Priscilla Briggs at George Mason University

There is a really interesting show at GMU campus in Fairfax, Virginia right now called “Making Mona Lisa” featuring photographs by Priscilla Briggs and paintings by Chinese painters who are hired to paint over photographs by Briggs. Usually the photographs they paint over are “masterpieces” such as the Mona Lisa, or Starry Night, but Briggs has brought them her own photographs and the painters themselves are the subjects of the photographs. The painters are in essence completing self portraits but it is Briggs who is the artist – the one with the idea to complete this project in the first place.

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The photographs and the paintings compliment each other well. The process the painters go through is revealed in the photographs which feature palette stands with heaping piles of paints or cigarette butts, examples of completed paintings, and indications of a lived-in apartment that doubles as a studio. The paintings in contrast feature the painters themselves looking out at the viewer.

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Briggs wall text found on her website:

Wushipu and Haicang are two of numerous communities in Xiamen where entire apartment complexes are inhabited by production painters. The production painters fill orders for oil paintings that end up in furniture showrooms, hotels, and tourist art galleries around the world. Although anyone can go online to email a photo to be made into an oil painting and shipped to their front door, many of the orders ask the artist to make multiple copies of the same image. The painters charge by the square foot and by skill level. Common subjects are reproductions of famous paintings. The artists usually focus on one style of painting, specializing in landscapes, van Gogh sunflowers, Degas ballerinas, Thomas Kincaid cottages, etc.

I visited the painters to make portraits of them in their live/work spaces. Instead of printing the images, I commissioned paintings of the photographs (for close to the same cost as having an inkjet print made here in the US). I also made photographic prints of still life images of the painters’ live/work spaces. This work explores notions of the “original” work of art and its value, authorship, and the interplay between photography and painting.

These paintings reminded me of Vik Muniz and when in Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer he talks about working in New York at a frame shop that sold paintings.

I found a job in a frame shop on 57th street. The owners of the shop claimed to be direct descendants of Egon Schiele’s Austrian dealers, but the place was really an assembly line for cheaply produced decorative art to be sold at furniture stores. They would acquire bulk ‘Impressionist style’ canvases painted by Chinese craftsmen, embellish them with a baroque faux-wood frame, and validate the contraption with an invented biography of the ‘European master’ who was supposed to have painted it, printed on an official-looking label. I got to paint some of these master paintings for extra income; they brought two hundred dollars a pop. I painted English ships battling Spanish galleons. I liked to paint the smoke of the cannons and the exaggerated waves. I even had my own ‘master’ biography: I had been born in Belgium and educated in a prestigious school in England, and I had a very cool name – I think it was Blanchard. p. 14

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So sweet

Vik Muniz uses humor to lure his audience in. “Humor and visual gimmicks operate at the most basic level of art appreciation. They create physical and perceptual responses that hold the viewer in front of the work a bit longer than usual. Once you achieve this tenacity, you can afford to be deep and erudite.” (Muniz, Vik. Reflex p. 19).  The chocolate drip painting is a good example of Muniz’s humor at work.  Teresa Annas points to the “Action Photo II (Jackson Pollock)” image in her The Virginian Pilot January 30th review of the Vik Muniz: Poetics of Perception show at the Virginia Museum of Modern Art. “He also used syrup, humorously so, to mimic abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock in the act of creating an ‘action’ painting, as famously captured by photographer Hans Namuth.”

I had a chance to see the show last weekend. It was the first time I’ve seen a group of Muniz’s work displayed together, and even though there were no Verso examples present, the show was definitely worth going to. The exhibition included images from the Pictures of Chocolate, Junk and Garbage photographs, Pictures of Magazines, Earthworks, Pictures of Color, Equivalents, Diamond divas, and a Medusa plate.

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Vik Muniz, Vulcan Forges Cupid’s Arrow, after Alessandro Tiarini, 2006

Seeing the large scale Pictures of Junk photograph “Vulcan Forges Cupid’s Arrows” was a highlight. The image definitely plays with perspective and perception as you move away from and towards the image. From far away the mythic image is what your eye is drawn to, but as you get closer to the photograph you start to focus on the materials themselves. It’s a flat image but the sensation of depth is there. I felt a sense of vertigo and could imagine standing high above the installation looking down at it. I found myself drawn to the individual items much more than I expected to. There is a fan, nets, tires, small red plastic items clustered together, rope, musical instruments, and so much more. There is a huge variety of textures and materials that from far away congeal together with their muted colors. Close up the spots of reds, blues, and yellows stand out and keep the eye moving around the image.

Other standouts for me were the Diamond images, mainly because diamonds seem so difficult to photograph, and also the Pictures of Magazines, again because in person it really allows to you move between the overall illusionistic image and the small details that appear in the materials themselves.

