apexart :: Eugenie Tsai :: Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
curated by Eugenie Tsai

May 21 - June 21, 2003

291 Church St. New York, NY 10013

Opening Reception:
Wednesday, May 21, 6-8 pm
Curator's talk: Saturday, May 24, 2 pm

Artists: Suzanne Bocanegra, Michael Cloud, Anoka Faruqee, Marietta Ganapin, and Devorah Sperber

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Before the age of museum shops peddling postcards and coffee tables groaning under the weight of books filled with color plates, aspiring artists who wished to acquire a visual reminder of a work of art resorted to the longstanding tradition of copying (which also provided a means of mastering skills). The establishment of public museums in the nineteenth century afforded art students even greater opportunities to set up easels directly in front paintings and sculptures. At the same moment, the advent of photography made possible the mass dissemination of images of art from all over the world, rendering nearly obsolete the need to make copies. In an influential essay of 1936 entitled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin discussed the impact of mechanical reproduction on visual culture, weighing the gain in public accessibility against the loss of what he called the "aura" of the original. By the time Andy Warhol was turning out silk-screen paintings in the 1960s, making a copy by hand had become totally irrelevant. His Mona Lisa series was part of a larger artistic practice that mimicked the replication and distribution of photographic reproductions found in mass media. Warhol's line of inquiry continued in the 1980s with media savvy artists whose art incorporated images scavenged from television, film, and print media. Sherrie Levine, one of the best-known artists of this group, "appropriated" the work of Walker Evans, rephotographing his photographs, and of Joan Miro, painting watercolors of his paintings. She exhibited these as her own, an act of cultural critique that raised the issue of authorship in relation to the concepts of originality and gender.

Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction presents Suzanne Bocanegra, Michael Cloud, Anoka Faruqee, Marietta Ganapin, and Devorah Sperber, five artists whose work continues the tradition of reproducing works of art. The artists, Faruqee excepted, rely on photographic reproductions of paintings as the basis of collages, drawings, and paintings. Diverging from the practice of copyists and appropriationists, these artists fragment the image into a series of individual units before reconstructing it to produce a new piece that is distanced from its pictorial source. While we live at a time when any existing image can be transmitted to the screen of a laptop in seconds, what is striking about the work in the exhibition is the investment in process over imagery. The decision made by the artists to employ painstakingly slow, time-consuming, even obsessive, techniques to produce something unique and handmade suggests that they regard art and art-making as a means of resisting instantaneous access made possible by new technology, a way of slowing the pace that has been accelerated by hitting "fast forward." These artists have opted for "pause," affirming that deliberation and contemplation remain things of value when it comes to making and looking at art.

A picture of Jan Brueghel the Elder's Sense of Smell, provides the source for Suzanne Bocanegra's All the Petals from Jan Brueghel the Elder's Sense of Smell, 1618, 2002. Made with fellow Fleming Peter Paul Rubens (who painted the nude), the painting depicts a garden with a female figure inhaling the scent of a fragrant bouquet presented by a putto. A perfume factory in the background states the allegory in vernacular terms. Bocanegra chose to focus solely on the flowers. After counting the number of petals visible in the reproduction of Sense of Smell she cut each one out of paper she had painted to match the colors of the flowers in the reproduction. She then bundled the petals together on a fabric stem and pinned each stem the wall so that its placement corresponded to that in the reproduction. The result is a map of the arrangement of the flowers in the reproduction with the visible areas of white wall representing the absent figures and architecture. Bocanegra's wall drawing reflects her desire to better understand the structure and composition of the painting and her interest in how things are collected, sorted and categorized.

Michael Cloud regards his abstract geometric paintings as "hard copies, printouts or mock-ups" of Old Master still-lifes he reconstructs from pictorial images, stated dimensions, and his experience of what constitutes a painting. First he stretches a canvas to dimensions identical to those given for the painting he wishes to copy in the source of his reproductions, a glossy coffee table volume devoted to still life painting. Then he divides the photographic reproduction into a sixteen-cell grid and transfers it to canvas using blue plastic fishing line to delineate the structure. The combination of the fishing line pulled tautly over the surface of the canvas and deep stretcher bars gives his paintings an object-like presence. Using thick color glazes, which he applies in layers, Cloud mixes eight numbered or lettered color swatches in every possible combination and arranges them algorithmically within the two hundred fifty-six cells on the canvas. Algorithms interest him because they are logical and vital to communicating instructions to computers. He feels that they provide a way to investigate how computers and programming affect our perception of the world.

