The annals of contemporary art are filled with appropriationists, borrowers, persons who make art from other people’s images. Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Larry Johnson, all these artists, and their conceptual progeny (nearly every photographer and assemblage artist under 40), have made careers out of lifting someone else’s work for their own purposes, with, or without, permission. From looking at these artists’ work, the act of borrowing someone else’s image usually comes from a place of contention, a feeling of displeasure with the image’s original message and the conditions it stems from and helps produce.
Richard Prince is probably best known for cropping the commercial photographer Jim Krantz’s blue-jean clad Marlboro men from ads (ben day dots and all) to reframe notions of American masculinity and critique mass media advertising. Krantz never got a cut of the multi-million dollar action (nor should he have in my opinion). Levine reshot Walker Evan’s iconic WPA photos, and repainted male Modernist masterpieces to insert questions of gender and authorship into a larger art-historical narrative. More power to her. Warhol took photos from newspapers and advertisements and re-contextualized them, presented them back to us, the ever-ready consumer, as just what they are: infinitely reproducible images, each one the same, but different. Critics have made much about Warhol’s implicit critique of capitalist mass-productions, though the silver-headed sphinx maintained his critical silence on the matter (which, in the end, was probably a good thing). Before he started photographing cartoon stills, Johnson used to crib text from sources like TV Guide and Mensa to make cryptic and piercing work about the text that lies beneath the text, and in doing so he helped to unearth how subcultures congeal through language.
The extreme of appropriation is downright plagiarism, using another artist’s work and claiming it to be your own. Koons has been called a thief by a few photographers, most importantly Art Rogers, who sued him for making a gaudy sculpture based exactly on a photograph of multiple puppies. Rogers won his lawsuit in a landmark case (and he deserved to – in my opinion). And don’t get me started on Shepard Fairey. He’s more of a propagandist and corporate branding machine than an artist, and, thankfully, people are starting to see him for what he is: an undeniable crook. Check out Mark Vallen’s excellent article at http://www.art-for-a-change.com/Obey/index.htm for more info. Fairey’s appropriations of real-world protest imagery are almost always self-promoting gestures, camouflaged in the guise of politics. They are wallpaper for gentrifying neighborhoods, and advertising for his OBEY brand. His appropriations often employ simple copyright infringement, with some rusted colors thrown in for revolutionary panache. But I digress.
Appropriation is not a bad thing, and there is no doubt that critically aware appropriationist gestures from the past half-century have indeed changed the way we look at reproduced and mass-marketed images and the systems of control and consumption they promote. There’s a reason so many people get enraged by artists who “borrow” from external sources. Perhaps this is because appropriation is not necessarily a kind act. Art that appropriates is often executed to make a critical tear in the image being appropriated. Rarely is appropriation used as a form of reverence, a way to communicate devotion, indebtedness, and, dare I say it, LOVE. Which is why the work of Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia in the 2010 show by Deborah Calderwood at CB1 gallery in Los Angeles has such great resonance. In this fascinating body of work we see not just a collection of pretty pictures (though they are visually stunning), but we also witness an innovative approach to appropriation, a conceptual methodology which injects much needed joy and, yes, love, into the contemporary discourse around using another’s images for one’s own work.
by Deborah Calderwood at firsts appears as a somewhat conventional art show, with a healthy selection of multiple sized framed works on paper and paintings arranged evenly and with care on the gallery’s tall white walls. Yet the forms that actually inhabit each work appear awkward, childlike. A cloud-like bulbous figure with stick arms and googly eyes inhabits many pieces. He surfs, scales mountains, jumps around, sometimes in heels, like a reoccurring tour guide or portrait of an imaginary friend. Hilarious statements pour from cartoonish figures mouths’ in large comic-book speech bubbles. A blank field of pink holds eight comical caricatures, which look indebted to both Andy Warhol and Dennis The Menace. The work bears a startling resemblance to childhood drawings.
When it comes to the basic forms in each work, compositional structure tends towards simple placement on straightforward horizon lines, with little to no foreshortening or complex arrangements of objects. These forms provide a kind of anchor to the work, like lines in a coloring book. But outside of the line quality, everything else at play is full-on mature painting, the kind of picture making that takes a real sustained art practice to produce. These are, in fact, not kid drawings.
