- Important shifts in visual strategies in the arts mark the historic cross-over from the Modern to the postmodern paradigm. While this holds equally true in music and literature, it is the evolution of such strategies in the visual arts that this essay concentrates on. While such demarcation cannot be pinned down to a specific year or date, it is possible to convincingly chart this shift via an examination of the working strategies of three important painters: Americans Andy Warhol and David Salle, and Australia's Imants Tillers.
Postmodern art by definition rejects strict genre confines and, unlike modern art, celebrates the mixing of forms and ideas. As a result of this rejection postmodernism advertises the use of irony, parody, satire, humor and collage.
The use of appropriation in art is a useful strategy for commenting or criticising aspects of life by recontextualising an image or object already containing meaning.
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By giving new meaning to or building upon the meaning of an existing idea by redefining its context is an effective tool as it alters the present viewers association with the original item. This is important as the message translates easily, giving meaning to a technologically sophisticated audience. This being immediatly recogniseable as a postmodern approach due to its embrace of contradiction, diversity and the "unconventional".
David Salle's Tragedy, 1995, is a diptych, having 2 panels. The right hand panel is performed in grisaille, a technique predominantly used to render figures from one base colour or monotones, greatly accentuating the mood. In this panel are two figures, a smirking female, obliquely behind the main male figure who sits with hands on knees with face distorted into a grotesque parody of despair.
The collaged left panel has a base of what appears to be a domestic scene derived from a 1950s advertisement, possibly in reference to Richard Hamiltons artwork "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?", and also a possible death motif in reference to the Cold War and atomic age of post WW2. In the centre is a black and white photograph of a bomb blast, surrounded by lemons, with a black glove at the top right corner. The explosion could also be representational of death, as well as the black glove being traditionally worn to funerals, these funery motifs all relate back to the tragic tone of the artwork, and the mans expression.
Salle's work is more about juxtaposition which he uses as a strategy to destabilise the ways in which we traditionally see, and at the same time reconfigure traditional visual narrative. He leans heavily on a simple strategy of montaging images of the banal and everyday. In this, we can see his indebtedness to the better aspects of Pop like Warhol and James Rosenquist.
Salle also created another diptych work entitled Comedy (1995) using the same layout, but mirrored with opposite facial expressions on the figures; as the man with an exaggerated frown in Tragedy now smiles in Comedy.
The left panel of Comedy is also rendered in grisaille. In the right panel, an advertisement for a bedroom set is set on its side and like the artist's early works is collaged with additional imagery: a black and white photograph of a headless female fashion mannequin, enclosed by a garland of butterflies, and below a theatrical ruffled harlequin collar.
The paired titles may refer directly to Salle's set and costume designs for ballet and theatre, as well as his endeavor into directing the 1995 film Search and Destroy. As well the recontextualisation of the frilled glove and harlequin collar in Salle's work of the early nineties hints to his involvement with the performing arts. A cinematic feel can also be identified in Salle's juxtapositions of scenes that conjure a cinematic impression in which components are arranged to produce an alternative meaning that is not seen in the singular images alone. The fact that the images of the man in the foreground are reversed when comparing Comedy and Tragedy also reflects which side the tragic face and the comic face are when next to one another - blatantly referring to this theatrical context.
It may be of some interest to note that, before making it big as an artist Salle worked for a short time in the late 1970's as a paste-up artist for Stag magazine, a pornographic publication. Sexual and perverted images making a regular appearance in his works of the 1980s.
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In Tragedy the main figure is haloed by a bio-morphic shape, at once visceral and phallic. If this motif is indeed phallic, along with the bomb blast possibly symbolising "a premature explosion" it might portray a failure of male potency. Taking this reading, Comedy must surely read as the opposite: the main male figure beams, proud and confident as opposite a bio-morphically enclosed female mannequin in a flowing gown stands without a head. The fact the female mannquin is headless is also interesting, being without identity, just a body, an object, may refer back to his pornographic beginnings.
The porn aesthetic is genuinely interesting though. While porn does not read compositionally the same as any other figurative traditions, porn's narratives run to succinct, highly predictable paradigms. Pasting-up, now a dead skill as all such work is now done on a computer, was physically very much like collage. Pasting-up is a compositional exercise where images and/or text are literally separate physical items pasted into position on a board for photo reproduction prior to final printing. So we could argue that some of Salle's visual sensibility - the recurring figures and images, the outlines of figures and objects cast over earlier images and grounds - could have derived from his work for a porn publication.
Salle was raised on the mythology of the Abstract Expessionists. Accordingly the scale of his work is New York School-size; his 1995 diptych Tragedy is over 3.5 metres in length. Salle also defers to the Abstract Expressionist myth of all-over composition, the famous domain of Jackson Pollock. But rather than the frenetic, energetic marks of Pollock's famous Poured Period, Salle crams his canvasses full of eclectic figures and objects, often disimilar and jarring, often seemingly disconnected and layered.
Salle is widely considered one of the early blatantly postmodern painters by virtue of his subversion of the recognisable and by distorting the familiar via awkward juxtapositions and unlikely compositional decisions. He drew from such widely artistic traditions as Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Realism and Cubism as well as images from popular culture. Although much of his work seems highly symbolic, Salle's paintings seem not to contain a specific message, but rather to leave space for the viewer to interact, to read into, to participate in bringing the work to meaningful completion.
