A footwear campaign featuring a pile of sneakers is drawing criticism online over its resemblance to artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s iconic “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991).
The original work is a touching commemoration of the life and death of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. The installation features a pile of shiny, plastic-wrapped pieces of candy arranged in a corner of the gallery. Viewers are invited to take a piece of candy from the pile, a physical and contemplative action that represents loss and renewal. The work’s ideal weight is listed at 175 pounds in symbolic reference to both the deadly impact of AIDS and the notion of immortality.
The marketing campaign, launched by clothing brand Kith in late July, depicts an arrangement of brightly colored Asics shoes pressed up against two colorless walls. It’s a collaboration between Kith and the footwear company Asics to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Marvel’s X-Men franchise. Neither company responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
Yesterday, independent designer Elizabeth Goodspeed pointed out the similarity between the artwork and the campaign on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), writing, “I cannot believe no one told me that KITH ripped off Félix González-Torres’s piece about his partner dying of AIDS for a drop celebrating ****the 60th anniversary of the X-Men franchise.****”
Goodspeed stated she did not believe the direction was intentional. “But I don’t think that makes it any better,” she wrote. On the platform, some disagreed with Goodspeed’s comparison. User @m6cks replied that “‘piles of things’ are literally one of the most common and easily replicated art styles” and went on to list other works that deploy the visual trope — among them, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Venus of the Rags” (1967–1974) and Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s “Dirty White Trash (With Gulls)” (1998).
But Eduardo Peñalver, a legal scholar and president of Seattle University who published a 2017 article about the law’s role in Gonzalez-Torres’s art, told Hyperallergic that at face value, it seems unlikely that the Kith’s reference to “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” was accidental.
“His work is fairly obscure outside the world of contemporary art, and the visual similarities between the ad and the piece are striking,” Peñalver continued, adding that it is harder to know if the company was aware of the context behind Gonzalez-Torres’s installation.
Sneaker collector Brandon Martinez told Hyperallergic he had actually purchased a pair of Asics from this campaign and didn’t think anything of the pile of sneakers.
“While I can’t think of a specific marketing campaign that has used this motif, it’s wildly common for sneakerheads to dump their kicks on the ground or stack up boxes on boxes and take a photo,” Martinez said. “Oftentimes when cleaning or reorganizing our spaces, or to ‘complain’ that we need to pare down, you’ll see people sharing similar photos.” He said he doesn’t think the resemblance was intentional.
“Sneakers are meant to be fun. This campaign was especially focused on not knowing what pair you were getting until you opened the box, like trading cards from back in the day,” Martinez said.
Goodspeed said that although she’s not a part of the sneaker community, she’s aware of the “shoe pile” trope and of other artworks’ exploration of the pile image — such as “Venus of the Rags” or Hassan Sharif’s “Slippers and Wire” (2009).
“But I think details and context matter,” Goodspeed said. “And you can’t create art in a cultural vacuum.”