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Virginia Beach, view from the hotel, not a bad place to do research!

Subject matters

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Sleepwalker by Tony Matelli at the Wellesley college’s Davis Museum. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

By placing art out of the gallery it exists removed from its expected context. A lifelike sculpture out of the gallery is also a deviation from the form many think of when they think of public art – it seems large metal sculptures are more appropriate in landscapes than mostly naked men, especially if the landscape is a college campus. This sleep walker is probably trying to find his way back to the museum.

In the introduction to the 1999 exhibition catalog, Abracadabra: International Contemporary Art, Catherine Kinley explains the fascination between the real and the artificial. “This publicly personal art challenges assumptions about the power of the virtual over the real in a world where it is thought increasingly difficult to distinguish one from the other. A decade ago, artists had begun to doubt that the real could still be easily identified. Their art was made in the context of propositions by post-modern critics and philosophers who were examining the effects of the proliferation of electronic media and the power of the information explosion. In the 1950s and 1960s advertising and film, earlier manifestations of the information age, had been co-opted and celebrated by artists. Later, television, video and computers offered new possibilites for art but were also seen as having the power to dull ‘real’ experience and to fuse the real and the imaginary. The palpable world appeared impenetrable and opaque. A common response – whether a symptom of resignation or a strategic act of alliance – was to mimic this new artificiality.”

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Untitled, by Maurizio Cattelan, 2004

Photography in the 60s and 70s

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Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, Photographed by Francisco Kjolseth/
The Salt Lake Tribune, September 2002

Notes from: Wall, Jeff. “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975. Los Angeles, CA: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995.

p. 254

Using Bruce Nauman’s photographs as examples, Wall describes the two styles of photography that were able to co-exist in the late sixties and early seventies that had been at a divide previously – the documentary and the fake.

“The two styles, reduced to a set of basic formulae and effects, are signifiers for the new co-existence of species of photography up to that time. It is as if the reportage works go back to Muybridge and the sources of all traditional concepts of photographic documentary, and the color pictures to the early ‘gags’ and jokes, to Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy, to the birthplace of effects used for their own sake. The two reigning myths of photography – the one that claims that photographs are ‘true’ and the one that claims they are not – are shown to be grounded in the same praxis, available in the same place, the studio, at that place’s moment of historical transformation.”

p. 261

Non-art as art

“Sometimes the early years of Pop art seem like a race to find the most perfect, metaphysically banal image, that cipher that demonstrates the ability of culture to continue when every aspect of what had been known in modern art as seriousness, expertise, and reflexiveness had been dropped. The empty, the counterfeit, the functional, and the brutal themselves were of course nothing new as art in 1960, having all become tropes of the avant-garde via Surrealism. From the viewpoint created by Pop art, though, earlier treatments of this problem seem emphatic in the adherence to the Romantic idea of the transformative power of authentic art. The anaesthetic is transformed as art, but along the fracture-line of shock. The shock caused by the appearance of the anaesthetic in a serious work is calmed by the aura of seriousness itself.”

p. 266

Photography as viable art (origins)

“dragging its heavy burden of depiction, photography could not follow pure, or linguistic, Conceptualism all the way to the frontier.” “In this light, it could be said that it was photography’s role and task to turn away from Conceptual art, away from reductivism and its aggressions. Photoconceptualism was then the last moment of the pre-history of photography as art, the end of the Old Regime, the most sustained and sophisticated attempt to free the medium from its peculiar distanced relationship with artistic radicalism and from its ties to the Western Picture. In its failure to do so, it revolutionized our concept of the Picture and created the conditions for the restoration of that concept as a central category of contemporary art by around 1974.”

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Vik Muniz, Spiral Jetty after Robert Smithson, from the series Brooklyn, NY, 1997; Collection SFMOMA

 

The Cartellino

Boilly - Trompe l'œil au crucifix en ivoire et en bois

Boilly – Trompe l’œil au crucifix en ivoire et en bois

Notes from Milman, Miriam. The Illusions of Reality: Trompe L’oeil Painting. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1983.

p. 12

“At about the same period [mid 1400s-1500s] the cartellino makes its appearance – a small slip of paper skilfully folded, with its edges turned down and bearing the painter’s signature or other inscriptions. As a luminous surface, its whiteness immediately visible, the cartellino stands out from the picture and enters unequivocally the world of the spectator. It also brings a direct message from the artist to the public. The signature, date or title inscribed on the cartellino go to establish it as a real object, while thrusting the picture content back into the world of illusion. The folded or crumbled scrap of paper standing out so effectively from the plane surface of the painted picture later became a stock device of trompe-loeil painting.”

The cartellino reminds me of the labels found on the back of the canvas indicating ownership and exhibition history. It also makes me wonder when artists / owners started attaching labels to the backs of works of art.