Imant Tillers use of quotation and appropriation has classified him as an archetypal postmodern artist. His approach has a clearly personal element, despite appropriating imagery from both unknown and famous artists alike.
Tiller's 1985 peice The Nine Shots is of a an abstract figure who appears to be laying sprawled on his back, with nine target shapes all about him. Instantly one can see the australian indigenous art influence within this peice, Tillers noteably recontextualising the indigenous 'camp site' or 'resting place' symbol to represent a bullet hole.
One of the main aboriginal art images Tillers' borrowed for this peice was Michael Nelson Tjagamarra's Five dreamings from 1982. This appropriation lead to some controversy, with allegations of appropriating Aboriginal imagery without permission impinging on the moral rights of the artist. The offence being compounded by the indissolubility of aboriginal art from its environment. Tillers borrowing seemingly questioning indentity established from locality, by displaying appropriated cultural imagery with other images from different contexts.
The racial divide began to close over the next decade with dialogue between artists, developing Tillers' relationship with aboriginal art, even to the point of gaining a personal friendship with Tjagamarra whose work he incorporated without permission, the two collaborating together with such works as Nature Speaks: Y (Possum Dreaming) in 2001 using Walibri motifs. The Walibri icons for possum and lightning subsequently appearing as common elements in Tillers Nature Speaks series.
Tillers use of aboriginal elements and appropriation now seems to be more a commemoration of their artistic power. Although there has been no change in Tillers practice of appropriating other artists work in his own, it could be deduced that the treatment of traditional Aboriginal artworks in terms of moral dilemma has become more hazy and perhaps less essential, its treament becoming more alike non-aboriginal art.
Tiller's conception of postmodernity had as a central theme the breaking up of and breaking out of rigid categories rather than the creation of a hybrid global avant-garde. It disrupted the temporal sequencing of art as much as it challenged locality. Indeed, it had been the linking of the spatial and temporal in an artificial and limiting evolutionary sequence that had become so deadening, culminating in the increasingly narrow yet ever changing contemporary avant-garde.
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While appropriating, 'building upon', 'borrowing from' and 'being influenced by' others art is now a mainstay of postmodern art, it is never going to be without hazard as art is not confined to particular types of objects. Aboriginal art it is a device of selfdom, a title deed to land, a cipher of ancestral presence. It is the situation that Aboriginal law reserves rights to produce these sacred works to a limited group of artists and the infraction of these rights in the unauthorised borrowing of such art can be seen as a type of sacrilege that affects the foundation of the artist's society.
While widely recognised as the chief proponent of the Pop idiom, specific early works by Andy Warhol can retrospectively demonstrate the decline of the Modernist period. Warhol's rejection of the machismo of the New York School is a classic Oedipal strategy. The best of the Abstract Expressionists had traded heavily on the supposed Jungian content of their work, whereby meaning was derived from the actual physical laying down of paint on canvas. Most notable of these, of course, was Jackson Pollock who was on the record in interview touting his Jungian pedigree. By implication also, this Jungian ideal cashed out on the implicit value of originality. To witness the extent to which adoration of the authentic mark of the artist extended, one only need examine the huge, stark calligraphic works of Franz Klein.
But Warhol was notable in his total rejection of these ideas. His foppish, effeminate persona stood starkly at odds with the Abstract Expressionists who, we must remember, were still practicing in the years of Warhol's emergence in the early 1960's. In place of the Abstract Expressionists tortured surfaces were Warhol's radically underworked monochrome renditions of newspaper advertisements and newspaper headlines as in $199 Television, 1961.
Warhol's signature use of the silkscreen completed his rejection of the New York style of painting of the late 1940's and 1950's. The silkscreen stood as a reproducible artwork, and the mechanic nature of this production put the artists hand at one remove from the finished product, especially given Warhol employed assistants to make the actual work while he stood as supervisor, and oversaw production.
In 1964 Warhol was one of ten artists commissioned to produce work for the World Trade Fair to be held in New York. Warhol's contribution, Most Wanted Men, 1964 featured silkscreen portraits based on FBI mugshots. This mural-sized work was installed on the outside wall of the Circarama, a one hundred foot circular cinema in which a 360 degree view of New York was projected. Within days of its installation however, the Circarama's architect, Philip Johnson, had asked Warhol to remove Most Wanted Men, saying the New York State governor thought it would offend the many Italians among his constituents, given all the men depicted were Italian.
Given twenty-four hours to replace or remove the work, Warhol had his assistants scale ladders and cover the portraits with industrial silver paint. The strategy is intriguing. Beginning with the idea of appropriating photographs, photo-silkscreening them to find the appropriate scale, and then, after the order that it be removed, Warhol chooses not to replace the work, but 'complete' it with the metaphoric mirroring of the silver paint-out of the original image.
In real terms then, the interference or censoring offered by the Trade Fair organisers and associated politicians, did not necessarily result in a failure of this work. In the same way that many postmodern artists position their viewers to interact with a work in order to complete it, or find meaning, so Warhol played with the critical interference he was offered in a way that served the work and, perhaps more importantly, appended Most Wanted Men with a complex narrative that sited the artist as the enfant terrible or provocateur who, in completing the work with a crude, industrial silver skin, metaphorically throws an unacknowledged and (given the ambiguity of its title, homoerotic) Narcissistic impulse back in the faces of the authorities.