A fashion model makes an artful debut at New York City’s Deitch Projects
Story by Angela Cravens / Photography by M. Sharkey
I was struggling with the idea of what I would do, and whether or not I could leave the fashion world without it leaving me first
Fashion has had a long — and sometimes stormy — relationship with the visual arts. Think of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X and her scandalous strapless gown, or Gilbert and George making mischief in their prim business suits. But lately the art and fashion fusion is everywhere: witness the Louis Vuitton shop in the middle of the Brooklyn Museum’s recent Takashi Murakami exhibit (on view in Frankfurt this fall), or photographer Ryan McGinley’s two-timing between W and the Whitney Museum. Even America’s beautifully disheveled youth wander city streets wearing limited-edition T-shirts designed by their artist friends.
What’s interesting about this hot-and-heavy relationship is that it is still fairly unusual for members of each tribe to jump allegiances.
Enter former fashion model Nicola Vassell. You may have already spotted her holding court at SoHo’s Deitch Projects, where for the past four years she has enjoyed “prima gallerina” status. Or perhaps you recognize her from her previous incarnation, beautifying ad campaigns for The Gap, Armani, and Cover Girl and spreads in fashion’s most glamorous titles. Hers is one of those New York success stories that entice hordes of bright-eyed hopefuls to stampede to the island every year.
Vassell had barely completed her exams as a high school student in her hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, when she was discovered at the local cineplex. She was invited to take part in a local modeling competition, which offered a first prize trip to New York. She won. “It just cut a swath through whatever plans had been previously made,” recalls Vassell, who had thought about becoming an engineer or writer.
A year later, the then-16-year-old arrived in New York City, alone. Though her parents were understandably concerned about sending their daughter to Manhattan, they also supported her ambitions. “They were completely petrified at the time, but they had given me their blessing to go find my destiny and discover what life’s all about,” Vassell says. Like so many beautiful young things before her, she hopped between apartments and continents during her nine-year modeling career.
“The fashion business is fantastic, but at that age it’s really psychologically demanding,” she says. “I don’t think people really understand the depth of the fortitude somebody has to have to be a model. You’re a little girl, you’re basically running your own business, and you have to be very deft at analyzing [the needs of the client]. You’re selling a product.” When it was time to leave modeling, Vassell wasn’t sure what was next. “I was struggling with the idea of what I would do, and whether or not I could leave the fashion world without it leaving me first,” she admits.
A chance meeting with Jeffrey Deitch lead to an internship with his gallery. Then a student of art history and business at New York University, Vassell was drawn to Deitch Projects’ convergence of the worlds of music, fashion, film, and visual arts — all of which she had experienced as a model. Her first real task as a newly minted gallery intern? “Stocking auction catalogues!” she shouts with a laugh. “I loved sitting there and reading them! I found them fascinating!”
Vassell describes the gallery as an idea lab where artists are invited to let their imaginations run wild. “The intent of the gallery has always been for artists and viewers to come in and live fully volumized artistic dreams.” This encouragement to experiment — also extended to the staff — left her a conveniently open door to jump in and start learning from the ground up. It wasn’t long before she evolved into her current role as director, managing special projects for the gallery.
Vassell acknowledges that her former life prepared her for her the art world in ways that she couldn’t have anticipated. Though she found herself starting from “the zero point” when she made the jump into the gallery scene. She adds, “I didn’t walk into the art world empty-handed.” In addition to having learned how to manage and market herself, she muses on the parallel concepts in each field: “There’s the whole thing of beauty, and of the intrinsic value of an object, of a person, a thing. Then how you deal with that and create a more external value that’s received by the masses.” As her role at the gallery grew, she says, “Organically, I drifted to certain artists.” She now works closely with Kehinde Wiley, Tauba Auerbach, Nari Ward, and Francesco Clemente.
A true SoHo girl (it’s only a brief walk from her home to the gallery) Vassell sees her curatorial role, and the galley’s role at large, as the fusion between art and community, ideas and the street. “We believe ourselves to be a very downtown gallery. The whole point is to unite our community through art.” These ideas have revealed themselves at personal exhibitions she has hosted at her loft, one of those brilliantly open, sunlit spaces, which she keeps rather empty. “It’s supposed to be a place for social interaction. At my home, I have chairs and not much else. Space to think and space for people to come together.”
This sense of community was apparent on a breezy night last March, when Vassell presided over her curatorial debut with a show entitled Substraction. Where Kristin Baker’s acrylics of crashing colors mingled with Sterling Ruby’s “Gangsta Rothkos” and Aaron Young’s panels inspired by motorcycle skid marks, viewers got a glimpse of young artists with an edge. “It was important to me that the painting have a wicked energy,” she recalls of initiating the process. “How do we express this grittier, rawer, dirtier side of what it means to be young?” Vassell asks. “There’s a beauty to it because it can be expressed through art.” The canvases commune and collide in the spirit of what Vassell describes as “youth power, youth angst, and youth kineticism. What it means to be young at this time, what I call the post-9/11 generation. We were just beginning to grasp the concept of adulthood when we got slammed . . . It was very New York–centric, this thing of stress, density and identity . . . We’re a fractured generation in a way. Whether consciously or unconsciously it manifests itself in how we live our lives, thus in artwork.”
After the success of Subtraction, Vassell remains intrigued by this kind of kineticism and looks forward to discovering more young artists inspired by the street. And as with fashion, there are always new directions to explore — especially in New York, the teeming center of it all. “Live the art,” she says. “That’s the motto right now. Because there is no cut-off point, no delineation, no blurring. And anyone who believes that there is [a cut-off point], is not living the art.”