Welcome to Bleeding Edge, a series where Samuel Hine reports from the front lines of emerging fashion and deep culture.
Unless you’re running for president, it’s not every day you open Instagram and see a T-shirt with your name on it. But that’s precisely what happened one random Saturday last April, when I opened an IG link someone had sent me and found a photo of Kids-actor-turned-gallerist Leo Fitzpatrick wearing a black long-sleeve emblazoned with...my name on it. Well, more accurately, the front had the title of GQ’s “Corporate Lunch” podcast on the front, and on the back, shoutouts to co-hosts Will Welch and Noah Johnson, and “Sam Hine Productions,” in a rather mean ice-block font. The account was called @shrits2000 and had single-digit followers. My first reaction: Leo Fitzpatrick! Cool! My second: What kind of lunatic would make bootleg Corporate Lunch merch?
It turned out the tees were the work of Andrew Kuo and Pascal Spengemann, who have been making graphic tees the world didn’t know it needed for years. In many ways, the two are perfectly suited to make a minor splash in our topsy-turvy era of fashion. Kuo’s the Queens-born artist whose painstaking geometric paintings have been shown at Marlborough Contemporary and MASS MoCA, and also the meme lord behind the popular Instagram account Earl Boykins. Spengemann runs Marlborough in Chelsea, where he’s injected the renowned blue-chip gallery with a stable of exciting young artists like Kuo. (Shrits model Fitzpatrick is a director there.)
The Corporate Lunch bootleg marked the Instagram debut of Kuo and Spengemann’s DIY merch project, which they’re calling Shrits. Being the art types that they are, the idea didn’t emerge out of desire to make a few bucks—most of the Corporate Lunch tees were given away to friends—but out of what Spengemann calls a mutual interest in “hybridization.” In the ’90s, he was taking apart Chuck Taylors and putting Nike swooshes on them, and when Kuo wasn’t painting he was making things like a tee that mashed up Bone Thugs-N-Harmony with English drone rock band Spacemen 3. The first proto-Shrits tee, made a decade ago, somehow referenced both J.J. Cale and the 808 drum machine. (If you have a spare size medium, my DMs are open.)
Shrits was officially established last year. So far, the only way to cop Shrits merch has been to hoof it to Marlborough in Chelsea on Saturdays, where Spengemann slings hats and tees from behind the reception desk. (He notes they recently figured out how to accept Venmo payments.) But as of this week, a new edition of Shrits that pays homage to classic art merch has landed at Forty Five Ten in Hudson Yards and online: two hats embroidered with Marc Chagall and Claude Monet’s artist signatures, tees emblazoned with works by Monet, Georgia O’Keefe, and Mary Cassatt, as well as a Paul Simon “Concert In The Park” bootleg that features the Central Park Mandarin duck that set the internet aflame late last year.
While it may seem the height of irony for cool-guy NYC art world types to be rocking a Water Lilies dad hat, the merch is anything but ironic, as Kuo and Spengemann told me over the phone recently. Ultimately, that attitude makes the Shrits project feel like a breath of fresh air amidst the heavy-handedness of one fine-art collab after another. At the end of the day, Kuo and Spengemann just want to make Shrits—that’s Shrits language for, uh, shirts—for the cool shit that they like, be it a fashion podcast or their favorite titan of art history. I hopped on the phone with them to talk about how they pick who gets a Shrit, and the LeBron James of art history.
GQ: Why did you start making art merch in the first place?
Andrew Kuo: Because it connects with us in a different way than actual art does. My memories of the Met store and museum shops growing up in New York were a big part of my experience with art, not necessarily the actual object. Like my mom wearing a Marc Chagall shirt all summer. It's less cynical and more emotional, I think, to kind of dredge up all of these memories of your experiences with art and reframe it as something affordable, fun, whatever.
Pascal Spengemann: I tend to skew historically towards puns and jokey stuff, but with this group, I think I'm really taking cues from Andrew in a sense that there's a little more from the heart. I would also say that all of these different things that Kuo does online—he may keep the shirts and stuff separate from the work, but I think they are really part of this larger cultural footprint that he has, and that's something that really gets me excited.
Right—my first contact with you, Andrew, was online, through @earlboykins2. Looking at the Paul Simon duck tee, it seems like that spirit is informing the Shrits project.
