'The T-Shirt Show' Is Just a Minor Thread

Too few of the works on display at the Hibbleton explore the garment's polemical, punk-rock potential

My first T-shirt was white, thin, and hand-sewn by small brown children in foreign sweatshops and sold en masse at Christian bookstore Maranatha Village in Costa Mesa. I vaguely remember it being emblazoned with a message about Being Prepared Because Jesus Was Coming (a long story, trust me), a clunky brown cartoon cross and a white dove. Walking through the halls of my public school as an adolescent right-wing billboard, desperate for the attention of others to validate my sorry teen inadequacies, the images and words drew a lot of stares and snickering but also set me aside from the mainstream, as other Jesus Freak kids in the same lonely boat flocked to me.

Fast-forward a few years, and my brother and I—now both hardcore punks—bought T-shirts featuring corporate-rock junk such as Led Zeppelin and Journey, defaced them with Sharpies by writing the words I HATE right above the band’s logos, and began wearing them to shows. Needless to say, they were a hit.

With the discovery of stencils and spray paint, we started to make our own black-and-white shirts to show our love for the bands we adored—Flipper, Fear, the Circle Jerks, Bad Religion—with Exene Cervenka of X so impressed with one shirt my brother had made of her face that he stripped it off his back at a record signing and gave it to her.

I satirized the swine flu, and all I got was this . . .
Courtesy Hibbleton Gallery
I satirized the swine flu, and all I got was this . . .

T-shirts are one of the most accessible forms of art possible, alongside fliers and photographs. You can design and make a T-shirt easily—it is, after all, a blank canvas—then wear that public art and get an immediate response. Depending on the size of the image or lettering, it can be a virtually silent protest that someone would have to get into your space to examine, or it can be something that shouts at you from across the street. It can be impolite and in-your-face because, like bumper stickers on a car, T-shirts are meant to provoke a response, demanding the viewer coming in contact with it read the wearer’s message. Political views, philosophical musings, musical tastes, sexual orientation, fanboy obsessions . . . they all have a passive/aggressive place on a T-shirt because decorum generally prevents strangers from violently confronting each other on the street when coming in contact with an opinion they dislike.

With that rich potential in mind, it’s disappointing so few of Hibbleton Gallery’s rows of inexpensive, limited-edition shirts on hangers in their exhibition “The T-Shirt Show would be likely to provoke a second glance, let alone an ideological confrontation.

Ignoring the been-there, seen-that stoner-culture shirts—Van Gogh, Bob Marley, airships being attacked by giant squids—there are several eye-catching images, with the best taking the opportunity to try something different: Chad Eaton’s The Poor Saps woodcut print of intoxicated lumberjacks listening to a group of musicians is a fun crossover, using one medium to inform another. Brian Prince’s swine-flu-inspired shirt features a grasping hand with a pig face, a tiny gauze mask stitched into the striped material. Shawn Sandfer’s dinosaur on black, white paint sprayed over the stencil, is reminiscent of prehistoric man blowing paint on a cave wall to reveal the shape of his hand. Lauren Hobson’s little blue block-headed figure waving at the viewer is a cross between a Lego and a friendly ADA symbol. I would expect Michy Enchilada’s creepy/cool drawing of an amphibious black character in a shirt deep in conversation with a lesbian drinking a beer is something about bridging the gaps that separate us, but whatever it means, it certainly stands out. John Hicks’ image of Abraham Lincoln is inspired, the yellow paint spatterings leeching into the blue material of the shirt, evoking brain matter. I would have bought Maust’s “He just kept pouring the sugar and letting it dissolve in the cup” T-shirt, shown turned inside-out and artfully moth-eaten, if it had been in my size (more on that later). Any artist who has had to deal with the city will get a knowing chuckle out of Virginia Valdez’s Fullerton Is for Hustlers baby-doll shirt. Artist Ryan Ward relies too heavily on Andy Warhol’s repetitive silk-screening technique, but his surfer on a blue shirt, repeated until it looks like he’s being wiped out by his own image, is absolutely mesmerizing.

Hibbleton’s “The T-Shirt Show”is a great idea, and the prices are reasonable ($30 for a piece of original art!), but the show feels unfinished, even unfocused, like it needs more thought, more work from its curators than simply having an open call for submissions. They’re also going to have to take into consideration that not everyone interested in buying a shirt is going to be able to wear a small or medium. Not a single shirt is accessible to those of us who enjoy a cheeseburger once in a while.

Granted, the shirts look to be made for display, and maybe they’re meant for framing instead of for wearing, but that kind of defeats the purpose, then, doesn’t it?

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