Student exhibition ‘Cayman Chen – Recent Collections’ critiques consumerism

A bowl and bottle with strips are displayed on a table at Harvey Mudd.
Cayman Chen CM ’25 transformed clothing pieces to create her exhibition at the Sprague Art Gallery. (Khylah Pugh • The Student Life)

The Sprague Art Gallery at Harvey Mudd College feels almost dystopian as fashion pieces hang from the ceiling. Seemingly floating in mid air, Cayman Chen’s assortment of blazers, tops, skirts and more are full of texture, color and reflection. Words on the fabric resemble receipts. Skeletal and transparent material create a haunting effect. 

The Exhibit is titled “Cayman Chen – Recent Collections.” Cayman Chen CM ’25 is showcasing her artwork at the Sprague Gallery from Nov. 29 to Dec. 12. It features two of Chen’s collections that focus on sustainability in the fashion industry. 

Chen is a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College double majoring in Psychology and Art. She was born in California but grew up in Hong Kong, and she has always been interested in art. 

“One year when I was eight or nine years old, my mom signed me up for a week-long fashion camp,” Chen said. “And that’s when I learned how to use a sewing machine, and learned very, very basic skills.”

Since then, her artistic passion has been focused on fashion, although she also does graphic design and has expressed interest in art installation, too. Chen learned much about fashion through YouTube videos, and said she is continuing to determine what her exact style will be. 

As she has continued her art journey she is especially grateful for Sprague Gallery. 

“I think the Sprague Gallery is really great because they show student and faculty work, and because they create opportunities to share this stuff that are maybe not as common anywhere else on campus,” Chen said. 

The first collection in the exhibit is entitled, “We Are What We Eat” (2022). Chen said that the first collection is “a criticism of modern consumerism and how people in today’s society engage with material consumption.”

The second collection is still in the works and is entitled “Fallen Leaves” (2022). This second collection comes from Chen’s travels to Singapore and Japan on a CMC fellowship. 

“I basically went around and interviewed a lot of designers, artisans and brand owners who have experience with sustainability and fashion,” Chen said. “And then based off of what I learned from that, and my experiences, I created this collection.”

In order to promote sustainability, Chen uses no new fabrics in these collections. Of course there were challenges in creating the collection, one of which was needing to buy other materials like thread. 

“I think the biggest challenge for me as a student is just being able to create while being a full time student,” Chen said. 

Julia Hong, arts director for the HMC department of Humanities, Social Sciences and the Arts, was the curator for this exhibit. Her job is to work with students to showcase their work at the Sprague Gallery and create a press release in order to contextualize the art and offer her own perspective.

“For each student I work with, I try to provide as much critical engagement and feedback on their artwork and statement as possible as we work together toward the exhibition,” Hong said.

The process for this exhibit began over a year ago. 

“I met Cayman Chen through a Claremont Colleges-wide open call I made for Sprague Gallery back in September 2021,” Hong said. 

This gallery was postponed due to COVID-19, but was picked back up this past year. Chen then worked with Hong to present the topic of sustainability in fashion and Chen’s artwork properly. 

Hong took inspiration for this exhibit from Nam June Paik’s “Room for Charlotte Moorman” (1993). 

“As I spent more time with Cayman’s works, I realized that the exhibition design matches the works and unleashes the unthought potential of the works, which is the quality of a nonlinear time,” Hong said. 

The exhibit features pieces hung from the ceiling by fishing line at different levels, allowing the viewer to see every perspective of each piece. Against the minimalist, all-white gallery, the staggered fashion pieces truly shine. 

“The gallery carries a very distinct quality of a space that is lived. Through sliding glass doors, the gallery draws natural light and, when the doors are open for special events, air,” Hong said.  

Hong believes the Sprague Gallery suits Chen’s art and themes very well.

“Cayman thinks much about interaction between the old and the new and between tradition and modernity, and I read her works to be about postmodern compossibility and change,” Hong said.

Chen will be hosting an opening night event tonight, Dec. 2, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Sprague Gallery in which she will talk to her about her process, inspirations and work. 

“I really do hope that people come in,” Chen said, “they read my artist statements, they get to learn about my research and see why I care so much about this topic.” 

Learn more about the Sprague Gallery and arts at HMC at https://arts.hmc.edu/.

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