By KURT MCVEY, JUN. 2017
On the north side of East 2nd Street, between Bowery and 2nd Avenue, you may have noticed a rotating selection of high-quality street art murals crafted by the always titillating Japanese artist Ayakamay, for example, or the wacky pop-art sampler Mr. Brainwash, the sensitive Israeli artist Know Hope, or most recently Sam Jablon, whose work will stand for a six week stretch while simultaneously assuming the responsibility of marking the entrance to the increasingly conspicuous, multi-disciplinary art space, Ideal Glass.
Willard Morgan, a seemingly ageless, multi-hyphenate New York creative with a strong history of performance, founded Ideal Glass back in 2004. The malleable East Village space, built by Morgan’s uncle in 1955, has since blossomed into a multi-generational art collective, while striving to emerge as a much needed artistic epicenter in a city (and neighborhood) whose penchant for fostering and nurturing young artists has taken a hit, to put it mildly.
After several adventurous decades of valiant efforts, near misses, and noble successes, Morgan seems to be settling rather comfortably into his role as patron, host, producer and curator. In February earlier this year, Morgan took these particular skills to Cuba for his politically conscious Vestiphobia series. Though the silver-haired Morgan can often be seen shirtless (no complaints here), the series has less to do with a fear of clothing and everything to do with the fashion industry’s prevailing lack of accountability in regards to working conditions, fair wages, cultural violence, and non-sustainable, environmentally destructive practices by way of globalization.
“The show is a prototype, a mission that adapts and reflects the worldwide industry,” says Morgan from inside Ideal Glass. “The show is about sustainability, consumerism, fetishism, and manipulation through fashion. It’s about Charles II and the Restoration. It’s about the Antebellum south; the loom in Manchester-cotton is king, white gold. Aside from the steam engine and the combustion engine being what most people associate with the Industrial Revolution, it was Eli’s cotton gin that enchained and enslaved the world.”
Vestiphobia functioned as a three part series and incorporated the talents of over 30 artists operating in various mediums. Morgan’s long-time collaborator, the internationally renowned art director Uta Bekaia, curated a weeklong costume workshop and “living installation” at the Taller Gorria Gallery in Havana in the lead up to the three day performance portion of the show at the storied Fabrica de Arte Cubano. Morgan, who wrote the subsequent focal piece, which was ultimately directed by Steve Fagin, has referred to the performance at Fabrica as “a four-act extravaganza of theatre, dance, fashion, film, and art.” Vestiphobia also featured a more traditional film series, focusing heavily on documentaries that speak directly to the aforementioned theme, but with a more localized, socio-economic focus.
Before diving into the minutia of Vestiphobia, it’s worth taking a trip through Morgan’s life to briefly discover how he eventually found his way to Cuba and Vestiphobia itself, which stands as a worthy vessel to encompass Morgan’s numerous talents, which is delightful, really, as the sum is so often greater than its parts.
Morgan grew up in Manhattan’s storied Bohemian Greenwich Village in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “Bob Dylan, McDougal Street, you know, all that stuff that’s been destroyed by NYU,” he says in a mellow, unswerving, sardonic tone. “I grew up around creatives and gangsters. Dad was noisy, liked to kick ass, and was mad as a hatter. Mom [Sylvia Side]
was an opera singer. She was a Met semi-finalist. She never got the big gig, but she was always singing, always performing, in French, Italian, Spanish; the foreign, the exotic, it was the womb.”
Morgan, it would appear, was always outward bound. At 14 he fell in love with Bergman and other titans of European cinema. “I wanted to get the hell out of my house,” he remembers. “I was a style freak, a dandy, and America had no style. So I went to an American school in Switzerland and never recovered.” He dove headfirst into acting, juggling, skiing, and even learned some tricks of the clown trade. He was having a blast and wanted to stay in Europe, but found that the majority of his expat friends were returning to the States for college, so he followed suit. He enrolled at New York University and majored in Politics and Romance Languages. “I thought I could work for an embassy or something. Really, I just wanted to get back to the good life in Europe.” While at NYU, and despite his major, Morgan couldn’t stay away from creative pursuits, and found himself dabbling in portraiture and indie filmmaking.
After graduating, his parents moved to Englewood, New Jersey. Though his heart was still in Europe, Morgan had a mind to conquer the Big Apple. As a young man, he drove a cab and sought out odd jobs and construction work. While doing a tile floor renovation, he met a producer, who pulled him into an “off, off Broadway” production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. In 1976, Morgan, alongside Wayne Adams, found himself producing Milan Stitt’s Broadway stage play The Runner Stumbles, originally directed by Austin Campbell Pendleton. The play was later adapted for the screen by Stanley Kramer in his last film. Soon Morgan was bumping actorly elbows with the newly discovered John Malkovich and Gary Senise at William “Bill” Esper’s famed acting studio. “This was a game changer and a Zen experience,” recalls Morgan. “I remember Bill telling me, ‘Never do anything serious Will.’ So I went to LA for a couple of years. Try 12 (92-04).”