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First example of the cartellino. Madonna by Lippi, 1437

From German Wikipedia: “das erste Cartellino in dem Gemälde Tarquinia Madonna von Fra Filippo Lippi aus dem Jahr 1437. Die Verwendung von Cartellini nahm ab Mitte des 15. Jahrhunderts in der italienischen Malerei immer mehr zu, bis sie im ersten Viertel des 16. Jahrhunderts den Gipfel der Popularität erreichte.”

The Rhetoric of Perspective

“On the left is Gijsbrechts’s Cabinet of Curiosities With an Ivory Tankard, painted from the front; on the right the same subject reworked, showing the back of the door” – Richard Dorment

Quotes from Grootenboer, Hanneke. The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in 17th century Dutch Still-Life Painting. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

p. 3

“The discovery of perspective has created a clear-cut caesura between the appearance of reality and the reality of appearance. Perspective makes a particular claim to truth.”

p. 6

“Still life has a particular investment in the ‘art of describing’ because it is purely descriptive: literally nothing distracts from the objectifying representation of mere objects. Not intending to tell as story or communicate a message, still life calls attention to the mere recording of objects, or rather to the artist’s scrutinizing gaze upon these objects. Still life invites us to look at the overlooked, to use Norman Bryson’s phrase, and show how still-life artists were looking for the overlooked as well. They picture the margins of their visual fields, or rather they show scenes that would normally reside in the margins of a major painting. Still-life artists have promoted what used to be called ‘by-work’ in narrative pictures into an independent form of painting.”

p. 8

“His [Gijsbrechts] famous chantourne, a cutout panel of a painter’s easel offers commentary on the status of representation as well as on the provocation of the viewer.” Gijsbrechts paints the same subject over and over revealing “a fascination with the subject matter as much as a preoccupation with recording it.”

p. 15

Why were the Dutch creating such realistic paintings?

“The Dutch genres exhibit a preoccupation with new developments in the science of vision and are themselves like experiments: painting as a mirror, or a map, or the visual world.”

p. 5

“Dutch still lifes in particular are especially preoccupied with virtually scientific modes of describing inanimate objects, flowers, shells, fruits, and other edibles. The genre is a product of Dutch seventeeth-century culture and its expressed fascination with observing and recording reality in a variety of circumstances. The science of vision flourished in the Netherlands, and its investigations resulted in new technologies, such as the microscope and the camera obscura, just as the Golden Age was drawing to a close. The Dutch also were pioneers in mapmaking, another mode of recording the world. Research in sciences other than optics, such as botany, called for scientific modes of illustrating plants and flowers at different stages of growth ad vivum, from life. In the field of philosophy, epistemological questions were approached in the context of optical and technological developments. Within this cultural environment, Dutch artists made meticulously detailed recordings of the visible world their specialty. Painters specialized in particular subject matter and became masters in the representation of church interiors, exotic fruit and flowers, cityscapes, shells, and so forth. The paintings of the Golden Age are testimonies to this preoccupation with a scientific mode of observing and describing every thinkable detail of the visible world.”

p. 19

Still life paintings call “for a different mode of looking. The still life anticipates such a mode of looking by raising issues concerning the nature of its own representation, which do not lead us, as viewers, to interpretation but to a state that is most thought-provoking, namely, thinking.”

The Pictures Generation

Sherrie Levine – Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp), 1991

Quote from Eklund, Douglas. The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

p. 152-153

“That both Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince became known for stealing the images of others– whether great artists from the canon or hack advertising photographers– and claiming them as their own gave them the reputation of outlaws of sorts, and to this day both take pleasure from the visceral reactions that their thefts provoke. On paper at least, the critics had it exactly right: in their early appropriations, Prince and Levine broke a law so fundamental and widely accepted that it isn’t visible until someone breaks it. This law maintains that the artist must vouch for the paternity of his (or her) work, that it came from the artist and not some other source; the entire aesthetic house of cards and all of the salutary myths that art provides for society are built around this symbolic rite of ownership.”

Two Cures: Making Art Visible

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Groys, Boris. “Two cures: making art visible” in After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History, edited by Charles Merewether and John Potts. Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York, 2010.

“On the one side the liberated digital image seems to confront a new imprisonment, a new confinement inside the museum’s and exhibition’s walls. On the other side the art system seems to be compromised by exhibiting digital copies instead of originals. Of course, one can argue that digital photographs or videos – like ready-mades or analogue films and photographs before them – being put into the exhibition space demonstrates the loss of the aura, the postmodern scepticism towards the modernist notion of originality.” p.9

Permanent Collection by Tim Davis

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Tim Davis – Betty

Notes from Davis, Tim. Permanent Collection. Tucson, Arizona: Nazraeli Press, 2005.

