Kent Stetson has always treated his handbags as works of art. The Providence designer constructed his first clutch in 2003 out of a colorful digital painting he couldn’t manage to sell, and has built a successful career on that first design, now selling in stores worldwide.
This month, Kent is building on that concept with a solo exhibition at the ESSE Purse Museum in Little Rock, AR. Called The Art of Handbags, it features 11 sculptural pieces and mixed media installations that incorporate everything from dance to videography.
He designed the show, on view through September 25, to challenge visitors to rethink their definitions of the handbag and its role in contemporary culture. So the bags are more conceptual than functional, he explains.
“I’m excited to have a chance to play and look at my work in a different way,” Kent says. “I hope people leave thinking that art can happen in unexpected places.”
Many of the pieces deal with gender roles. The exhibit includes a crystal-covered briefcase inspired by legendary pianist Liberace and the luxury handbag designer Judith Leiber. “His” and “hers” bags with images of the corresponding sex’s genitals are also featured.
In addition, visitors can take in a holographic photograph of Kent’s artistic collaborator and model Amy Beth wearing dozens of clutches as a dress. There’s even a very oversized – several feet long – black bag that dramatizes the idea of “losing” things in your purse.
Kent sells his regular work, including leather bags and vinyl clutches with bold, cheeky images such as cupcakes, lipstick and colored pencils, at his studio-shop at the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket. His designs are also in about 300 other stores throughout the country and around the world.
His relationship with ESSE began last year when he started selling his clutches in its museum shop. After running a weekend pop-up store in the lobby of a different museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum, Kent became “completely obsessed with” the idea of designing his own art exhibit. So he submitted a proposal to ESSE’s curators, and “within about a month, we had a show,” he says.
Devin Hancock, ESSE’s program and collections manager, described the exhibit as “completely different from anything we’ve ever done before.”
“We are incredibly excited to host something that is abstract, thought-provoking and fun,” she says.
ESSE, the only purse museum in the United States, grew out of owner Anita Davis’ personal collection. It looks at the progression of the American woman in the 20th century through the lens of handbags and other everyday items.
Kent expects to bring his exhibition to Rhode Island next year, but has not yet settled on a date or location.