Childlike drawings by contemporary artists have been in vogue for awhile now, as evidenced by the influence of artists like Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley (and Basquiat for that matter) on a younger generation. Yet Segovia’s work seems to completely resist the read these artist’s works illicit, denying a conversation about the man-as-child, and instead going much more towards an analysis of the forms at play, and the decorative elements that further contextualize them and give them meaning. His are much more carefully executed. They owe more to the lineage of artists like Paul Klee, Wilfredo Lam, or Lari Pittman, than, say, Tracy Emin, or other many of the left-handed artists from the Beautiful Losers school.
Nearly every work exhibits a kind of considered embellishment far outside of the attention span of a child. Decorative elements are created from seemingly infinite patterns, mark-making that no doubt took hours of dedicated concentration. Complex networks of juxtaposed abstract painterly elements cause the eye to move around the picture, always searching for more. And the palette in each work appears completely harmonious, free-wheeling, yet tempered by years of experience laying down color. The pleasure these works supply is undeniable.
Yet it’s this strange juxtaposition, this use of childlike imagery as a framework to hold advanced picture construction, that makes one ask, “just what are we looking at here?” The two pictorial approaches seems to have an underlying logic, yet one buried somewhere outside of the frame. This question becomes even more pressing when one considers that most of the works bear the words “by Deborah Calderwood,” which, as a reminder, is the title of the exhibition. The title brings to mind the de-authoring of the artist, if not the “death of the author,” in a rather comical Barthesian sense, where the notion of an originating source is thrown into flux. Such strange titling implies a confusion of creation, and, hopefully allows for a critical space to examine the work outside of the baggage that comes with discussions of authenticity, creative spirit, the innocence of children’s drawings, or, for that matter, the Greenbergian “depths of soul” discourse of abstract painting.
One approach would be to view the title, and its literal inscription on works in the show as the manifestation of an alternate identity. The artist’s own Rose Selavy perhaps? Yet there is no stand-in or fictionalized self at play here. All of Segovia’s images take their compositional inspiration from drawings created by the actual Deborah Calderwood when she was eleven years old. That Deborah is also Lorenzo’s wife, and the mother of his son, adds yet another layer of interest, making this not just a project about appropriation, but also about intimate and familial relationships.
Perhaps the title is one of the best ways to enter the conceptual framework that truly underpins this exhibition. The title first asserts itself as the invitation for the show. Here we see a photo of a young eleven year-old Deborah smiling at the camera in a billowy clown outfit, complete with painted-on eye-lashes and red nose and cheeks. This is the only photo in the exhibition, and therefore feels not necessarily out of place, but a strange reference point framing the rest of the exhibition. Besides being a sign of childhood play, her clown outfit also adds a comical element, underscoring the hide-and-seek game of identities embedded in the show.
As an invitation, it is actually fairly conventional; we are used to seeing all manner of portraiture of the artist deployed as a way to sell both the artwork and the artist in advance of an exhibition. Yet this invitation is different. By substituting the artist’s wife for the image of the artist himself, the invitation inverts the typical gallery invite’s play of image and text. This invite subtly critiques that kind of unabashedly self-promoting type of invite, the kind that presents the brooding artist in his studio, or on a motorcycle, or surfing. It takes the audience’s desire to image and “know” the artist and turns this desire on its head. This comes off not as a cynical gesture, but as something devotional, marking Deborah’s position as a quizzical and problematized original “creator” of the work that preceded the work at hand, in a kind of sweet, almost romantic game of Whodunnit.
The title of the exhibition, by Deborah Calderwood almost always comes after the artist’s name Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia both in print and on the gallery’s website. This has the strange effect of both reading that the work is by Deborah Calderwood and that Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia was created by Deborah Calderwood. This last read is perhaps the strangest of all, an inference that in some way the artist is asserting that his very existence, as an artist and perhaps a man/husband/father, is directly descended from his wife’s creative actions, her own position of agency. It’s a strange, if not convoluded reworking of Lacanian principles of subject development, but an interesting one to say the least.
One could come away with all this “de-authoring” and “re-authoring” and think of exploitation, that the artist was in some way taking advantage of his wife, or worse, using his artistic skills to insinuate that he is “more talented” than her, that his images are more valuable as objects invested with both cultural and commodity status. Yet if this were so, why did he chose not to exhibit any of the original drawings alongside his own finished work? It seems that the knowledge that there are indeed “originals”, and that these are absent, makes them all the more mysterious. And because they are not present, there is no one-to-one relationship between Segovia’s painted images and Calderwood’s drawn images. As far as the “better or worse” arguments go, the subject should be mute. Deborah does not claim to be an artist and she has no interest becoming one in the future. And both parties are aware that this, in fact, is an exhibition of contemporary art, not a glorified family scrap book.
