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Frieze New York 2023

The Joyfully Evanescent Architecture of Joe McShea And Edgar Mosa

From Fire Island to Loewe at Paris Fashion Week, the New York-based artists create queer, colourful worlds

BY Evan Moffitt in Frieze Week Magazine , Opinion , Profiles | 21 MAY 23

Visitors to Fire Island Pines last summer may have noticed a flag of multicolored silk ribbons fluttering along the shore. On certain days, a small enclosure of pennants, stitched from tie-dyed fabric or translucent tulle, would appear on the beach of the historic gay community for just a few hours, like evanescent architecture. Their makers could sometimes be spotted installing them in the nude: the artists Joe McShea and Edgar Mosa, partners in work and life.

Two men hugging on the beach.
Joe McShea and Edgar Mosa, Ibiza, 2021. Photography: © Benjamin Pexton

McShea and Mosa met on a very different kind of island. In autumn 2014, they became roommates in an industrial pocket of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an hour’s walk from the nearest train station, where they shared a sprawling loft with six other artists. Snowed in during a harsh winter, they found the time and space to develop their own creative practices—McShea to experiment with studio photography, and Mosa to grow his jewelry business. I met the couple a year later, when Mosa’s rectilinear silver chains, teardrop earrings and pearl necklaces had become a staple of Brooklyn’s queer community. The two exuded an unpretentious warmth and candor that seemed rare for the competitive New York scene.

In summer 2018, they were invited to be the first artists-in-residence at Palazzo Monti in Brescia, in northern Italy. The urban manse had almost no furniture, and they slept on a mattress on the floor. ‘We made a decision going into the residency that we would dissolve the distinctions between our practices completely,’ McShea tells me over a coffee in Manhattan’s Elizabeth Street Garden. Palazzo Monti had an air of faded grandeur, with baroque frescoes that the artists endeavored to give three-dimensional form. They bought reams of inexpensive fabric from a local store and wrapped them around banisters and soaked them in water, sculpting them to resemble the gravity-defying drapery painted on the walls. They made their first flag out of polyester ribbons tied to a cardboard tube, which hung over the palazzo’s front door.

Man in black coat walking on a runway covered in flags.
LOEWE FW22 men's runway show. Courtesy: LOEWE

‘What happens when you strip a flag of all its meaning?’ asks McShea. ‘There’s something incredibly compelling and hypnotic about the form, but when you take away its semiotic markers, it’s just textile interacting with light and air.’ They took their flag to the shores of Lake Como, where it attracted the attention of local sunbathers.

On a trip to McShea’s hometown of Frederick, Maryland, they bought discount silk ribbon by the crate from an antique store, spending nearly US$200—a small fortune for them at the time—and hauled it to a friend’s timeshare in Fire Island, a place they only knew by its hard-partying reputation. ‘We assumed it wasn’t our community and that we wouldn’t integrate well, so we resolved to treat it as another artist residency,’ recalls Mosa. Instead, they met Faris Saad Al-Shathir, the founder of the BOFFO Artist Residency, who introduced them to a network of queer artists, and began planting their flags at Sunday beach parties. They saw how their work could delineate space for dancing or contemplation. ‘It creates an island on an island,’ Mosa says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, McShea and Mosa gave up their New York apartment and took a modest house in The Pines, renting rooms to friends. Artists like Nash Glynn and Martine Gutierrez, and the actress Hari Nef, gathered on the deck of the wood-frame cabin, shaded by holly trees, while McShea and Mosa’s sewing machines whirred in the background. The painter Doron Langberg completed a large-scale portrait of the couple, which was acquired by Jonathan Anderson, the creative director of LOEWE.

Colourful flags on the beach.
Joe McShea and Edgar Mosa, Flags, Ibiza 2021, commissioned by LOEWE. Photography: © Benjamin Pexton

The summer of 2021 brought McShea and Mosa their largest commission yet: a group of 50 flags for the annual BOFFO Performance Festival, as well as an invitation from Anderson to design the set for LOEWE’s fall 2022 men’s show. In October, they relocated to Paris, where they had access to the fashion house’s full production team—over 100 people, by their estimate—and where they were given full creative control.

For the January 22 presentation, McShea and Mosa filled the Tennis Club de Paris with 87 of their rainbow ribbon flags, hung from stainless steel poles pitched at sharp angles. Models wove in and out of a colorful forest of streamers atop a floor of hard-packed sand. To some, the set resembled a display of couture Pride flags, but their indeterminacy was precisely the point. ‘Our idea is to take this object with inherent violence and strip it of all that, so it’s just a beautiful object fluttering in the wind,’ says McShea. Recalling his childhood during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Anderson told T Magazine that he saw the flags as ‘a symbol of a better future’.

Model in unitard walking down a runway covered in flags.
LOEWE FW22 men's runway show. Courtesy: LOEWE

Anderson has never been to FireIsland, but he told the artists that, for him, their work signified that New York had emerged from the pandemic and entered a new golden age. The LOEWE collection, which drew from gay club culture and 1970s Ibiza, pointed to the essential work of creating and preserving queer spaces—an endeavor that McShea and Mosa have taken on with their textiles. As they continue experimenting with the form, they’ve begun thinking about the flags as sculptural objects by designing holsters, mounts and poles, which they plan to install both indoors and outdoors, in a variety of different landscapes. Over beaches, deserts, mountains and plains, transcending nature and culture, they hope their flags will flutter for us all.

Joe McShea and Edgar Mosa present ‘Flags New York City, 2023’ at PARTY, 75 East Broadway, New York from May 17th through May 21st


This article first appeared in Frieze Week, May 2023 under the headline ‘Written on the Wind’

Main image: Joe McShea and Edgar Mosa, Flags, Ibiza 2021, commissioned by LOEWE. Photography: © Benjamin Pexton

Evan Moffitt is a writer, editor and critic based in New York, USA.