagram, it would need to serve as a platform for art, viewing the feed as an instrument to “create a story about yourself, to build an identity and share it.” Search his handle @bessnyc4, and it’s evident his identity is unique. Since March, Abraham has been posting a daily trio of aberrant fashion photomontages, evocative images that may at first glance appear to be a menagerie of subculture icons and fetishist imagery debasing beloved campaigns. But after swiping through your tenth, eleventh, or twentieth triptych, it’s apparent he’s seamlessly threading in his own wickedly cool perspective.
Tampering with iconic advertisements for the likes of Calvin Klein, Prada, Dior, and Givenchy, Abraham’s collages are often disfigured into wholly new creatures. Symbiotically repurposing subject, composition, and anatomy is a way for him to alter the narrative, “to layer my own subjectivity with the existing images to make new meaning,” he explains. Céline’s Spring 2013 campaign featuring our cover girl, Daria Werbowy, was the first fashion campaign to be fully integrated, and since then, the brand and logo have been an essential voice in the work. Abraham’s magpie method works to establish meaningful correlations between entirely distinct images. “I need to know what to ask the Internet for—so it gives me what I want pretty quickly,” he explains. “I try to have a point of view or intention when searching for images, seeking to recreate the ad images with a new unifying narrative.”
The fecundity of the results is a testament to their author’s mental catalogue. Collectively, it’s a throng of art-world heroes and subculture deviancy. Rampant are the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Andy Warhol, and Tank Girl and images conceived by artists like Egon Schiele, Hikari Shimoda, and Matthew Barney, all chopped with campaigns modeled by icons like Werbowy, Kate Moss, and Saskia de Brauw. Abraham’s approach is one that is well-informed: he has a bachelor’s in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute and a master’s in combined media from Hunter College. His approach, he says, is due in part to his store, Bess (short for Elizabeth, his wife), which he describes as “for better or worse, a little on the outside of fashion,” appropriately enough for a brand which started out as a jewelry company, but has since broadened into a full line of apparel and accessories.
While the juxtapositions in Abraham’s works may at times goad and rouse, there is in fact an appreciative, subjective narrative, rather than pure sardonicism. His creative process is less about creating meaning than revealing it. “The ad images already have substance: the power of the logo, the legacy of the brand, and the work of all the great talent brought together to produce the campaign,” he says. “I am using the original ads as vehicles to superimpose my own subjectivity onto. I don’t look for it to be overtly in opposition to the original ad, but I do look to make it jarring and maybe say something I feel the ad is already wanting to say or do.” In this, he reverses the form of marketing itself: whereas campaigns are the consumer-ready end product, he, perhaps, brings them back daringly close to their mood-board origins.
Abraham’s art demonstrates that the familiarity and reputability granted by a brand has the inherent power to canonize the unconventional. But after all derivations, the work is an extension of Douglas Abraham. “What is compelling for me in creating these images on a daily basis,” he says, “is the need to do something creative and solitary that can be shared immediately.”
For more information, please visit Instagram.com/@bessnyc4.
Steven Yatsko is a New York-based photographer, filmmaker, and writer currently serving as the features editor for S Magazine.