When asked how he would describe this particular stretch of time, Morgan replied, sarcastically: “It was a stretch.” He remembers this period being the last time LA was “functional.” For Morgan, it was an idealized time caught in crystal-a world of possibility. It was indeed Hotel California, but not nearly wild enough for his tastes. Morgan gave stand-up comedy a try and could often be spotted at the famed Comedy Store. He also dove further into indie and documentary filmmaking and for a time, “…chased Michael Moore around,” effectively turning the camera back on the now famed documentary filmmaker in a meta-moment of reverse cinematic trolling. “He’s really not a nice guy. You don’t want to get up close and personal with him. Let’s just say he has a lot of weight behind him.”
Morgan returned to New York and packaged his decade plus, semi-autobiographical experience in LA into his own multi-media, multi-character stage production, Saint Hollywood. Set in the late ‘90s, the darker “La La Land-type” play follows a young film student trying to make it in Hollywood while searching out mentors in all the wrong places, i.e. transsexuals in the back of exotic limousines, etc. It was this intimate production, which ran for six months at Ideal Glass that established the East Village space as something more than a shifting artist studio.
Luckily, Ideal Glass’ occupant at the time, celebrated Canadian photographer Gregory Colbert, was becoming internationally renowned after his monumental Ashes and Snow series rocked the 2002 Venice Biennale and therefore the world. Morgan, finding inspiration, also saw this as an opportunity to double down on his authorship of his space (co-owned by his brother) as well as his work and hasn’t looked back since. It was during the early homecoming run of Saint Hollywood at Ideal Glass that Morgan met Uta Bekaia. “Uta did some of his own fashion shows in the space and I started writing narrative for those shows; poetry, rap, free verse,” recalls Morgan. “We would take those on the road as experimental fashion shows with music by John Sully. This all led to this thing now called Vestiphobia!”
Some of Morgan’s “Cuban friends,” particularly Berta Jottar and Humberto Salas, got wind of these productions and invited Morgan down to Gibara, Cuba in 2003 for the early incarnation of “del Festival de Cine Pobre,” or the Poor Film Festival, often touted as Latin America’s coolest independent film festival. Morgan stood in as a judge of short films and even brought down his own short, “Confessions of a Filmaholic,” which opened the festival. If this sounds like a conflict of interests, it was, but such is life in Cuba. Morgan spent much of his time in Gibara shooting portraits of the locals at the festival’s hub, Casa de Cultura. “The town is filled with descendents of merchants, sailors, and pirates,” says Morgan. “It’s a populace that could care less about politics. It’s more about trade. They’re outward looking, as opposed to being shackled by the internal happenings of their country.”
Morgan has returned annually as a judge of the festival, but each year he would find himself increasingly embedded in the cultural fabric (so to speak) of the small island. Recently, he became interested in taking the 2003 portrait series to Havana, but his movement and interest in Cuba had already caught the eye of the directors of Fabrica de Arte Cubano. At this point, in 2016, Vesitphobia was in its early stages. Morgan, Sully and Bekaia worked for 6 months, translated the play into Spanish, and brought in numerous designers and dancers. “That’s what led to us doing an “art-wear” and design show,” says Morgan. Countless creatives and young designers started to pile in, all striving to create a movable, chaotic feast of art. Bekaia executed an incredibly eccentric, high-end fashion show, the fruits of a weeklong, sustainable workshop replete with fabulous looks created from completely recycled materials, an ongoing Cuban trope.
The now absorbed film festival featured notable, thematically relevant selections, such as Andrew Morgan’s The True Cost (2015), Lisa Immordino Vreeland and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), and Sebastiano Tecchio’s 2012 VICE documentary about India’s violent and disastrous cotton industry, Behind the Label.
Morgan, it could be said, is starting to evolve into something like a dandy Che Guevara (“Without the bloodlust!”). Cuba in particular is-especially now considering Trump’s attempt to cancel and impose new restrictions that could potentially set us on a reverse course in terms of our joint relationship-at a crossroads. As a country, Cuba is on the precarious cusp of modernization and industrialization, but on whose terms exactly remains to be seen. Much like the revolutionary Guevara, Morgan, never one for myopia, is hoping to take Vestiphobia to other cities (Miami, LA) and other countries, especially those of the 3rd world. “Things are changing around the globe,” he says. “It’s moving slowly. People are tired and worn out by the system, and not just in Cuba.”
The foyer to Ideal Glass currently functions as a small pop-up boutique with a rotating selection of sustainable retail garments that serve as a foundation for further arts funding and environmentally sound production both here and abroad. The clothes, mostly stylish, silkscreened, soft cotton t-shirts with clever slogans, speak to fashion’s inherent problems as well as its vast promise as a medium through which human beings, wherever they live, could send an overt message that advocates for a more sustainable, humanist, conscious way of life, let alone shopping. Though Morgan will continue inseminating his talents and resources into multiple mediums and projects, Vestiphobia, an artistic culmination of several decades of creative efforts, could be whittled down to one essential question, which Morgan delivers in a manner that would surely make Samuel L. Jackson proud: “What’s in your closet?” WM