Time out for a little blatant self-promotion.

4 05 2010

**Disclaimer – the author may have a personal interest in promoting this program. Please take the following advice with a liberal dose of salt**

Right, let’s get this out of the way. This Sunday 9 May at 10am on ABC Radio National’s ‘Artworks’ program, art world luminary Amanda Smith is hosting a conversation about the vexed question of art prizes and the Australian art world. Essential listening.

The guests for the discussion are Jason Smith, now Director at Heide and former curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria, and artist Sam Leach, whose Wynne win (heh heh) has been the focus of so much debate in recent weeks. Oh, and I was there too. It was a fascinating exchange, mediated by Amanda who asked some very thought-provoking questions. Jason and Sam had some very interesting things to say informed by their fairly unique perspectives. For my part, I think I managed to keep the brain farts to a minimum. One thing I have learnt – don’t drink coffee prior to a radio interview. The whole milk/phlegm thing doesn’t really work when attempting to project a mellifluous and authoritative tone of voice.

For those of you who are unable to listen to the program in real time (I know, I know – Sunday morning, Mothers’ Day sleep-in and all that) – the program should be available on a podcast via the ABC website next week. It’s also repeated on Monday at 1am for you insomniacs, and on Tuesday at 3pm.

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A final word on Sam Leach’s Wynne Prize-winning entry

19 04 2010

Here’s a nice, big slice of schadenfreude pie for those of you who are distressed to the point of distraction about Sam Leach’s Wynne-ing streak (pardon the pun – too good to resist).

I should point out that I don’t include myself in that grouping – no matter how you respond to his work, Leach’s victory poses some very interesting questions about what, exactly, constitutes ‘landscape’. But back to the steaming pile of schadenfreude – success in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes has little or no bearing on an artist’s long-term commercial prospects. During the course of my research, I’ve looked at all of the artists who might be classified ‘contemporary’ (still alive in 1990), who won one or more of the AGNSW prizes. Almost half of the 69 artists who won a single prize have no secondary (auction) market at all. Not a single auction sale. Nix. And these are not emerging artists who wouldn’t be expected to have established a secondary market yet. Most of these are well-established practitioners who won their prize decades ago.

Of the 26 artists who have won two or more of the prizes, the majority have average auction prices in their primary medium (in most cases – painting) that fall in the mid to low four figures (less than $5,000). This includes artists such as Judy Cassab, John Peart, and Salvatore Zofrea. Eric Smith, who won the most prizes (a total of eight), has an average auction price of $1,379. And, in the art market, the absence of demand in the secondary market translates to diminishing commercial prospects. Not that the dash for cash is necessarily foremost in the minds of most, or even many, artists. But you can comfort yourself in the knowledge that untold riches do not flow from a big prize as a matter of course.





Nothing new under the sun: lessons in appropriation 101

16 04 2010

Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a (thankfully, factory-fresh) urinal ‘R.Mutt’ and presented it at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York (illustrated at left), art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less important, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork which for many artists is the principal artistic activity.

Artists like Sam Leach, whose Wynne prize-winning painting is attracting such controversy at the moment, appropriate other artists’ imagery under the very reasonable assumption that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the premise of ‘originality’ is something of a furphy in the world of art. For example, renowned American artist Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from  a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. So, she printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book which was printed from a photo of a photo… see what she’s doing there with your idea of what is original?

The most exciting contemporary artists make works of art that are a whole lot more than simply technically proficient visual representations of something else. After all, we’ve got photography to do that these days. Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality – what does an artist’s ‘signature’ really mean? For example – when Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists, Juan Davila painted a perfect replica of the painting and presented it to the NGV. He wrote a letter to the gallery to accompany the painting, saying that he was presenting it ‘to allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and so that the gallery could ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery.’ Needless to say, the NGV declined Davila’s gracious offer and, much to the gallery’s relief, the painting was returned intact.

The question of arts funding aside, it cuts to the heart of one of the issues that artists who appropriate other artists’ imagery have been wrestling with for decades – if it were an exact replica of Picasso’s painting, how would it diminish an audience’s experience if they were viewing the replica rather than the original? What is it that differentiates one from the other? If art really is about visual experiences, why should it matter if you stand in front of a faithful copy of a famous painting? In a physical sense, the object you are looking at differs in no way from the original. One of the ideas that these artists are playing with is that the very idea of  the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ object is perpetuated simply because it serves the market’s best interests. For various reasons, I don’t totally agree with this – humankind’s propensity for worshipping genius as embodied in art objects goes back much further than that – but that’s for another day.

