Oregon Cultural Trust

Cool shoes at Portland Art Museum

The shoes in 'Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks' are visually intriguing and push the boundaries of what constitutes a shoe. Laurel Reed Pavic has questions about arch support.

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Gray hi-top Nike tennis shoe with white strap at angle
Nike, Nike Mag, 2015, Courtesy of the Department of Nike Archives, American Federation of Arts, and Bata Shoe Museum

I am not cool. I’ve never been cool. It looks exceedingly likely at this juncture that I will never be cool (midlife acquisition of coolness doesn’t seem to be a thing.) So there is something profoundly ironic about me trying to review Future Now: Virtual Sneakers to Cutting-Edge Kicks at the Portland Art Museum. Sneakers are cool. I am not. 

The exhibition comes to Portland from the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and was curated by that institution’s Director and Senior Curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack. Portland is the first stop in the show’s tour in the United States; it debuted in Toronto in May of 2022. The Portland Art Museum says the exhibition “features nearly 60 futuristic footwear designs pushing the boundaries of what footwear can be.” Amy Dotson, the Director of PAM CUT and the Curator of Film & New Media at the Portland Art Museum and local curator for Future Now calls the exhibition a “love letter to all of the artists, storytellers, designers and visionaries who dare to think differently – many who live and work right here in Portland, the shoe capital of the United States”

shoe-like form with layers of silver in a architectural high-heeled design. Looks miserable to wear
Zaha Hadid x United, Nude Nova, 2022. First designed in 2013. © Bata Shoe Museum
Courtesy American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum

The arrival of this “love letter” has, in most quarters, been met with a shrug. The consensus seems to be “they’re just killing time during the construction project.” With some incredulous “really? They’re doing shoes now?” thrown in for good measure. An April 3rd article in The Oregonian about the Rothko Pavilion construction project didn’t even mention Future Now, just that the museum will continue to be open at limited capacity during construction. In other words, it isn’t as though this show arrived to fanfare; really more of a thud. 

One thing that I have heard people say in response to this show is an off-handed, noncommittal “Oh, I was going to take my kid to that.” Dotson even acknowledged this potential audience in her remarks at the press opening: “Bring your kids! Tell your friends to bring their kids!” The museum has several summer sneaker camps programmed for the occasion. 

My kid is cool in all the ways I am not, and I did bring him to the press opening. It was at the end of a staycation Spring Break and it seemed an opportunity to diversify his attention portfolio away from screens or sports. I almost never mix my kids with my work. My kids are my excuse for why my work falls short of my own impossible standards. My work is my excuse for why my mothering falls short of my own impossible standards. It’s a balanced dynamic that I try not to upset. But the kid likes shoes and the kid is cool (most certainly in his own mind) so this seemed a reasonable enough occasion to bend my rules.  

***

The museum entrance is undeniably a construction zone right now, littered with heavy machinery and people sporting hardhats. PAM tapped local firm Osmose Design to transform the construction zone into a fitting exhibition space, and the result is compelling. Visitors enter the exhibition through a tunnel of inflated air pack bubbles and emerge into a space that, understandably given the design firm’s area of expertise, is retail boutique meets museum: pairs of shoes in individual vitrines nestled in a jagged granite-speckled rockscape. My kid asked where the price tags were. 

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Installation image of Future Now courtesy of Portland Art Museum

The exhibition title’s post-colon qualifier “virtual sneakers to cutting-edge kicks” struck me as a red herring that distracted from what could have been the strength of the exhibition. Taken as a whole, the exhibition could make a case for footwear as wrapped up in what it means to be human, and the intersections between technology, design, and human capacity. That purpose wasn’t entirely fulfilled: The “virtual” angle was not as developed as is indicated by its prominence in the title, and the “cutting edge” component was present but could have been conceptually stronger with clearer categories and groupings. 

When installed at the footwear-focused Bata Shoe Museum, visitors to Future Now enter the exhibition with the context of the history of footwear. The museum’s permanent collection includes “15,000 shoes and related artifacts, spanning 4,500 years of footwear history,” and while only a small fraction (4%) of the collection is on view, any exhibition in the museum space sets up the framework of shoe history, all the ways humans have covered our feet to protect ourselves from the ground and/or look some variation of “good.” (Please note there is a lot of variability in the “and/or” formulation.)

The history of footwear raises big questions about fashion, technology, commerce, craftsmanship, and automation. Seen through this lens, the myriad of solutions presented in the exhibition – laceless shoes, foam shoes, 3D-printed shoes, mushroom leather shoes, etc. – are intriguing and a testament to human ingenuity. Even Crocs fit into this narrative (and I have a hard time conceding that Crocs can fit anywhere). 

