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Flowers and Fashion Shows: Catching Up with Special Special’s Wen-You Cai
Benjamin Langford’s piece from its current exhibit appears in NYFW.
Art Stuff 30 Sep 2020
Photo by Midge Wattles

Headed by Hillary Taymour, Collina Strada isn’t just sustainable, it’s a platform for promoting social issues in all aspects of the brand.

Its “Change is Cute” SS21 collection debuted as a digital presentation with artists who visualized climate change awareness through a Collina Strada lens.

The video was directed by Charlie Engman with 3D animations from Jefferson Wenzel, and was edited by multimedia artist Alicia Mersy. Illustrator Sean-Kierre Lyons’s Black folklore-inspired visuals appear throughout the collection. The casting featured notable names like curator Kimberly Drew, poet Precious Okoyomon, model Aaron Philip, and Chef Danny Bowien. Although the list of collaborators is lengthy, everything feels aligned to each person’s individual aesthetic.

Image courtesy of Charlie Engman for Collina Strada

Two of the looks stand out: Look 17, a rainbow-mohawked model in pink jeans with orange-swirly patterns, and Look 20, a orange-eyed model in a tie-dyed loungewear set with glittery details.

Both are holding hyperreal felt “Tubers” by artist Benjamin Langford, who recently opened a solo exhibition titled “Late Summer” at Special Special gallery in NYC. Langford photographed found flowers, vines, and leaves before printing them on canvas and draping the large-scale soft sculptures around the space. According to gallery’s founder Wen-You Cai, “All the floral pieces in the exhibition have been plants and flowers that Ben found around his home during the pandemic, which included dried leaves and aged flowers. It’s a departure from his previous works which have all been blossoming flowers.” 

Video courtesy of Charlie Engman for Collina Strada

Founded in 2016, Special Special is an art and design production brand, exhibition space, and retail concept located in the East Village. “Our mission at Special Special has always been to create art for accessibility and produce art editions that are functional for the everyday,” says Wen-You. The gallery is known for producing these editions with each of its exhibitions. For “Late Summer,” Langford collaborated on “Tubers,” turnip- or sunchoke-printed planters that can hold real, growing plants, and a Hibiscus Hawaiian shirt made with the artist’s signature photographic digital printing process. To learn more about the collaboration behind “Tubers” and recents changes at Special Special, we spoke to Wen-You:

Benjamin langford, Tubers (2020), Polyester felt and machine-stitching, edition of 200. Image courtesy of the artist and Special Special.

Could you tell us about how Special Special and Benjamin Langford created “Tubers,” which is such a trippy statement piece?

When we began conceptualizing ideas with Ben earlier this year, Ben mentioned fabric planters, and we immediately decided that was the edition to produce. As we continued to discuss once  we were all in isolation, the main plants that Ben could access were his CSA farm share groceries, which included tubers, so that narrowed the imagery down in a beautiful way that naturally led to the “Late Summer” exhibition. 

I’ve always appreciated the community- and retail-driven format of your gallery. Is there anything in the art world that Special Special is trying to change? 

My aim with Special Special has always been to bring art closer to people. With every exhibition, performance, or workshop, we aim to be accessible to anybody on a human level, in hopes of bridging the distance between art and people on all spectrums of artistic appreciation. In general, it is easier for people to peruse stores than galleries. So, my intention was to invite people to walk in to shop at Special Special, and we create the suggested world in which our art and art editions live. 

Benjamin Langford in his studio, Brooklyn, New York, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Special Special.

What are some of the changes that Special Special has had to introduce before (safely) re-opening?

When we opened in 2016, we offered six exhibitions a year. By exhibitions, I mean any kind of intervention or installation, whether it is an art exhibition or a presentation of products. It has been really fun to completely overhaul our space many times a year while also producing editions with artists, “Show and Tell” email inbox exhibitions, workshops, The Frontiers Conference performance series with Wildman Clab, and a pop-up shop exhibition at MGM Macau. As you can imagine it is a lot of work. 

Prior to even the pandemic starting, I wanted to limit our exhibitions to produce two or three quality shows in a year, and to further dedicate ourselves to all the endeavors we want to produce and more. The pandemic has been a good excuse for us to adjust our priorities, because we weren’t able to open our space for a season.

For pandemic safety precautions, we limit the number of visitors in our space. We also have an appointment system, which gives priority to those who book online to visit. Our “Late Summer” exhibition opening also encouraged visitors to book online with the added benefit of attending a private artist-led walkthrough. Ultimately, Ben and I preferred it this way to a normal opening. Most openings prior to the pandemic were really crowded. Guests always tell you they will come back to see the show when there are less people, but the chances of that happening has been rare. 

Has the gallery noticed any changes in its visitors or how its visitors interact in the space? 

I think in general, people visit spaces with more intention now. They can also receive a more comprehensive experience– visitors get to see the work without the crowd, talk to the artist, and fully appreciate the exhibition. Personally, I avoid spaces I don’t need to go. It is more intimate when people visit our space. We get to know the people coming in, so to speak. It’s a good opportunity to make new friends, I think.

I really enjoyed the #TogetherAlone virtual programming in the spring, could you tell us about how Special Special developed that concept? 

It’s interesting to look back on how we started playing with the format of virtual programming prior to the pandemic. We were largely motivated by the limitation of our physical space. We started producing live stream cam shows during the group exhibition Tie Me Up! Lock Me Down!, and in June 2019, we hosted “Players Play,” where we hosted board games in our space and invited people to tune into our website via live stream. Once the pandemic hit, we had figured out the technological needs for our virtual programming and were able to produce all the online programming for the Artists’ Tools show, called “Together Alone.” This series of virtual programming included four sound performances, artist interview series, and tool demo events.

Installation view of Benjamin Langford, Late Summer, Special Special, New York, September 10 – December 24, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Special Special.

Does Special Special have any upcoming virtual programming? 

We will continue to produce virtual programming, not only because of the pandemic, but also

because we love being available to all timezones at once. Our community reaches beyond New York; therefore our virtual programming allows us to reach people all over the world. From now on, we are planning to livestream most workshops or performances we host in person. For “Late Summer,” we have a full program of virtual programming coming up: a flower puppet performance with our friend Bella Meyer, owner of FleursBella; a supermarket produce planting workshop with one of our artist collaborators Mackenzie Younger; and a performance around traditional medicine. Stay tuned for all the event announcements!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention to our readers? 

We will be launching a Journals page on our site soon, so stay tuned for more behind-the scenes-looks at Special Special activities.

Thanks Wen-You! Also, thanks to Benjamin Langford and the team at Special Special. Follow Special Special on Instagram here.  

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