Tim Okamura, "Dope," 2013, mixed media on canvas, 60” x 72”.
For anyone who follows art with even casual interest, Christian Marclay’s The Clock needs little introduction. The compilation of 24 continuous hours of sampled film has become an art-world sensation, and rightfully so. Similarly, the daily profusion of musical mash-ups – where two existing songs are fused to form a new one – is familiar to anyone with an Internet connection. It’s a trend that owes its roots to hip-hop and electronic music, and to artists like Marclay, who, early in his career, was a pioneer in the art of using turntables to mix music.
But cut-and-paste as an artistic strategy has been around since artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Marcel Duchamp began including mass-produced goods such as newspapers, bicycle handlebars – and even the famous urinal – in works of ‘high’ art in the early part of the last century. Between then and the 1950s, groundbreaking artists like American Louise Nevelson explored various forms of visual art mash-ups, including sculptural assemblage. But it may have been British artist Richard Hamilton’s 1956 Pop work, Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, that helped make cut-and-paste a standard and widely accepted art practice.
So while The Clock is a singular work in its field, it certainly fits into a larger (and at least century-old) pattern of art that mixes, mashes, borrows, cuts and pastes. And often, as with Duchamp’s ready-mades, it does so with the intention of critiquing or undermining social or artistic norms. One example is the prolific and secretive British graffiti artist Banksy, who has been quoted as saying that any public advertising is fair game for artistic interpretation. “It’s yours to take, rearrange and reuse,” he wrote in his 2004 book, Cut It Out. “You can do whatever you like with it.” And yet, with a suitable touch of irony, it’s since been revealed that Banksy lifted this idea, nearly word for word, from graphic artist and writer Sean Tejaratchi.
It’s clear, then, that collage and mash-up exist within the framework of reinterpreting existing art. Winnipeg curator and artist Paul Butler puts it this way: “The starting point is almost always a response to something, so you’re not starting out with a blank piece of paper.” And most often – whether it’s visual art, music or film – that response comes in the form of referencing or sampling from popular culture.
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Division. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.
"The Collage Party Pavilion (v2)"
Paul Butler, "The Collage Party Pavilion (v2)," 2011, installation view.
In several current and recent shows, artists from Western Canada engage with these themes, questioning them, subverting them, and then going ahead and making art regardless. Edmonton-born Tim Okamura, for example, in the dependable traditions of portraiture, has shown and sold widely, even to Hollywood stars. In his show, Her Story, this summer at Vancouver’s Douglas Udell Gallery, he incorporates various urban art forms – tagging, postering and stencil graffiti – into his canvases. In this way, with a kind of painterly collage, Okamura brings outsider forms into the white-cube gallery, mixing them with a traditional form.
"The Pregnant Soldier"
"Les nubians combat pour l’amour"
Always, though, with this kind of visual mash-up, there’s the question of authenticity: what’s the ‘real’ art, and how much or what kinds of appropriation are acceptable? Does a university-trained artist’s use of tagging, for example, taking it from the back alley into a respected gallery, suddenly turn this often-reviled form into an authentic art object? Or is it simply appropriation, in the negative sense of the word? On the other hand, just as mash-up is seen as fair use, and as Banksy observed about public advertising, couldn’t the same be said of graffiti and tagging, which also occupy public space? If we need no one’s permission to rearrange and reinterpret advertising or The Beatles, should public graffiti be treated any differently?
As French theorist and critic Jean Baudrillard once said, there’s no better way to reduce a revolutionary idea than “to administer it a mortal dose of publicity.” So, in a sense, doesn’t the tagger administer such a dose simply by putting his work on a wall? (And while the response to this may be that the tagger’s intentions, unlike advertising, are not commercial, the price of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Banksy might suggest otherwise.)
Okamura, in borrowing from various forms of street art, plays the role of the mash-up artist: creating something new, while acknowledging the work’s influences. And, as Butler observes, it’s almost entirely within influences, within the framework of existing art, that collage and mash-up exist. “We’re inundated with all this information, and with pop culture,” Butler says. “And so it has to come back out somehow when we work.”
Myfanwy MacLeod, for example, in her solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, recognizes the aesthetic possibilities in a 1977 Camaro, or the stack of speakers at a Led Zeppelin concert. Her exhibition title, meanwhile – Or There and Back Again – refers to J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, a work that itself bridged the gulf between academia and popular literature. Similarly, another Vancouver-based artist, Brian Jungen, has cut up Nike runners to produce aboriginal masks, and built giant whale skeletons from plastic lawn chairs. In effect, Jungen turns the relationship of cultural appropriation on its head, using mass-produced goods to examine museology and First Nations’ traditions.
Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver.
Myfanwy MacLeod, "Ramble On," 1977 Camaro Rally Sport, steel stand, installation view, 2013.
The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a group show earlier this year that featured a number of Western Canadian artists who work with various forms of visual mash-up. Collages: Gesture and Fragments included Butler as well as the team of Rhonda Weppler, who was born in Winnipeg, and Trevor Mahovsky, originally from Calgary, along with Saskatoon-born Luanne Martineau, among others. The show looked at ways artists continue to use collage and assemblage to explore the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, or the tensions between art as a singular valuable object and the dumpster-dive ready-made.
Photo: Richard Max-Tremblay. Courtesy of Trépanier Baer, Calgary.
"The Lack of it the Dream"
Luanne Martineau, "The Lack of it the Dream," 2013, rag paper, handmade paper, archival glue and archival tape, 104.7” x 79.5”.
In this regard, Butler’s use of images cut from Artforum magazine, as well as a version of The Collage Party Pavilion, question the role of the art world’s self-appointed gatekeepers. By letting gallery visitors add their own work, and by including pages from Artforum, with all text removed, Butler effectively strips the magazine and its high-end galleries and advertisers of their power. “It’s about deconstructing it to the point where you take all the players’ names out, and then it’s open for reconstruction,” Butler says. “I like that idea of taking the power away.”
Butler is just one of many artists who critique and blur the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Another is Calgary-based Andrew Frosst, who, in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, drops a wig into a tank of water, where a small motor then propels it around at random. Like some strange hybrid of a jellyfish and toupée, or a more modest version of Damien Hirst’s famous shark-in-a-tank, Frosst assembles manufactured and ready-made parts into a new, original work.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Frosst.
Andrew Frosst, "Instinctive Break," 2010-2014, installation, dimensions variable.
While these artists mostly work against hierarchical divisions in art, it can be strange when counter-cultural or subversive art enters the gallery. While such pieces may add street credibility, there’s also a risk of negating or watering down the original intent. And yet, the white-cube gallery – despite all its faults and flaws –is a place to debate and knock about ideas. In the best of this tradition, both with collage and mash-up, almost anything can be borrowed, rearranged or turned upside down and presented as art. While this means no icon or idea, no matter how sacred or dearly held, is safe from criticism, perhaps that’s the point. Art is at its best when it challenges us, makes us uncomfortable and forces us to rethink our assumptions. If it manages, somehow, to look beautiful at the same time, then maybe it’s all the better.
Andrew Frosst’s exhibition, Instinctive Break, at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, and Myfanwy MacLeod’s Or There and Back Again at the Vancouver Art Gallery both continue to June 8. Tim Okamura’s exhibition, Her Story, runs from June 14 to June 28 at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Vancouver.
FILM Five decades before The Clock, Canadian film pioneer Arthur Lipsett was compiling found footage into experimental films. He influenced both avant-garde and mainstream filmmakers, and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1962. His admirers include Stanley Kubrick, who asked Lipsett to create a trailer for Dr. Strangelove, and George Lucas, who inserted numerous references to Lipsett’s work into his Star Wars films.
MUSIC The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, is known as a studio pioneer for layering audio tracks and looping or reversing parts of songs. Around that same time, reggae artists like Lee “Scratch” Perry and, in the years that followed, avant-garde figures like Christian Marclay and experimental bands like Negativland began using turntables and sampling audio clips into songs. In 1996, DJ Shadow’s album, Endtroducing..., took things a step further, creating what’s believed to be the first album made entirely from samples of other songs. That album paved the way for new artists and musical experiments. In 2004, Danger Mouse popularized the mash-up when he fused instrumentals from The Beatles’ White Album with a cappella vocals from rap artist Jay-Z’s The Black Album, which had been put online specifically for sampling by other artists. Music label EMI, as copyright holder of The Beatles’ music, briefly tried to block distribution of The Grey Album, prompting Paul McCartney to quip: “Take it easy guys, it’s a tribute.”
LITERATURE Perhaps the most famous example of cut-and-paste in literature is the writing of William S. Burroughs, the senior figure of the 1950s Beat movement. Often working with Edmonton-born visual artist Brion Gysin, Burroughs combined sections – frequently at random – of other authors’ works. This technique was based on the belief that when two artists work together, leaving some results to chance, a distinct and alternative personality emerges between them, and this so-called third mind is responsible for the finished text. Burroughs’ groundbreaking 1959 novel, Naked Lunch, was created using cut-and-paste techniques, and he later suggested the book could be read in any order.