We have reached a kind of post-historical point in culture where there is no longer a narrative about what art should or can be. As a result, we now see many artists producing ultra-referential works, drawing from the past, which becomes their subject—both praising and critiquing, and sometimes regurgitating - nameable points in cultural history. Art-historical allusion is nothing new: Picasso created several paintings based on Velazquez's 'Las Meninas,' and Manet referenced Titian's 'Venus of Urbino' for his scandalous 'Olympia.' But now, appropriation has become commonplace as a subject in itself - sometimes because it's just hard to create anything really new, and other times because we are justly compelled to trace the past in order to determine where we now stand in cultural history.
Guest Spot's latest exhibition "Read the Recap, Skip the Show" examines the appropriation or surveying of secondary sources and considers the action of allusion. This sort of referential curatorial thread could have easily been used as an arbitrary umbrella theme, because no work of art is entirely free from reference, intentional or not. But in this case, curator Tom Marquet has selected works from an eclectic group of artists that effectively address the many facets displaced appropriation.
And so, here you can read a recap of a show I recommend you not miss.
Placed at the center of the gallery floor, Björn Meyer-Ebrecht’s lean painted wood structures are particularly striking. Like bizarre bookshelves that function as pedestals, each sculpture displays an upright paperback book: “Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics,” “Architektur als Ideologie,” and “Bauen seit 1900 in Berlin.” The design of the pedestals illustrates the modern architecture aesthetics presented in the texts. Because they evoke images of skyscrapers, they seem intentionally undersized (the tallest reaching about six feet) as if they were models for yet-to-be-constructed buildings - bringing to mind Vladimir Tatlin’s Constructivist model for the never-realized Monument to the Third International. By placing the text and the structure together, Meyer-Ebrecht provides an overt context of preceding aesthetic theory, forced to be reckoned with and examined in the present era, in a contemporary gallery.
Similarly echoing art-historical forms, Margo Benson Malter’s ‘After Judd II’ takes the shape of a step-like Donald Judd sculpture, covered in digitally-printed fabric of seemingly random patterns that have an internet-kitsch quality: cloudy blue skies, polka dots with tiny faces, clusters of clip-art shapes. The nonsensical patterns seem to mock Judd’s iconic minimalist sculptures, in a way, as if they themselves were annoying memes. That kind of imagery appears in Malter’s two quilts, one of which, ‘S/O to O.S (SOS),’ features stock photos of hands varying in skin color, along with patches containing opened and closed eyes. The angles in the quilt pattern seem to form a near-Swastika shape. Even if this is completely incidental, or I’m just reading into it too much, the quilt uses common symbolism, repurposed and rearranged to create a new design, as is the nature of quilting.
The most enjoyable moment in the exhibition comes from Joe Nanashe, whose ‘3xladyx3’ video installation might have been spawned from the weird, dark corners of the internet at 3 a.m. Three ever-suave Lionel Richies appear in the gallery’s small, darkened theater space, performing the Commodore’s hit ‘Three Times a Lady’ from different pieces of concert footage, projected together on a single wall, side-by-side and stacked. The three voices flow between singing in rounds and in synchronicity, and at the high points in the film, the Richies seem to harmonize. Shrinking in hair radius and general glitz as he ages, the singer maintains his campy allure. The installation compresses time while making it awkwardly evident.
Jeremy August Haik takes scraps of pages from art history and color theory textbooks and place them in a celestial or flat and ambiguous space in his archival pigment prints. Two of these prints, forming a diptych titled ‘Pediment’, feature two halves of a torn black-and-white photo of a marble, shield-wielding warrior, overlaid with high-key washes of yellow, cyan, and magenta - the primary colors used for printing. The layering of ancient imagery and modern processes, over a clean white background on one print and outer space on the other, calls into question the relationships between old and new art forms in a universe that remains constant.
Not all work in the show makes explicit references to historical objects or figures as their primary focus. Paul Gagner paints paintings of paintings—imaginary paintings, it seems, without specific authorship. Paintings that depict other paintings evoke Baroque portraits of collectors, sitting in front of their painting-covered salon walls—as well as, perhaps in this case, ‘Las Meninas,’ if we believe the painting being represented to be the Gagners’ own. A painting of a painting in effect questions the nature of art objecthood. In the case of Gagner’s three paintings, the conversation is initiated not by the paintings being painted, but by their environment. The represented canvases are not noteworthy in themselves; just somewhat generic, abstract-expressionist action paintings. However, they take on a more dynamic character in their surroundings, from leaning against a brick wall below a starry night sky (‘Starry Night’), to resting in a wood-floor gallery (similar to the gallery in which the real-life painting hangs) amongst other pieces in pre-exhibition state (‘Interference’), to hanging on on an interior brick, faced by an empty swivel chair (‘Under Consideration’). In a similar way as in Nanashe’s ‘3xladyx3,’ the paintings put forth the same act, under the altering contexts of different points in time and place.
Like Gagner, Heather McKenna self-appropriates, treating her own creations as her subjects. Her three photographic prints, collectively titled ‘not what it is but how it is,’ depict hand-modeled, monochromatic prisms and arches, acting like still life objects in an otherwise empty space of the same glowing color, though different in each image: a mint green, a peach pink, and a periwinkle blue. The images don’t come across as documentation: the three-dimensional form becomes the art object when flattened to the printed surface. As the title indicates, “what” the objects are doesn’t matter, but “how” they exist in a displaced dimension. I’ve heard snarky painters say “sculpture is what you back into when you’re looking at a painting” and sculptors say the reverse. With that in mind, there’s something at once satisfying and disorienting about an image of a sculpture - a sensation taken away from the entire show, through unexpected presentation of peripheral references.