Joe Lewis Fashion Moda

Aug 5, 2016 | Press

By Miss Rosen

Located in the heart of the South Bronx, Fashion Moda was an art space in operation from 1978-1993. Founder Stefan Eins was soon joined by artist Joe Lewis and local teenager, William Scott, who became co-directors. Fashion Moda was a concept and an approach to art by crossing boundaries, mixing metaphors, and redefining the function of art. The logo Fashion 时装 Moda МОДА in English Chinese Russian and Spanish anchored the global nature of the philosophy, and predates the art world notion of globalism by at least a decade.

Initially self-funded, Fashion Moda was eventually supported through grants from the NYSCA, NEA, and other donors. Fashion Moda encouraged the production of creative art, unhampered by the contemporary market and academic art training. Spotlighting artists such as David Ireland, Keith Haring, Jane Dickson, Charles Abramson, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf, John Ahearn, Candace Hill-Montgomery,  and John Fekner as well as graffiti artists including LEE, Koor, Daze, and Crash, Fashion Moda was a major force in showing emerging artists of the time.

Co-director Joe Lewis, a visual artist, photographer, musician, and art critic, speaks with NYC, 1981 about Fashion Moda’s role at the time. Lewis remembers, “I graduated college in 1975 with a Watson Fellowship that allowed me to travel around the world for a year. My project,  “Jungle Landscape Painting: compare and contrast coloration of fauna and flora at different longitudes and latitudes,” took me to Asia, Central and South Americas. Then I spent six months in Europe studying the European Landscape master painters; that was the last time I painted. I got back to New York in the mid 1970’s and began making performances and installations. I met Stefan Eins, at 3 Mercer Store, his art space in Soho. I installed the residue of a performance art work about the “Universe … Not Built to Scale …” there.  During that installation we began to discuss various ideas about art and art making. Stefan wanted to do something new and remove the yoke of commercialism and high and low classifications from art making. He also found the relationships between art, science, technology, and magic exciting. In fact, one of the things we used to say about Fashion Moda was “We Are Magic.”

“About the same time Fashion Moda landed on 148th and 3rd Avenue I was artist in residence at the Berg Chemical Company on East 132nd Street. I joined Stefan shortly after Fashion Moda opened, but was deeply involved in the conversations that set the philosophical tone for the space. I wanted to create a space that brought together different types of people that wouldn’t come together under normal circumstances. I believed when you brought different people who would not normally mix together, their opinions about themselves and the worlds around them would change.  “I also wanted to create new opportunities for trained and untrained artists, as well as question who can make art. Fashion Moda became, inadvertently, part of the fundamental underpinnings of what we call today, “Public Practice,” a distant cousin and offshoot of Relational Aesthetics.”

Stefan wanted something else. That was the beauty of Fashion Moda – and what separated us from the handful of other experimental spaces at the time. If you asked someone affiliated with another space a question about their organization, they would all tell you the same thing. By definition we had no definition.

“In those days, the South Bronx was an area of major urban devastation, what I imagined Dresden looked after World War II. It was completely bombed out but people and families were still living there. There were drugs, violence, and all the criminal activities associated with poor communities. I grew up in a similar community, and I felt right at home – more so than many of our colleagues. Interestingly, we never had any problems; downtowners and uptowners’ got along.

Fashion Moda was set up in a burned-out building. We fixed the roof, put on a new front, and ‘borrowed’ electricity from the City. It was situated in the former merchandizing center of the South Bronx, known as “The Hub.” In 1978 its mercantile prominence had long since disappeared.  For the first few years, people would pop in and ask, ‘What is this place going to be?  Our existence was always a precarious dance between many cultures, aesthetics, and philosophies.”

Many artists who showed at Fashion Moda got involved with the neighborhood in some manner:  John Ahearn’s castings, Sophie Calle’s photo investigations, Jane Dickson’s “City Maze”, and David Wells site specific installations, to name a few.  William Scott, a local 15 year old, took us under “his wing,” and when we realized he had all the keys to the place, we gave him a job as a co-director. But it was the exhibition “Graffiti Art Success for America,” curated by Crash, who was 19, with artists like LEE, Futura, Lady Pink, NOC 167, John Fekner, Zephyr and others that really took us over the top.

“I believe that was the first complete graffiti show produced indoors and it launched the Graffiti Movement.  Kool Koor who was fifteen, had walked past Fashion Moda with a portfolio under his arm. Stefan saw him and asked if we could put one of his pieces up in the show. Delores Neumann bought his piece for $500. She subsequently became the first legit advocate/dealer of graffiti, and a couple of years later, Koor had a piece in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We were also known to place new works into a show after they had opened if we thought it fit.

“Fashion Moda significantly changed the lives of many people in its community, and the trajectory of many of their families forever. A number of the Graffiti artists bought homes for their parents. Others have children growing up in entirely different environments than they did due to their art making. That’s what art can do. It can change people’s lives. And that’s what I have always been in it for.

“1981 was a seminal year for Fashion Moda. We curated an exhibition at the New Museum that blew everyone away. We showed artists from all over the US – that few people were looking at; artists from the SF Bay area, New Orleans, Guatemala, South Bronx, lower east side, etc. The show set the stage for new people coming into the scene, people like Christy Rupp, John Fekner, Keith Haring, Lee Quinones, Crash, Judy Rifka, Rammellzee, and John Ahearn; folks who had been around but under recognized like Robert Colescott, John Scott and Lulu Stanley; and artists you would never hear from again, Wes Sanderson and Willie Neal.  We also established national projects and had significant ongoing presence in San Francisco and New Orleans. The word went out. It exploded and our message was inserted into the art world and the history of art.”