Throughout the history of art, the image of the reclining Venus has been used to signify different constructions of identity. Does the trope belong to any one artist? If so, to whom does it belong? When the figure’s pose is recreated and shared on social media, who gets the credit? These questions of authorship arise when viewing painter Cynthia Daignault’s exhibition, There Is Nothing I Could Say That I Haven’t Thought Before, on view at The Flag Arts Foundation. For the show, Daignault asked nearly 40 artists, such as Awol Erizku, Jeff Koons, Lorna Simpson, Tom Sachs, Sadie Barnette, Richard Phillips and Barbara Kruger, to collaborate with her by sending over a photograph of one of their works. With the sculptors’, photographers’, and painters’ permissio,n Daignault recreated their art as paintings.
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“For this show, I decided I would present a selection of artists working with one set of theme—appropriation, still lives, and readymades—like any group show,” explains Daignault to Creators. “Then instead of showing their works or digital images of their works, I would make and show painted copies instead.” Given the political climate, Daignault says she wanted to create a collaborative exhibition that featured a diverse group of artists in a monumental collaboration, something like the AIDS quilt. “In some ways, the show was a response to social media,” explains the artist, who painted the works from jpegs the participating artists emailed to her. “We live under the hegemony of digital photography. I think it’s easy in such a media-saturated society to give into nihilism and feel like everything is author-less, rights-free, and up for grabs. But I just don’t feel that way.”
“It’s part solo show, part group show, part book, part website, and a gesture of hybrid vigor,” she adds. Each piece of appropriated art, named after the artist who originally made it, questions what it means to create and present work. “I’m just deeply and philosophically opposed the the myth of artist as singular genius,” says the painter. “We are each the product of so many ideas, relationships, privilege, luck and opportunity that I wanted to make a work that could stress that and function through the communal.” In this way, the appropriation paintings show the ways cultural values and privilege are conveyed in Western art is through appropriation, a process that creates perpetual idealizations of beauty, race and sexuality. Through appropriation, contemporary artists have either affirmed culture’s euro-centric power dynamics, or used the canon as inspiration to create new representations that are less white, straight, male, and affluent, claiming power on the canvas for the non-European figure.
The possibilities of appropriation are seen in Charles Ray, Sara Cwynar, Sadie Barnette, Fred Wilson and Awol Erizku. Daigneault’s Erizku is of a photograph the black male photographer took of a black female sex worker, posed as a reclining Venus in their native Ethiopia. The image, a part of Erizku’s 2015 New Flower series, explores some of the racial dynamics at play in the canon surrounding figurative representation. The photograph, originally conceived through the male gaze, is deconstructed in Daignault’s painting. “Awol’s politics are still in my painting but they’re joined with me and my identity and I really like how intertwined those identity politics became.” The appropriation is further complicated by the fact that Daignault is a white woman recreating an image of a black female figure through the lens of a black male who adopted the language of European beauty to represent a black woman.
The exhibition also includes The Certainty of Others, a series of 12 paintings by male artists Daignault invited to appropriate Everyone you ever loved will someday die, a still life of flowers in a vase on a table that the painter made in 2015. “I actually learned a lot about my own painting, says the artist, who “wanted to reverse the logic.” She says the painters saw things in her work she initially didn’t see and emphasized them. “Just because you’ve made something doesn’t mean you see it, or understand it, or are in any way the expert on its meaning,” she says. For MoMA, 2017, another set of appropriated works on display, the artist turned 30 of the most iconic paintings in MoMA’s collection into color-block text paintings. The work further explores the artist’s interest in institutional critique and the history of painting and art being male dominated.
“Honestly, I just wanted to invite as many people to the party as possible,” says the artist, who lifted the title of the show from Nirvana’s 1993 track, “Serve the Servants.” “I’ve been inspired by artists like Kerry James Marshall and Nancy Shaver who operate similarly. They are always inviting other artists into their practice and into their shows.”
“To me, a party of one isn’t a very good party,” says Daignault. “I’m a product of race and class privilege. If I succeed, so what? It only demonstrates the power of the system. It’s like Gucci Mane logic. I don’t want to be standing at the top of the mountain alone, I want to be standing at the top of the mountain with everyone I ever loved.”
There Is Nothing I Could Say That I Haven’t Thought Before continues through May 13 at The Flag Art Foundation. Click here for more information.
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