Monday, November 24, 2008

you're not original

Recently Roberta Smith wrote of two shows she saw back to back. She observed that both the artists owed just a little too much to Gerhard Richter. Two Coats of Paint made note of it here, where some comments insisted that there was plenty of room to work in paintings which look like blurry black and white photography; plenty of originality to go around.

But I was actually a little happy to see her call them on it. Because I think it’s the kind of thing that many artists are called on if somehow the work is not of the moment or of the trend. Or if you need to poke holes because the artist is not in your comfort zone.

I had a recent excursion into “You’re not really original here” land - but guess what was on the walls while the curator is telling me this? Paintings that owed a shitload to Gerhard Richter. In this case they were color and the artist was from behind the Iron Curtain and he even claimed in his glossy catalogue that if indeed there was any artist he could relate to, it was Richter.

Well hell yes. And it was celebrated, a fact to enjoy, not a thing to dismiss into the Land of You’re Not Original.

The curator looked over my Targets and Women photomontages. You could you tell he was interested because the ten minutes he said he would give me turned into almost an hour, but he hemmed and hawed because well, Laurie Simmons (see above) does work like this.

Laurie Simmons? We are both women. And we’ve used images of women in pop culture in our work. Beginning and end of the story. Oh, but he would have to “defend,” he said and “explain” this work. I almost turned to the work on the walls and said “So how to do you defend that?” but I didn’t.

He produced a color postcard from when he showed Laurie Simmons. A color photograph of two ceramic female legs spread, coming out of a ceramic globe. Cool photograph but can you tell me how she has done it all already?

What is weird about this is when I shared the story with another woman who makes photomontages with women, she said that the same thing was said to her! “Your work looks like Laurie Simmons.” She then told me that she didn’t really think about it at the time because, well, she doesn’t think about Simmons one way or another. Actually neither do I.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one has commented on your post and started a discussion because I find the subject of originality in art something ripe for discussion. So since no one else will say anything I'll put in my 2 cents. Originality may be one of those goals like perfection in Zen that you set your sights on but may never attain in this lifetime. I seem to remember a quote from Walker Evans that something new is usually the result of an accident, like Post it Notes (registered trademark). I think if I were an artist I'd try not to concern myself with being original too much at least at first because it might slow you down.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous,

You are right that it can slow you down when you first start out. The history of painting weighed so heavily on me that for years I felt I had nothing to contribute and that belief held me back. I agree also that originality is a moot point; anything you do comes after something else. And some of the most "original" steal from others all the time and acknowledge it.

My question these days is why are some works celebrated for their influences while something else cannot owe anything to anything.


CAP said...

I actually commented on the Two Coats of Paint post about Smith's call of Richter and supposed influence in the work of two artists. If you're going to make those calls, you're got be more precise than just B&W and Photo-sourced.

Richter's not the source of either, and the kind of photos he uses, and the things he does with them, go way beyond just B&W. I'm not against tracing influences - actually it's a vital part of art history - but to do it as lazily as Smith does, just gives it a bad name.

I'd make the same claim in your case - Laurie Simmons makes photo-collages or montages but that's about it. John Baldessari does as well, so do loads of others. There are sharp differences in your work in mood, content and the kind of divisions within the picture with Simmons. And there are other comparisons that will yield equally important (valid) differences - tell you what it is you've done.

It says a whole lot more about your dealer/curator's inability to discriminate - essentially an insensitivity to stylist issues - than it does about some tenuous affinity between your work and Simmons.

Rather than think of this as an out and out issue of personal originality, I think it's better to think about it as clear and effective differences between your work and similar works. That's actually the critic's job. Okay, some come before others, and as often we can trace than back forever. But let's then look at how aspects or features, content or sentiment within a form or style changes.

The 'originality' is always in relation to a 'tradition' - as art historians never cease insisting - each is like links in a chain.

Anonymous said...

Thanks CAP for yor words here and for bringing art history back into the discussion. I don't understand why it conveniently gets left out from time to time. I'm pick up this same discussion in the next post and maybe you'll have some more to contribute...