It’s easy to assume that one of the primary litmi for discerning good art from bad art is the individual piece’s relationship to originality, but, as with all art historical concepts, it’s important to define our terms, first. While the concept of artistic selfhood emerged in the late Renaissance with legends like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, “originality” was considered far less important than assimilation; Titian finished works by Bellii and Giorgione in their studios, Manet became famous turning The Venus of Urbino into the provocative Olympia, and Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica was borrowed from an equally iconic Raphael fresco.
Exchange of ideas and acknowledgement of influence have long comprised the tenets of creative production, and by the time the 20th century rolled around and an emphasis on personal genius bloomed into the collective consciousness, orginality underwent another permutation—appropriation. Pop artists created a new lexicon of post-modern commentary and imagistic anarchy, intentionally borrowing and sharing pictures that weren’t local to their experience as a way of breaking apart conventional notions of ownership. Whether the implications are laudatory, reverent, academic, or incendiary, the playful, storied history of “originality” in art bears closer examination. Here at Artspace, we’ve put together a list of pieces by contemporary artists, both up-and-coming and established, that operate in concert with the greats. These are 7 examples of art history as a living, breathing enterprise.
Morgan Mandalay, Still Life with Pomegranate, Lemon, Pear, Apple, Orange and Fly, (After Courbet), 2018
Gustave Courbet, Still Life, c. 1871-72
LA-based painter Mandalay turns his fantastical gaze to the past, re-invigorating French artist Gustave Courbet’s fleshy, Symbolist melodrama with a fiery flare. Still life protocol holds that pomegranates can stand-in both for fertility and death, depending on the artist, and this call-and-response is no exception, especially given Courbet’s penchant for sexually charged and carnal depictions of women and objects alike. The results are delightfully meta.
Eleanor Aldrich, Sunglasses and a veil (after Sargent), 2017
John Singer Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris, 1880
This pairing gives viewers a humorous spin on an old classic. Sargent’s hauntingly beautiful and deeply Orientalist 1880 masterwork belies the 19th century exoticization of Middle Eastern and North African culture, the kind of Eurocentric gaze that is only now being re-evaluated in art circles. Aldrich’s heavily impastoed rendition of this famous work includes a pair of orange sunglasses, simultaneously undercutting the original’s grandeur and reminding us of its inherently touristic roots. Aldrich’s frenetic, heavy hand reminds us that this is a painting about painting, poignant and problematic at the same time.
Irene Mamiye, Collapse (After “The Kiss”), 2017
French-born and New York-based artist Mamiye is best known for her critical employment of advanced digital imaging techniques, and that penchant for up-ending the status quo is on full display in her Collapse series, which explore satirical points of rupture in the state-sanctioned patriarchal capitalism. This image of two policemen making out turns Klimt’s romantic, covetous masterwork on its head, imbuing institutional critique with a salacious, yet familiar, flavor.
Leslie Holt, Unspeakable (Hysterical Arch after Bourgeois), 2019
Louise Bourgeois, Arch of Hysteria, 1993
DC-based artist Holt leans into the psychosexual underpinnings of Bourgeois’ oeuvre in elemental ways, invoking the triumph and tragedy of female embodiment by contrasting luscious, dripping, carnal paint and careful embroidery, a nod to the history of women’s domestic labor. Her direct visual quotation of Bourgeois arresting sculpture implies the stormy, referential grab-bag available for contemporary feminist artists, the long shadow of resilience and personal truth.
Mel Davis, After El Greco, 2019
El Greco, Adoration of the Shepards, 1612-14
This stylistic love letter to El Greco is a charmingly soft departure for Davis, the Berkley-based artist whose paintings of photographs mine nature and photography for visual representations of memory. This iteration is no exception, reveling in the perceptual stain of what El Greco did best—heavily stylized, languid figures that reflected the tandem desperation and piety of his time period.
Jessica Hargreaves, Another Hamburger, (after Tiepolo), 2018
Tiepolo, Perseus and Andromeda, 1730
This painting is Hargreaves’ response to America’s rallying for Oprah Winfrey’s presidency following her rousing 2018 Oscars speech. Strongly influenced by political cartoons of the early 19th century, the piece depicts Oprah on a deified cloud surrounded by a bevvy of celebrities cheering her on while the monster who lives under Putin’s cave continues its exploitation of the underclass. Hargreaves’ invocation of Tiepolo applies a playful, Baroque grandiosity to the piece, further driving the hyper-consumerist components of her commentary home.
Elizabeth Zvonar, French Fantasy, 2016
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814
Toronto-area collage artist Zvonar uses classical painting motifs as the basis for her eerie, destabilizing pieces, which explore the affectual, personal ramifications of our long steep in the canon, using incisive gesture to make implicity feminist interventions to the visual archive we all share. This historical aggregation comments on the objectification of women’s bodies in painting while underscoring the deep, hollow emptiness of idealization itself—this figure is an impossible cypher, exoticized for the express purpose of feeding the male gaze.
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