Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Art from the age of mechanical reproduction by Angelo Suarez
Taking its cue from pulp illustrations & B-movie posters, Dina Gadia’s latest solo exhibition How Does That Grab You Darling explores via acrylic on canvas the gap between what Walter Benjamin calls the cult value & the exhibition value of art, w/ a particular interest in the cult aspect of cult movies. Obliquely, thru her manual re-execution of images to have previously been mechanically reproduced, & also by her re-staging of them in a gallery context instead of the magazine & CD-cover environments they have been grabbed from, the show manages to raise the question, “Does mechanical reproduction really render the masses it supposedly privileges more visible, or does it only further abstract them & their labor?”

Suspicious of Benjamin’s optimistic valuation of mechanical reproduction, Ranciere argues instead that “it is because the anonymous became the subject matter of art that the act of recording such a subject matter can be an art,” such that the artfulness of photography stems not so much from its technology but from what its technology has been in aid of: the narrativization & framing—the making visible—of the common. While it is true that there is nothing common about the woman in “Where the Action is Hotter”—Gadia herself in her artist’s statement calls attention to the pricelessness, the uncommon quality, of this woman’s facial expression oscillating ambiguously between pleasure & pain, typical of carsploitation & sexploitation action-movie posters—what has become common, in fact, is the very framing of such a pose, the perverse ubiquity of such an image. Not the woman per se but the depiction of the woman: this is what Gadia chooses to at once depict & critique.

That her work strays from the modernist impulse to revel in & exploit the properties of medium (in the case of painting, the plasticity of paint, its texture given certain conditions) makes absolute sense. One notices upon encountering Gadia’s work in situ that there is no need to encounter the work in situ, that experiencing the exhibition via, say, documentation photographs of it on somebody else’s insipid art blog elicits the same amount of pleasure as entering the physical space of the gallery to examine each of her canvases. Despite her manual execution of the paintings, they may as well not have been manually executed: one can appreciate equally in “Dynamite Cliché” the multiplicity of spread legs be it on the spread of a glossy magazine, a tarpaulin banner spread between electric poles, or on canvas spread over a wooden frame. Intended to be an analog to what Gadia refers to in her statement as the “explosion of many film franchises” such as X-Men,Once Upon a Time in China, or even Mano Po, this multiplicity, in the spirit of the above, seems more like an analog to the plethora of platforms such franchises find themselves comfortably situated in: Not just film but comicbook, theater adaptation thence its musicale edition, TV mini-series, video game, action figure, plush doll, Happy Meal freebie, cereal surprise, a nauseating serial surplus.

The easier critical route is to condemn such seemingly glib executions of flatness as a flaw—who, after all, can resist the seduction of site- & medium-specific artworks (work A can work only w/in the space of gallery X, work B makes sense only in park Y, work C yields proper signification only in slum Z, ad nauseam) as pushed for by modernist singularity?—where the agency of the human hand is immobilized by the fetters of representation. But one also cannot overlook the fact that the decision to still manually execute the work despite the seeming irrelevance of manual execution is deliberate: Far from being a sterile display of craftsmanship (really, of what use to anyone is the display of mimetic skill?),How Does That Grab You Darling problematizes the potentially positive inescapability of the original whose agency has been seemingly downplayed, what w/ the sophisticated contemporary privileging of concept that authorizes artists to hire craftsmen or laborers who can do the physical work for them (“What matters is this is my idea: whether I built it or not is beside the point”). Relevance shifts from the question “How well does this particular artwork maximize its medium?” (exhibition value) towards “How sure can one be that this particular artwork has been executed by Gadia herself?” (cult value).

No wonder that besides the paintings themselves, posters that have been mechanically produced, signed, & numbered are also made available for sale—there are, in fact, more posters than paintings, the former being much more modestly priced than the latter—in order to tease out the possible falsity of what Ranciere refers to as “the promotion of the anonymous” committed by the mechanical arts. The exhibition rightly & courageously raises the question: Are mechanical reproduction & its accompanying creative strategies of intellectual theft & appropriation only tolerated because they are normalized & stripped of agency by the art economy it supposedly subverts?

For Benjamin, this is exactly what constitutes the cult value of art, wherein “[o]ne may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view,” such that it is enough that the audience believes How Does That Grab You Darling is indeed Gadia’s work. Issues of authenticity & ethics come into play: Can one even be sure that the exhibited works are of Gadia’s doing; is it possible that she is merely passing off somebody else’s work as her own? Consequently: Is there anything wrong w/ passing off somebody else’s work as one’s own, anyway? But perhaps “ethics” is not the right word here; in implicating the cult value of art, the issues raised may more appropriately be those of faith instead, the artist gesturing toward the restoration of the much maligned “theology of art” (its doomed, dilapidated doctrine—art for art’s sake—derided & pillaged by progressives proud w/ purpose & high from their moral high ground) whose contemporary incarnation is that of the secular cult of beauty.

The artist, hence, works not so much w/ collages but w/ the idea of collages, making humorous juxtapositions of readymade images minus the method of cutting them out & splicing them against each other. Instead, she paints the image all over again—or at least there is the impression that she does—as if the collage were a single layer of picture, such that the collage’s own concession of pictorial flatness is itself flattened even further, hiding its own seams & concealing points of post & paste. Is it possible that this flatness is analogous to how consumer culture—the market toward w/c such images have been originally directed, the darlings intended to be grabbed or, more appropriately,interpellated (to use Althusser’s term) by the proliferation of such images—can now be described, flat in its banality?

Gadia’s work is no longer simply in the age of mechanical reproduction but from the age of mechanical reproduction: Now past the naïve idealization that “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (Benjamin), the artist allows space for concession that mechanical reproduction, having become the choice mode of production of today’s consumer culture, has in no way allowed art to be practiced & appreciated democratically (wasn’t the democracy of artistic practice—the myth that anyone can be an artist—the great promise of mechanical reproduction in the 1st place?) but has instead opened it up to the perils of systematic subsumption under the highly exclusionary structure of capitalism: Because one needs resources—because one needs capital (art education, gallery connexions, membership in a feudalistic circle of art-system insiders, etc.)—for any engagement w/ art in such a paradigm, art is thus not for everyone, & not everyone can be an artist. As the painting “Golden Adventures and Foul Horror” spells out so loudly, artworks are “CHEAP THRILLS” the way one’s brand of toothpaste is a cheap thrill, the way one’s mass-manufactured pair of pants is a cheap thrill: it is only cheap insofar as one can afford it.

We have been fooled by the false promise of mechanical reproduction: the revelation thru demystification & the underscoring of this fact is the exhibition’s forward-thinking triumph. “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics,” muses Benjamin. But the fact is: the dissolution of authenticity’s applicability to artistic production has only effectively fetishized it, has only further ritualized & reified authenticity. For all the hope it has brought regarding the myriad possibilities of appropriation, for all the optimism it has wrought about the (copyright-)free exchange of ideas, mechanical reproduction still boils down to the crass reality of branding, it still boils down to who controls the forces of re/production, the sultry, industry-savvy entrepreneur who, as if bikini-clad, seductively invites one to “Walk Among Us” while fiercely holding the reins of the tigers of artistic commerce: the origin of appropriated picture X or of lifted text Y may not matter—intellectual & creative theft, after all, is the hallmark of collage—for as long as one does not forget that what truly matters is that this collage is a Dina Gadia original, that this collage is sold to consumers at a reasonable price exclusively at Blanc Gallery. Now, all How Does That Grab You Darlingneeds to be perfect is a jingle.