AK: Absolutely. The Paul Simon tee, specifically, is a straight line from the LOLcat thing from years and years ago into the Earl Boykins account. And definitely, as someone who grew up without the internet, and then had the internet, it feels less like something of a natural resource to me. It still feels, for lack of a better word, like a tool. Like a thing that you can apply yourself to. I think that's a unique generational thing. Because I look at the Internet with a lot of questions still, and I think that really show the gap between [me and] somebody who uses it with more fluidity. And I love it. I love everything about it.
And how do you guys pick the artists that you feature?
AK: For this specific round, it was basically our favorite stuff. We picked a certain time period: nothing too contemporary, except for the Paul Simon thing. The Water Lilies and Marc Chagall kind of resonate in my mind quite a bit. And Paul Simon is my favorite musician of all time, and I wanted to do something about New York, Central Park.
PS: And they're also levelers. Those things are almost beyond criticality on some level. It was really fun for me to go and Google Water Lilies images after Andrew sent these designs to me, because I was like, "Holy shit, I haven't looked at these in so long.” This stuff is so beautiful! You know why these artists are so popular? I think there has to be a certain level of banality to it. But it’s also completely undeniable. There's no irony, but if there's a little bit of friction, it's in the sense that the internet is, like, breathing.
And the thing that grabbed me about the Paul Simon thing is I remember a million people showed up to that show. Some ungodly number of people, and this is pre-internet, or pre-ubiquity. So, it's like the last moment of regular crowds, or people all getting together and showing up for something. And I don't really know how people experienced the [Mandarin] duck—I experienced that just like the concert, completely untethered from going and seeing it. It seems like almost everyone actually went to the show, but the duck was experienced through these like—
AK: The lens of someone else.
PS: Yeah, exactly. Totally refracted. This is where I feel like Andrew really hits on something. It always has a little bit of humor to it, but there's little tug of sadness or beauty or little bit of loss. Just a little glimpse of something past, nostalgic somehow. But it's complicated.
Why did you guys link up with Forty Five Ten for this release?
PS: Well, through Marlborough we became friends with [art consultant] Joe [Cole] and [Forty Five Ten president and chief creative officer] Kristen Cole. It really came from originally doing some stuff in Dallas around the art fair there. We did a bunch of projects with Joe, and then eventually got to know them as a family—we did a show that Andrew was in of outdoor paintings at their house. So they're really up for cool projects. They love working with artists, they're good collectors. And it was just something that's grown out of our friendship, these extended types of projects.
And they were like, "Let's get some Shrits in the mix."
PS: Joe was always wearing this stuff that we had made. He's got his hands in a lot of different stuff—it's pretty funny for him to show up with his Corporate Lunch bootleg fan tee to a meeting of developers in Dallas. He really reps the clothes really well.
Ok, so: who's the number-one painter of all time?
AK: Oh shit. It would be... off the top of my head it would be Marc Chagall, right?
PS: Wait, what criteria? Just our favorite?
AK: The LeBron James. The GOAT. I mean, Chagall would be like Bill Russell or Michael Jordan, all right?
PS: Just culturally speaking, I think it's the Picasso. He made a lot of paintings, too. He's like a number one in every department. Number of games played… Who the greatest painter of all time is really hard to answer, but what the right one for a hat is? I don't think there's any point in making a Shrits Picasso hat. It's kind of like making a Bob Dylan T-shirt, right? It's kind of undisputed to an annoying degree.
I know that you guys have been sending this stuff to friends in the art world, but Kuo, who in the NBA do you want to see walking down the tunnel this fall in a Marc Chagall hat?
AK: Oh, man. It would be amazing if someone like Zion Williamson was walking down the tunnel with some Shrits stuff on. We don't make triple-extra-large, but we would do a custom one for him.
And what are you guys working on now? What's the next scheme that you guys are cooking up?
PS: So Lana Del Rey, about a year ago, posted a picture of herself in this satin tour jacket that said "Guns 'n Roses Lana Del Rey Tour 2016," and I almost lost my fucking mind. I was like, that's an amazing combination. And I realized that we should remake it, but maybe in fleece or something. I love the idea that it's already a fake thing—I guess Axl made it for her as a present. I like that it stretches the appropriation aspect into something that's not real, but that comes from these real sources. What an emotional thing. What a cool present, you know, from one complex and interesting artist to another.
Originally Appeared on GQ