As to be expected, there was a lot of complex, and equally convoluted, art theories and artspeak during my time in grad school. Particularly in the Contemporary Art programs (duh). Luckily, I was able to use my love of arguing with people, pop (pulp) art and frankly debating the value of said convoluted artspeak during this time.
For a debate on the reality v new reality of art critics and theorists (jesus christ, it’s obnoxious just to read that), I used Ron English to best explain, and debunk, some of these ideas, and bring it down to a language that most people could actually understand.
There are few artists that I can think of that so aptly represent both Barthes and Baudrillard’s theories on contemporary art practices than Ron English. Consider the key words: re-presentation, representation, simulation and hyper-reality. While these artistic thoughts can be attributed to both art critics, they are so clearly representative of English’s style, motives and techniques that we cannot simply say he embodies one theory or another.
English’s work is undeniably influenced by past artists including Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger. While Warhol’s work in the 60’s was about creating a culture that eliminates the unique and the individual, English builds on this idea and also comments further on mass consumerism and the imbedded symbolism in American culture. English also builds on Kruger’s messages through media in his many billboard installations; both artists leaving anonymous, often ominous and subversive messages to the masses concerning inequality, consumerism and social manipulation. As such, it is clear that English’s work falls within Barthes’ ideas regarding borrowing of imagery and appropriation while also easily being attributed to Baudrillard’s ideas regarding simulation and hyper-reality as English’s paintings are often surrealist in nature while also reflective of a manufactured American culture. English’s work serves to remind us that nothing is real.
English’s fascination with pop culture is blatant, as is his intention to build off of and separate himself from Warhol-esque classification. While Warhol used images of Marilyn Monroe to idolize to mythic proportions and ultimately remove all characteristics of humanness from her image, English uses her likeness to portray a more sinister message. In English’s words, “I like Warhol because he left a trail of breadcrumbs”. As seen here, Marilyn’s mickeys is a classically done painting appropriated from familiar photographs taken of her at the time while undeniably reminding us of Warhol’s fascination with the actor. The upward tilted jaw and bedroom eyes, the mouth slightly agape, all symbolize what the Marilyn Monroe persona was created to symbolize: availability and sexual desire.
Of course, this image of Marilyn is very different when we look below the face, and it is not at all the Warhol-esque idea of the woman. Monroe’s breasts have been replaced with the face of Mickey Mouse, staring blankly out from her chest. Mickey, representative of the Disney brand had been used in other art works through the 60’s and 70’s at the height of the pop art movement as a symbol of commercialism and consumer simplicity, though I believe English also wanted to express his disdain for the icon (perhaps for both Monroe and Mickey) and the marginal gullibility and passive nature of the American public in his time. Monroe was seen as a commodity, something that was available for men to own and do with what they will, as was Mickey Mouse to children. Perhaps this is a play on breasts being seen as ‘play things’, or having breasts replaced by ‘play things’ instead of their anatomical use, or perhaps English simply wanted to create a visual pun and breasts somewhere along the line have been called ‘mickeys’. Either way, the image serves are a clear example of both the repurposing of iconic symbols to send a new message as explained in Barthes’ theories as well as the surrealistic hyper-reality theories of Baudrillard.
Building on Kruger’s work of graphic propaganda-like posters and images to convey a social message, English started his art career by repurposing billboards to convey cynical messages to a mass audience.
Just like Kruger was sending messages concerning social injustice, sexism and essential mind control, English was sending similar messages about corporate control, greed and subversive messages about politics and religion. This next picture is a great example of both semiotic theory as well as simulacrum* (holy artspeak Batman!). This billboard represents both a mythical representation of product endorsement and subversive cultural commentary by means of collage, and recognizable graphics. By having Jesus endorse Budweiser beer, English’s billboard is telling buyers that Budweiser is, in fact, the best beer on the planet because Jesus says so. And by Jesus saying this is the best beer, English expects people to blindly purchase and drink the product without questioning the why’s, the how’s and the what’s behind the message. The purpose of all billboards is to convey a fast, simple message to as many people as possible, though this message is much more complex than a simple beer advertisement. Here we have conflicting messages about blind consumerism and blind religion, and English seems to be equating both as one in the same.
Many of his messages may not be received well by some, English’s work is pure original art. One could argue it is easier to classify his work as original simply because he is using, in many cases, classical methods to convey these starkly modern messages, and perhaps this is the natural evolution of pop art. English, when asked about his role in art, says “The pop guys only commented on it in the sense that it existed– there it is. But I’m passionately engaged in pop culture, I have opinions about it, I bring the subconscious into play with it. My work is more about social commentary”. In saying this English clearly illustrates his active role in society and art, and as such I think his work does not transcend theory but rather falls in line with the writings of Barthes and Baudrillard as well as his own personal theory behind art.
I would argue all art comes before written theory, as art is often created based on the self rather than based on ideas of others, and as such the theory is often developed as a response, an attempt to understand the art of a specific time. Relying too heavily on theory could result in missed emotional meanings in work, by focusing too much on the technical why’s we risk missing out of the emotional ones, the cerebral ones that undoubtedly connect us to the art in the first place. As with anything, a healthy balance between the two are needed to fully understand work, and in English’s case, thinking too deeply into the work may lead one to miss how hilarious much of the work is – and perhaps we need to laugh just to make it through the dark, cynical world that English gives us.
And now for something chilling – I give you English’s Grade School Guernica and Picasso’s Guernica, side by side. Alternate realities, modern social commentary and commercialization indeed.
*Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of cultural sign processes, analogy, metaphor, signification and communication, signs and symbols. Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which in its part, studies the structure and meaning of language more specifically
*Simulacrum, from the Latin simulacrum which means “likeness, similarity”,is first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation of another thing, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god; by the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original. Photorealism as an example of artistic simulacrum, where a painting is sometimes created by copying a photograph that is itself a copy of the real. Other art forms that play with simulacra include Trompe l’oeil, Pop Art, Italian neorealism and the French New Wave.
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