by David M. Roth
When Marcel Duchamp attempted to display a urinal signed R. Mutt at New York’s Grand Palace in 1917, his message was clear: art is whatever an artist claims it to be. More than a century later, for better or worse, reverberations from that event continue to be felt. Copycat, a superbly inquisitive exhibition organized by Kevin Chen, operates in much the same spirit. It is a trenchant, humorous, wide-ranging survey of appropriative strategies anchored by established artists (Enrique Chagoya, Koto Ezawa, Stephanie Syjuco, Nina Katchadourian) whose works, set in dialogue with those of other artists, address issues of authenticity, ownership, truth, influence and reproducibility.
Such lines of inquiry might have been exhausted by the mid-1990s had the Internet not usurped so much cultural authority. But today, against a backdrop of increasingly devious forms of online fakery and disinformation, a show like this takes on fresh urgency, with several works raising questions that push beyond the ostensible theme.
Two pieces by Syjuco, for example, faithfully replicate furniture designs by Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames. The artist constructed them from refuse she collected at the SF city dump during a residency and displayed there as part of an exhibition whose centerpiece — a large collection of such fakes — bore an uncanny resemblance to the designers’ originals. In both the Recology show and this one, close inspection reveals lots of rough edges. The point, however, is not to fool the eye or to demonstrate the difficulty of fashioning luxury goods out of trash; it is to show that if such levels of verisimilitude can be achieved by mining the waste stream of a major American city, then maybe our definition of waste should change.
Chagoya, another sharp critic of colonialism and its aftereffects, appropriated the best-known artifact of Andy Warhol’s legacy and recast it as “Cannibull’s” soup cans. Each carries provocative labels: “Curator’s Liver,” “Model’s Meat,” “Collector’s Broth,” “Museum Director’s Tripe” and “Fundraiser Adobo.” They, along with ten similarly conceived cans from the artist’s Pyramid Scheme series, are seen here flanked by a suite of etchings based on Goya’s Los Caprichos (1797-1798) that skewer American myths, most of them having to do with politics. In these, Chagoya conveys a deep understanding of art history and the history of appropriation, evidenced in a self-portrait (El Gran Sombrero) in which he wears Goya’s hat. It’s about 12 sizes too large, which I read as a tacit acknowledgment of debts owed to a past master by one of the few living artists who can reasonably lay claim to Goya’s mantle as a draftsman and a political agitator. The etchings, which appeared in Chagoya’s 2008 BAMPFA retrospective, rank among the artist’s best works, and are, by themselves, worth a visit to the show.
Michael Mandiberg’s film Postmodern Times also ranks among the exhibition’s highlights. The artist takes Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and inserts into it, recreations of the film’s most memorable scenes — acted, directed and filmed by gig economy workers from across the globe. The resulting mix of old and new footage shows near-perfect similarities between the dilemmas faced by early 20th-century factory workers and those experienced by workers today. It matters little whether algorithms or square-jawed factory bosses call the shots; exploitation, alienation and feelings of helplessness prevail. You can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situations portrayed – this is, after all, comedy — but the pain at the root of them is all too real.
Absurd propositions undergird two other works, one by Mandiberg, the other by Scott Kildall and Bryan Cera. The first involves Sherrie Levine’s unaltered copy of an iconic Walker Evans’ image, Allie Mae Burroughs (1936). For this, Mandiberg photographed Levine’s copy of the Evans photo from a catalog and then set up a website that allows gallery-goers to print his version of her copy. It comes with a certificate of authenticity, along with instructions on how to present the twice-replicated photo so that it fulfills the requirements of the certificate. It’s a classic conceptualist maneuver used to confer value on things, that by all rights, have none. Kildall and Cera’s offering, Chess with Mustaches, began as a set of online instructions for printing 3-D replicas of Duchamp’s original hand-carved chess set. But after Duchamp’s estate threatened to sue for copyright infringement, the artists removed the instructions, and then added mustaches to a group of resin-cast chess pieces, an act intended to serve as a line of defense against future litigation. Six pieces are displayed here, flanked on either side by documents detailing the artist’s initial game plan and the ensuing legal saga. Both efforts underscore the legal and ethical quandaries that can arise from appropriative acts that attempt to assert claims of authorship over works created by others.
Daren Wilson highlights the aesthetic pitfalls of this approach in a series of paintings made from Giorgio Morandi exhibition catalogs. If you’ve ever seen Morandi’s paintings and been stunned by the beauty the artist wrung from simple shapes rendered in neutral colors, you’ll understand the futility of trying to copy them from reproductions. Yet Wilson goes at it, going so far as to create ceramic vessels from his reproductions and then handing them off to students who were instructed (by others) to make paintings of them as part of a still-life assignment. None of these efforts – Wilson’s or the students’ — rank as memorable works of art, nor should they be viewed as such. The exercise points mainly to the perils of believing that simulated experience substitutes for real experience when clearly it can’t. Nevertheless, millions of people — art students included — behave as if it can: on Facebook and Instagram, through email exchanges and on Skype and on platforms that enable co-workers from across the globe to collaborate without ever meeting face-to-face.
Here it’s worth noting that Duchamp’s aim in submitting an unaltered “readymade” wasn’t to encourage uninflected copying; it was to wrest power from the academy and give it to artists. In this regard, Jasper Johns offered some useful advice: “Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.” Embracing chance, Nina Katchadourian, in Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style from the series Seat Assignment, did precisely that. Finding herself bored on long flights, the artist draped herself in hand towels, toilet seat covers, bits of her own clothing and whatever else she could find in airplane bathrooms and took selfies. The results, she discovered, closely mirrored Northern Renaissance portraits. Displayed against red walls in the fashion of installations at the Met, they transform appropriation from an act of mere replication into a fountain of wild humor that later went viral after the artist performed and posted lip-synched versions of pop tunes dressed in the same garb.
Two relief paintings by Charlene Tan, made from scanned images, dried tapioca balls and yam powder, salute her Filipino heritage, specifically its textiles and culinary traditions. Apart from the tribal patterns employed, their relationship to the theme of the show is unclear. Nevertheless, they merit close attention. They may be some of the most intriguing pattern paintings you’ve never seen.
Though sometimes exhausting, Copycat is by no means exhaustive; it sows seeds for future exhibitions that could easily pick up where this one leaves off. Given the lies and untruths that spew daily from Facebook, Fox News and other purveyors of toxic noise, the mandate for a sequel or two seems clear.
Postscript: While driving to this exhibition, I heard a report on NPR describing a yet-to-be-released app made in China that enables smartphone users with no technical expertise to make deepfake videos that elude forensic debunking. Then, as I was readying this review, I read a New York Times story about Facebook’s refusal to remove a Trump campaign ad that falsely accuses Joe Biden of underhanded dealings in Ukraine designed to benefit his son. Life, it seems, continues to outrun art.
# # #
“Copycat” @ the Fine Arts Gallery, San Francisco State University through October 31, 2019. The exhibition also includes works from Libby Black and Sean Peeler and the following SFSU students: Olivia H., Athena Espona, Mellytta Herrera, Alma B., Teresa Hannigan, Vong Vang, Dominique Martinez, Cameron Scott Cairney, Daniel Arteaga, Jillian Larson, Caroline, Kristal Collins, Amiel Vengo, Esteban Baiz, Erin Walker, Nathalie O’Brien, Andrew Sanders, Leah Lozano, Tiantian Mao, Armondo Cedillos, Antonia Loeva Gueta, Mitchell Mau, Maggi Mattert, Ramil, Geronimo, Diana Ma, Jasmine Aguirre, Palaree Thongkwan and Ruby Connelly Schneider
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.