Two very short essays are found in this oversize lavishly illustrated book. The first essay is titled “A New Luminist” by Bill Berkson and the second “Reflecting the Canon: Tim Davis’s Materialist Contingencies”. The first essay centers on Davis’s focus on lighting, and how the distorted lighting of the art museum is present in his work. Davis’s work connects with Muniz’s work in that both investigate how viewers see works of art and the traces of time found on paintings – Davis looks at the front, Muniz the back. Berkson states that Davis’s “personal exemplars” include Walker Evans, Abe Morrell, and Rudy Burckhardt. Davis’s subject matter differs from Muniz in that he is photographing mostly works of art by European masters from the 1500s to the 1800s. The two exceptions are Gerhard Richter’s Betty, and Walker Evans Church Window. It is interesting to note that both Davis and Muniz refer to the works of art by their title only, neither artist mentions the original author in their titles.

Quotes from Berkson essay:

Art objects as they are shown in Davis’s pictures are slices of life as much as any contemporary experience, and seeing them in their stark material aspects, all varnished ridges, striations and cracklings, enhances their poignancy, so that more, rather than less, meaning leaks into the mix.

The encounter with the intimate lineaments of a thing – a rare type of photographic fool-the-eye – is complex, as funny as it is annoying. […] Faced with the pictures’ intrinsic disorientations, you foolishly shift your center of gravity from side to side; as the fixed image refuses to respond – you cannot see the picture better – the Decisive Moment becomes a vain perceptual joke.

Quotes from Beshty essay:

Cracked surfaces bear the marks of time on hallowed masterpieces…

The mythic timelessness of a Watteau or Van Gogh collapses into the temporal and the fleeting, the fragility of age bleeding to the surface like a secret that crept trompe l’oeil out from the conservator’s backrooms and into view. It is this incompatibility between the material understanding of the work, and the seduction of its aura, that Davis offers.

…the tabula rasa of the museum wall accidentally seeped to the surface of the canvases it was meant to disappear behind. Photography has perennially navigated this space between the fleeting and the eternal, between seduction and contemplation, between revelation and concealment…

Duchamp’s readymades

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, replica 1960

Notes from Molesworth, Helen. Part Object Part Sculpture. Columbus, Ohio: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University; University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

p. 183-185

“It is well documented, but not much discussed, that the Swedish curator Ulf Linde and the Italian art dealer Arturo Schwarz helped to meet this demand [interest in Duchamp’s lost readymades increased in the late 1950s and early 1960s] in the early 1960s by making handmade versions of the readymades. In 1960 Linde made copies of Bicycle Wheel and Fresh Widow for a gallery exhibition of Duchamp’s work in Stockholm. It appears that, at first, Duchamp was unaware of these copies. At Linde’s beckoning, Duchamp traveled to Stockholm in 1961, where he was presented with Linde’s copies, both of which he graciously signed ‘copie conforme.'”


Marcel Duchamp, “Bottle Rack,” 1963 replica of 1914 original.

p. 185-188

“The second important public viewing of Linde’s replicas was in Arturo Schwarz’s Milan gallery in an exhibition held there in 1963, precisely the moment Schwarz himself was beginning to remake a set of the lost readymades. […] The precise details of how the Schwarz edition came to pass are not exactly known. […] It was agreed that all the readymades would be editioned in groups of eight with two extra copies, one for Duchamp and one for Schwarz. Suffice it to say that the vast majority of people who have encountered a readymade in the second half of the twentieth century have seen one from the set Schwarz produced in 1964.

Unlike the Linde replicas, the Schwarz readymades were overseen by Duchamp at every turn, and accuracy was of the essence as Schwarz hired professional engineers to make blueprints of the readymades based on the photographs. Only Fountain was not produced solely by a craftsman. A mold was made by a ceramicist and given to an Italian plumbing manufacturer, where, one evening, the factory line of mass production was halted as twelve Fountain sculptures were made instead. Schwarz subsequently hired professional craftsmen to make the objects – a glassblower for Paris Air, a welder for the Bottle Rack, a carpenter for the Hat Rack. The dominant art-historical reception of the readymade sees it as the agent that introduced the forces of mass production into the realm of art, yet this account too easily neglects the ‘handmade’ wrinkle in the story.”

Marcel Duchamp Traveller’s Folding Item (UNDERWOOD), 1916 (replica 1963-64), ready-made, cm 30 x 40 x 24, Collezione privata

p. 188

“If the meaning of objects (aesthetic and otherwise) derives, in relatively equal measure, from their function and their production, then the handmade quality of the remade readymades, and Duchamp’s explicit decision to have them refabricated in editions, seems wholly contradictory, certainly qualifying our sense of the ‘original’ readymades.”