Croc shoe in army green
Salehe Bembury x Crocs, Pollex, 2021 © Bata Shoe Museum. Courtesy American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum

But in order for those questions to land, they need the framework of shoe history in general. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of cool shoes. The install in Portland lacks the larger framing context about footwear and humanity, and ultimately, the fact that Portland is a “shoe town” may even distract from that larger purpose. Given the number of Nike shoes in the first room of the exhibition, viewers may conclude that the show was sponsored by our hometown outfit, but in fact, Nike didn’t have any input into the content of Semmelhack’s show. The last room in the show, celebrating the Doernbecher Freestyle program in which the children’s hospital patients collaborate with designers to make custom shoes, was a separate addition. Nike was added late as part of the museum’s “community partner” program, but the exhibition is not a corporate shill. There are no price tags. 

In an intermediary space between the two large galleries there is a nod to situating the show in terms of footwear history. This room includes a smattering of examples intended to stand in for a larger historical arc: initial rubber-soled sneakers from the 1870s, air-cushioned Doc Martens from the 1950s, and injection-molded jelly sandals from the 1960s. But this subsection seemed auxiliary to the rest of the exhibition, and because of that, the potential narrative wasn’t as evident. Clearer groupings of the shoes, so that, say, shoes that employed molds or shoes with innovative soles were next to each other, would have driven home the point. As it was, my kid tried to skip this section entirely. 

black canvas laced sneakers with rubber soles
Goodyear Rubber Manufacturing Company, Sneakers, American, 1890s, Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, © Bata Shoe Museum Courtesy American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum

It was the last section, “Virtual: Blurring the Lines,” that the kid was most excited to see, and at the same time, the section that I had the hardest time with. This catch-all category included NFT shoes, virtual shoes for multiplayer online games, actual shoes to be worn for virtual reality experiences, and augmented reality shoes. As far as I understand it, that last category is still in the future but will use haptics to mimic the sensation of wearing shoes that don’t exist. Other than vague claims about “unlimited potential” it wasn’t clear, in the exhibition, why this mattered. Are shoes that aren’t meant to be worn and don’t protect actual feet from actual rocks really shoes at all?

The exhibition catalog, clearly meant to be lovingly displayed on a shoe aficionado’s coffee table, was published by Rizzoli Electa and offers some additional insight into this query. In Semmelhack’s interview with Antonio Arocho Hernández the two discuss the potential of shoes that aren’t subject to any of the “restrictions of the physical and construction worlds” as having the potential to “challenge what the paradigm of a shoe is.” The genesis of the premise of virtual shoes was shoe boutiques in the early 2000s online game Second Life. Players could purchase virtual shoes for their avatars. This initial premise has evolved so that, for example, Gucci introduced a Snapchat filter that allowed users to “try on” Gucci shoes by seeing them on their own feet. 

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Hernández suggests that virtual shoes have the ability to redefine gender paradigms; a shoe “doesn’t have any of these social constructs by itself.” Semmelhack proposes that what is “so exciting about clothing or fashion in the virtual space is that it’s now completely free of a practical job to do, which means that it reveals more clearly the work that fashion always has done: construct, challenge, or reaffirm cultural constructs.”

I don’t disagree that fashion “challenges, or reaffirms cultural constructs” but I do think that interrogating that process demands a more active engagement than is offered here. An exhibition about shoes is the opportunity to ask these questions explicitly. If the argument is that virtual shoes are deconstructing cultural paradigms, then the audience needs to understand how shoes have constructed cultural paradigms in the past. For example: Why are stiletto heels associated with femininity? How did that happen, and when? As it is presented here, this argument is disjointed; obliquely mentioned rather than explained in a way that can make an impact.

white sculptural shoe with swooping lines, does not look like a shoe that would be even remotely functional
SCRY, Undercurrent P Virtual Prototype, 2022, © Bata Shoe Museum, Courtesy American Federation of Arts and theBata Shoe Museum

This show leans into the flashy – the oversized, swooping lines, excessively architectural, automatic laces, and brightly colored soles – without unpacking what shoes have meant in the past, what they tell us about our present, or what they can portend for the future. My kid’s concerns about which shoes were the most expensive or which ones “have the most drip” could have been an entry point into conversations about value or how “drip” gets culturally established in the first place. I tried to foster these lines of inquiry, but I wanted more help from the exhibition and didn’t find it. Why do “cutting edge kicks” matter? What does the future of footwear, virtual or real, hold for us? How does what we put on our feet affect how we move through this world? The intended audience isn’t predisposed to consider these questions; more direction would help. 

Shoes on the street can be about conspicuous consumption, rizz or drip or whatever, but once those same shoes are in exhibition in an art museum, I expect the focus to be more explicitly reflective. Surely a solid “love letter” goes beyond platitudes. 

But maybe my standards are just impossibly high all around. After all, I am not now and will never be cool.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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