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Have you ever found yourself wondering what to do with 1.2 million luxury condoms? Niki Johnson has.  In the fall of 2013, one of the city’s most buzzed-about artists was contacted by a South Dakota distribution company, which was hoping to clear a former client’s storage space. That client, The Original Condom, is a prophylactics company […]

Works by Heejin Hwang. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Have you ever found yourself wondering what to do with 1.2 million luxury condoms? Niki Johnson has. 

In the fall of 2013, one of the city’s most buzzed-about artists was contacted by a South Dakota distribution company, which was hoping to clear a former client’s storage space. That client, The Original Condom, is a prophylactics company based in Condom, France. We’ve got 21,000 pounds of condoms, the distribution company said to her. Would you like them? 
The company had heard of Johnson after her Milwaukee installation Eggs Benedict, a portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict made of condoms, gained international acclaim. Upon receiving the email, Johnson reached out to her contacts at local AIDS awareness and sexual health organizations. Could they use these condoms, she wondered. But the condoms were set to expire in four weeks, and the organizations would require at least 90 days to hammer out the shipping details. 

So here she was, just a few months away from her appointment as the Pfister Hotel’s artist-in-residence, with 26 pallets of finely wrapped condoms. 

It was then, Johnson says, that she realized she didn’t need to be “the Tara Donovan of condoms,” referring to the New York artist whose massive installations utilizing ordinary household products have been shown at New York’s Pace Gallery and the Milwaukee Art Museum. 

And so, like any uber-industrious artist who has been gifted a truckload of raw materials, she set out to spread her new wealth with a group exhibition in mind. She and Colorado-based artist Kim Hindman put out a call for artist proposals and settled on 24 artists, including locals Tara Bogart, Demitra Copoulos, Linda Marcus, Timothy Westbrook and John Grant. Each artist was tasked with creating a work that relates to “sexuality, materiality and design,” using whatever medium they preferred. The artists were also able to use as many condoms as necessary. 

In early October of this year, the finished works began trickling in. At the time, in her ground-level studio at the Pfister, Johnson was still crafting her bear-shaped rug made from latch-stitched strips of the condoms, which would later be accompanied by a fainting couch.

Not all of the works, which will be exhibited for one week starting on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, will be three-dimensional. Tara Bogart, whose A Modern Hair Study toured the nation and was praised by The New Yorker, will present 12 diptychs. To create them, Bogart interviewed 26 men, asking each how many times they’ve worn a condom in the last year. She then photographed each man, and will present the number of condoms that represented his answer to her very pointed question. The final pieces, Johnson says, will be tales of “assumptions.” Those assumptions and prejudgments related to condom-use are themes other artists explore, including Linda Marcus, the former news anchor turned fashion and accessories designer. If she seems like an unlikely artist for this exhibition, it’s because she’s never shown work in a fine art context. But when she heard about Johnson’s plan, Marcus’ interest was piqued. The condoms, she says, “got my mind thinking about how materials can be used in messaging and storytelling – and that’s how I view fashion.” 

Marcus’ pieces for the show include a raincoat made of 500 painted condoms, with a belt made of buttons that she extracted from the condoms’ suede packaging. She’s pairing the jacket with a quilted black top and skirt made of the paper that came stuffed into each condom’s box. The quilted effect, Marcus says, is supposed to imbue her pieces with a sense of “comfort” – a sentiment she wishes could surround discussions of condom usage more often. To top off the outfit, Marcus added a vintage purse that is a nod to what she thinks is society’s “antiquated” view of contraceptives. 

Cheeky, thoughtful and deeply intimate, the works in Preservatif explore the full range of perceptions and emotions associated with prophylactics. Because of this, what started as a semitrailer full of unconventional materials has become one of the most anticipated shows of the season. Johnson calls the gift of condoms an “incredible” opportunity from which she’s put together an impressive exhibition. And the collective works, she says, will be ready to travel internationally. 

Preservatif, which is a French word for condom, is held in Brewers’ Hill’s Fortress building, in a more than 2,000-square foot warehouse space that formerly held the Quasimondo, Milwaukee Physical Theatre. Anthony Hanratty, the proprietor of the space and a friend of Johnson’s, has been working long hours to repaint the walls, refinish the floors and restore two massive aluminum doors. When Preservatif ends, the finished venue, which he calls Stockholm, will be available for one-time dining events and artistic performances – another hub of creative activity in a city whose artistic star is already on the rise. 

It’s the perfect home for an exhibit conceived by happenstance and a collective imagination.

This article originally misidentified the neighborhood in which the Fortress building is located. It is in Brewers’ Hill, not Riverwest. The original article also incorrectly stated who contacted Johnson with the excess condoms. It was a South Dakota distribution company, not the Original Condom Company itself. The original article also misstated the number of diptychs Bogart will present. This post has been updated to reflect this. We regret the errors. 

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