Sherrie Levine.jpg

In short – the argument that Sam Leach should be stripped of his prize because he has ‘copied’ another artist’s work is, to be polite, painfully simplistic (although, see yesterday’s post for my ponderings on the question of copyright, which is another issue altogether). It does still leave open the question I raised about whether or not he was eligible to enter the competition under the terms of the prize, however. But that’s one for the AGNSW trustees to figure out.

(images: Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, via: http://www.tcf.ua.edu; Sherrie Levine, ‘After Walker Evans’, 1981, copyright Sherrie Levine, via: www.artsjournal.com)





Does Sam Leach’s Wynne prize entry suck? The art of appropriation.

15 04 2010

File:Boatmen Moored on a Lake Shore 1668 Adam Pynacker.jpg


Well, yet again we find ourselves in the midst of a full-blown Australian art prize pickle. Not since Bill Dobell caused a fracas with his Archibald prize-winning portrait of Joshua Smith in 1943 (is it a portrait, or is it a caricature?) have so many newspaper column inches been dedicated to a debate about what, exactly, constitutes ‘art’. For your consideration – on the top we have Sam Leach’s winning entry, Proposal for landscaped cosmos. Below that, Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting, Boatmen moored on a lake shore.

Anyone who knows anything about Leach’s theory and method would not be at all surprised by the nature of his Wynne entry. A cursory glance at his website makes it very clear that he is appropriating (for that, read ‘borrowing’) imagery directly from the great Dutch painters of the 17th century to pass comment on the nature of affluence and, to a lesser degree, the close relationship between the workings of the art market today, and the boom in the art trade that took place in the Netherlands during the 1600s, coinciding with the speculative lunacy of tulipmania where single tulip bulbs were selling for the price of a house. Sound familiar? Leach isn’t the first person to draw parallels between our very own recently deflated stock market bubble and the irrational exuberance of the 17th century Dutch economy. Which also ended with a crash, by the way.

But there are a couple of questions that I’d like to throw into the ring. One is the question of copyright – clearly not an issue in this instance as Pynacker is long-deceased and so not in a very viable position to prosecute Mr. Leach. But, on a broader level, it is an issue worthy of consideration. Reproduction of a work of art or literature is permitted under law if it can be shown to be subject to ‘fair use’ – so, for example, for the purpose of research, criticism and reporting news. Seems pretty straight forward. But, what if an artist takes an image made by another artist, alters it (however imperceptibly), presents it as his or her own, and accrues financial gain from said activity? Although market commentator, Michael Reid, has said in an article in The Age today that “artistic licence lets you cross any copyright boundaries. It’s open slather”, the same is certainly not true for other art forms. The case in the music industry is very clear, as witnessed by the enormous payments made to musicians when another artist ‘samples’ their work in their own – most notable recent-ish example (showing my age, now) was when The Verve was forced to pay The Rolling Stones all of the royalties from ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ for using the hook from ‘The Last Time’. And things for visual artists may also be-a-changin’. In the US of A, artist Shepard Fairey, who made the now iconic Obama ‘Hope’ election poster, is embroiled in a far from straight-forward legal case with Associated Press, which claims he infringed copyright by using an AP photograph as the basis for his artwork. Borrowing an observation from a colleague, why are the visual arts treated as different when it comes to issues of copyright? I’m not saying it’s wrong, necessarily – just suggesting that it’s a question worth asking.

Final thought –  Pynacker spent three years studying in Italy before returning to the Netherlands and settling in Amsterdam. He became one of the most renowned Northern painters of Italianate allegorical scenes inspired by the Italian Baroque. He painted landscapes such as this one, showing a romanticised genre scene infused with warm Mediterranean light, and framed by verdant foliage, informed by plenty of plein air excursions in the footsteps of Claude. But the setting itself is, most likely, allegorical and imaginary. So – can a scene conjured up in the imagination of a 17th century Dutch painter qualify as “the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours … completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date …” which, according to the Prize website, is what is required of the winner? Perhaps the rule itself is rather archaic and silly. But, it’s a rule nonetheless and one that, presumably, the other entrants stuck to. Again, it’s a question worth asking.

(Images: top – Sam Leach, ‘Proposal for landscaped cosmos’, via: http://www.thearchibaldprize.com.au; bottom – Adam Pynacker, ‘Boatmen moored on a lake shore’, via: http://commons.wikimedia.org)