20 Works of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
2006 67.5X44 and 67.5X22.75 (diptych)
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
2006 82X44, 82X44, 82X33.25 (triptych)
La Trahison des Images
Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon
2007 90X44 and 90X44 (diptych)
Nude Descending a Staircase
The Persistence of Memory
The Boating Party
2007 51X24.25 and 51X44 (diptych)
The Creation of Adam
2006 114.5X44, 114.5X44, 114.5X44, (triptych)
2007 70.75X26.5 and 70.75X44.25 (diptych)
Black Iris III
What happens when you make twenty scans of twenty reproductions of the same painting gleaned from different publications, superimpose these digitally at the same scale, and use only one detail from the original composition as the linchpin keeping the whole together? Well, you obtain something like “La trahison des images” (“The Treason of Images”, 2006), after the well-known painting with the same title by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte. In the composite print, everything is blurred except for the word “pipe” and Magritte’s signature inscribed in the bottom right of the composition.
The image appears to tremble as a result of the accretion of imperfections that occurred when the painting was reproduced in print -the product of variations in pixilation, focus, and cropping, as well as of a slight stretching or compression of the image in some of the published examples. Changes in color and tone further muddy the picture. The end result is further from the look of the original than, it is hoped, any of the independently published reproductions, thereby illustrating the adage: “The more we know, the less we understand”. The information that is presented to us in these prints, on a scale that matches that of the original paintings, is blurred.
Doug Manchee has long been interested in how information is both collected and preserved. The conceptual project featured in this exhibition constitutes his most recent venture in this area. In this body of work, however, a lot of decisions traditionally made by artists are deliberately left out. The reproductions drawn from the twenty publications are –obviously- ready-made. Manchee records these as faithfully as he can, without showing his hand or -supposedly- his taste. For these images are ultimately derived from the paintings that are, Manchee tells me, are among the most commonly reproduced in books (and other media such as posters). In other words, this compendium does not reflect this artist’s preferences. Manchee’s decision-making is thus seemingly limited to the detail that will appear in sharp focus, pinning the twenty digital scans together –the right hand of the Mona Lisa (2006), the extended hands of God and Adam in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (2006), the still-life at the bottom center in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (2007), the forward-most flag in Jasper Johns’ Three Flags (2007). Bombarded as we are with certain of these images, it is almost impossible for us to really see them, understand why they are considered so very important, and comprehend why we should at all like them. They have become boring -haven’t they? The thrill is gone. Familiarity breeds contempt.
A less cursory glance at this body of work reveals that choices were, consciously or unconsciously, made. Ten of the featured paintings were produced in western Europe, and seven in the United States. Doug Manchee’s set of images would be different if he had consulted literature that was produced exclusively in Asia or South America. Two of the selected paintings were produced towards the beginning of the 16th century, four in the late 19th century, and the reminder during the 20th century. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Giorgione’s Tempest, Raphael’s School of Athens, Rembrandt’s Nightwatch and Manet’s Olympia did not make the cut, and neither did Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Early Renaissance, the Baroque, Neoclassicism, or Romanticism. Are American Gothic, Nighthawks, and Christina’s World really reproduced more often than the six paintings I have just listed, and if they are, in what type of publications? Are Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth more significant artists than, say, van Eyck, Raphael or Rembrandt, and if they are not, why do American Gothic, Nighthawks, and Christina’s World appeal to some of us so much? Who determines what is to be considered great painting? How is a canon of artistic excellence established?
Not surprisingly, perhaps, considering that women artists have only fairly recently achieved prominence, the work of only one female painter is featured in this grouping of greatest hits. Not surprisingly, perhaps, considering that the canon was established in essence by a group of white men, artists of color are not represented. Significantly, gay artists are relatively well represented (about a quarter of these painters). Not surprisingly, perhaps, all the art is figurative, and more than half of the slightly distorted paintings prominently feature the human figure, for many of us are drawn to what we think we know. We could go on and on, but this will do.
Manchee’s statistical endeavor offers a playful spin on Komar and Melamid’s “most wanted paintings”, which are contemporary easel paintings embodying the results of surveys that were conducted in different countries by professional polling companies. Like the Russian-born team of conceptual artists, Manchee offers us a notion of standards of taste in a given place, at a more or less specific time. However, Doug Manchee gives provides some insight into the consensus achieved by cognoscenti, while the merry pranksters Komar and Melamid expose us to the risible, cliché-ridden taste of the masses. Photographing reproductions, on the other hand, takes us back to the conceptual efforts of Richard Prince (and others?), grand masters of the art of appropriation. Manchee’s project reminds us that in the field of culture, as elsewhere, objectivity is never easily achieved. Duchamp’s ideal of complete aesthetic indifference remains, after all, elusive.