The art of appropriation, the practice of using someone else’s work as an element of your own, has a long, distinguished history in modern art. It’s a game artists sometimes play to tweak the art establishment and get noticed. Back in 1917, for example, Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, submitted a porcelain urinal to an exhibition as sculpture, calling it Fountain. In 1999, Swedish artist Bjorn Kjelltoft made his own inappropriate artistic statement by actually urinating in one of Duchamp’s Fountains.
In 1953, post-modern master Robert Rauschenberg erased a drawing by Abstract Expressionist painter Willem DeKooning and exhibited the erasure as his own art. Despite the fact that Rauschenberg had DeKooning’s tacit permission to erase the drawing, the act of willfully destroying another artist’s work in the process of creating his own shocked many and helped put Rauschenberg on the art world map.
Currently (through May 29), the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence RI is featuring Inappropriate Covers, an exhibition of works by 11 contemporary artists who participate in the tradition of appropriation, alteration, and erasure. These days, however, such minor acts of subversion barely register on the Richter Scale of aesthetic outrage, both because 21st century audiences are hard to shock and because subversion has become far more subtle.
Stephanie Syjuco, for example, has blacked out everything except landscapes in film segments from the Vietnam War movies Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Hamburger Hill, symbolically reclaiming her Philippine homeland where the films were made. In “Via Dolorosa,” Mark Wallinger has placed black rectangles over video scenes from the life of Christ such that only the peripheries are still visible. The drama of Christ’s final days are still understandable however, and far from being an act of sacrilege, his video projection is actually permanently installed in a cathedral in Milan.
Video is big in Inappropriate Covers with Brian Kim Stefans contributing a flash animation called “One Letter at a Time: I Know a Man (Creeley)” that is exactly that, one letter at a time of what appears to be Robert Creeley’s poem flashed on a screen too fast to be read.
Among the more comprehensible works is a set of antique handkerchiefs on which artist L. Amelia Raley has embroidered phrases spoken on a television pop psychology show, among them “Marrying you was my 9-11” and “Even after plastic surgery, my husband finds me disgusting.” Then there’s Jim Campbell’s “Photo of My Father” in which a photograph of the artist’s father is obscured by a piece of glass that is kept fogged electronically by a program geared to the biorhythms of his heart rate and breathing. And for fun, there is Kelly Heaton’s “The Surrogate,” a cloak made from 64 Tickle Me Elmo dolls and worn in place of a lover’s arms.
The exhibition title comes from the sense of the word “cover” that means to perform the music of another. In the musical vein there is Christian Barclay’s “Guitar Neck,” a simple vertical collage of album covers featuring guitar necks, and John Oswald’s “Plunderphonics,” sampled recordings of pop songs and classical music remixed to create “compositions that mock the idea of ‘easy listening.'”
Best of all, there is a selection of Brian Dettmer’s altered books, elaborately and impossibly painstakingly carved volumes of actual books that literally deconstruct texts. One of the altered books is a copy of Modern Painters. Now that’s subversive.
[David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence RI. 401-863-2932.]