After one knows the back-story of this work, the images take on new meaning. Each decorative gesture takes on the feeling of reverential adornment, something the artist uses to make Deborah’s work even better, while not destroying basic formal elements the young girl set down decades ago. In this way, Segovia’s work occupies a critical space that does not use appropriation as a means to question authority over who “owns” an image. Instead, it creates a generative space, where source material and production work together, on the same picture plane.
Sherrie Levine’s photographs were always titled “After…”; After Walker Evans, After Duchamp, etc. not “by” as Segovia does with his work. The difference between these two prepositions is vast. “After” signifies the passage of time (in Levine’s instance a lifetime, the space between the shutter in Evan’s photo and her own), while “by” always brings with it a sense of immediacy, the fixing of authorship into place with the affirmation that one (or more) person (s) brought the work into existence; art and artist are wedded by the specific instance of creation. Using the old-school rules of painting, the inscription of the artist’s name implies both inception and the finality of creation. I bring this up to further articulate how Segovia’s exhibition, as opposed to Levine’s, does not take appropriation as a distancing exercise. Hardly. His work attempts to bring the appropriated subject closer, make it more present. In a word, he is able to make these works out of love.
Yes I said Love. The love at play here is both visible in the works themselves, and discursively present in the relationships that circle around the exhibition. That love intersects with the work on display is undeniable. Knowing that the artist used his wife’s drawings for inspiration for the work automatically brings up questions of the two’s relationship. The fact that they have a one-year-old child also further heightens the resonance of the childhood drawings on display. The creation of these images right now, in these circumstances seems more than coincidental. To not acknowledge this is to put on blinders to the physical reality informing the work’s context.
I speak of love in the work itself because these images are rich in embellishment, an almost devotional and methodical laying down of marks that boggle the mind and impress even the most rigorously anti-formal viewers. Repetitive, consistent, and embellished mark making nearly always brings with it the sign of devotion, often religious, though not always. Think of Buddhist mandalas, illuminated manuscripts, dio de las muertas altars, needlepoint pillow portraits, full-body tattoos, and any number of instances where a person, or persons worked to make an image the sum of it’s parts, invested each God-given inch with the maximum amount of attention and affection. Think of repetitive hearts scribbled on hidden love-letters, a high-school crush that results in a name being written over and over and over again. Extreme embellishment, repetitive acts, meticulous decoration, and the forms that result from these processes always seem to bring with them thoughts about the creator(s)’s relationship to their subject and the questions of investments in time and energy. The objects resulting from such actions must have been “worth it” because the subjects they revere: the Divine, a love interest, a family member, or a pet, are also “worth it.” Segovia’s painstaking ornamented works are no different. Yet all this talk of love and devotion makes me feel icky. Why is this?
Love is a troublesome, and much maligned four-letter-word in the art world, something best left to greeting cards and Mother’s Day. The curator and critic Juli Carson has pointed out that love is an “atopic discourse,” when it comes to critical analysis. Carson notes that “…love is something that must be cleaned up, a sort of stain that both hides and reveals what is lacking in scientific discourse: the analyst’s desire.” In contemporary art this stain marks a critical suicide, a lack of critical distance. To say one made work “out of love” is to prompt eye-rolls and condescending questions. It seems that when it comes to being critically engaged, L-O-V-E is better spelled D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Perhaps that’s why, like a lapsed Catholic on ash Wednesday, I find myself feeling guilty for my “uncritical” transgressions, ashamed that this talk of love will somehow cheapen my observations.
Thankfully exhibitions like Segovia’s threaten to renegotiate the terms of this discourse. By investing his own conceptual practice with artifacts from his wife’s past, he challenges us to come to grips with questions not just of authorship, but of relationships. It’s easy to borrow another’s work when you’re not wedded to them both legally and emotionally. But when you use, with permission, your loved one’s childhood drawings, decorate them with jaw-dropping intensity, and put the final work up for everyone to see, you are putting both your loved one’s past, and your own present on display. It signifies a switch in what was before a conceptual gesture relegated to discourses of parody, irony, and pastiche. The steadfast earnestness imbued in Segovia’s work does away with any of these accusations and instead points towards a generative and positive critique that revels in the love that cements it in place.