Anoka Faruqee makes "twins" of her own painstakingly rendered, richly colored pattern paintings. To create Pour Painting and Copy, 2002, she poured paint directly onto the smaller canvas, on which a grid had been inscribed, creating pools of pigment. She then transferred this pour painting onto a slightly larger gridded canvas. The artist stood in front of one canvas calling out the color information according to the coordinates of the grid. An assistant in front of the other canvas responded by placing small dots on the grid of the “copy.” Once the entire painting was mapped out, an asterisk was painted over each dot. In the first canvas of the diptych With and Without a Grid, 2003, Faruqee painted vertical rows of asterisks over a penciled grid. For each line, she made a notation of the color, to which she assigned a number. To create the twin, she followed the colors on her list, crossing out each color as she proceeded to cover the surface of the canvas from left to right. Faruqee replicates her "originals" with subtle, nearly indistinguishable differences that set twins, even identical twins, apart.

On first glance Marietta Ganapin's colorful collages, all Untitled, appear to make references to architectural decoration or religious symbolism. A more careful second look reveals that the patterned circle is actually composed of multiple cut out images such as the head of a puppy drinking from a bowl taken from Paul Gauguin's Still life with Three Puppies, or the head of a woman with a shock of blond hair from Pablo Picasso's Woman with Yellow Hair. Ganapin's collages incorporate reproductions that appear in brochures and pamphlets offered to the public at museum exhibitions, as well as postcards and exhibition catalogues. An avid museum and gallery goer, she makes repeated visits to exhibitions, picking up handfuls of brochures each time. Selecting works of art she responds to strongly, she cuts many copies of the same section of an image and arranges the elements in the identical format of a circle on a square ground. The decorative motifs vary, as do the rich color combinations. Ganapin regards each collage as a visual diary and memento of her experience of standing before and studying the original work of art.

Devorah Sperber's After Chuck Close…, 2002-03, comprises several panels of diminishing size, each reproducing an aspect of Chuck Close's Self Portrait. Close's paintings of the 1990s attracted her because the diamond-shaped units he used to fracture the image of the sitter reminded her of pixels, though he did not use a computer to make his work. Rotating an image of Self Portrait to a forty-five degree angle, the orientation of Close's canvas when he made the painting, Sperber transformed the diamond-shaped cells into squares on a modular grid, which is the way they appear in her work. The largest panel magnifies a single cell; the smallest depicts a recognizable detail of Close's features. Each panel is made up of a multitude of colorful chenille stems. Like pointillist paintings, Sperber's panels slip between recognizable images and abstract patterns, depending on the viewer's vantage point. Before she began the laborious task of assembling the panels, Sperber used computer programs to break down the image into a scheme of abstract elements and to create maps that indicated the placement of the colors and the order in which they were to be applied. Her desire to strike a balance between the individual panels as self-contained units and parts of an ensemble mirrors Close’s concern for the relationship of the cells to the entire image found in his Self Portrait.

While related to the practice of copying and the strategy of appropriation, the paintings, collages, and drawings presented in Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction occupy a unique position. By reinterpreting and remaking source material, they transform the originals into new works of art that are rich and rewarding.

Eugenie Tsai
© May 2003


Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction features the work of five artists who reproduce paintings, often, but not always, from photographic reproductions. The artists devise systems to break the image down into modules and employ labor-intensive techniques to reconstruct the modular image, transforming the source material in the process. Although they are aware of developments in computer technology, and the ability to scan and fragment images into pixels, their art reveals a commitment to making unique works by hand, using time-consuming repetitive processes.

Suzanne Bocanegra's Wall Drawing (After Jan Brueghel), 2002, is based on a reproduction of a painting of a garden that represents the sense of smell. Bocanegra counts the number of petals visible in the reproduction, cuts them out of hand-colored paper, and pins them to the wall so that their placement corresponds to that in the reproduction. Michael Cloud uses algorithms to determine the placement of colors and the disposition of space in his painted copies of Old Master still-lives. He is interested in algorithms because they are logical and vital to communicating instructions to computers, and provide a way to investigate how computers and programming affect our perception of the world. Anoka Faruqee makes "twins" of her painstakingly rendered, richly colored pattern paintings. Some consist of small asterisk-shaped marks on a gridded surface, while others are more organic abstractions. The coordinates of the grid enable Faruquee to replicate the original with subtle, nearly indistinguishable differences that set twins, even identical twins, apart. Devorah Sperber's After Chuck Close…, 2002-03, comprises several panels in diminishing sizes, each reproducing a detail of Close's Self Portrait. In each panel, colorful chenille stems recreate cellular units, large and small, employed by Close to construct his Self Portrait. From up close the images dissolve into abstract patterns created by the accumulation of chenille stems. Marietta Ganapin creates collages from reproductions of works of art found in brochures offered to the public at museum exhibitions. Using a paper punch, she takes apart multiple copies of a single image, reassembling the resulting dots of color and selected details into a mandala. The titles, "found" colors and details cue the viewer into the identity of the work of art used as source material.

A color brochure containing an essay by the curator will be available free of charge. Please contact apexart for further information. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11-6.