A Propos To Appreciating Appropriate Appropriation

On Ringing And Being Rung, Then Wringing and Being Wrung
Brian Reeves

When a cultural force first strikes me I’m rung like a bell. If I’m struck hard enough it resonates within, becoming part of who I am, or who I want to become. The next time I sound out my voice it’s shifted toward the mode and/or pitch of that other. Each ringing feels like a rung down the ladder into deeper depths of understanding and a next rung up into higher planes of appreciation and respect.

01 reeves monalisa copy

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, oil, 30 x 21 in., 1503
The archetypical Artwork-in-Deluxe-Frame that I feel I’m appropriating in EZGaze Omphalos and the many thumb portraits I’ve done.


02 reeves paintingsimulator7 copy

Brian Reeves, Painting Simulator 7: Thumb in Repose, ink jet with laser-perforated and scored for folding, 12 x 12 in., 2019


03 reeves EZgazeOmphalos copy

Brian Reeves, EZGaze Omphalos Mini-Masterwork Viewer, 3D-printed cornstarch, superglue, extra-long hemp cord with metal fasteners, 50 x 67 x 24 mm, with 3 laser-printed Mini-Masterworks

From Gaping to Aping
Referencing earlier works of others had always seemed like a good move—a dialogue with the past. When I’m compelled to reference or imitate, echoes of the originator bubble forward in time, but it can create an incestuous inside joke loop that confuses and alienates potential recipients of a message.

04 reeves brueghelcarnicalandlent copy

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, oil on panel, 46 x 64 in., 1559.
My answer when someone recently asked what is my favorite painting. A favorite feature are the three figures wending their way between to two extreme factions.


05 reeves slopvsbrandx copy

Brian Reeves, The Fight Between Slop and Brand X, digital drawing, detail from “Corporate Self-Aggrandizement Section,” Art Journal, 2007.


Where Credit Is Due
As a visual arts teacher I ask students to immerse themselves in the marks or modes of the work of another that strikes and resonates with them. By working to recreate what moved them, they acquire greater skill in using the particular materials, but also sensitivity and respect. Part of that respect entails attribution, as in adding “(after _____)” in the title of the print, but not if they were to use it as a part of a larger work.

In the currently burgeoning online meme culture, people without formal arts training are able to take part in visual culture. Questions of authorship are less relevant than the new meanings concocted from found and repurposed imagery.

The concern over cultural appropriation can be effective at sensitizing those who might otherwise appropriate without ample consideration and respect. But we, especially art educators, should be careful to not dam off the free flow of ideas. My own art education was decidedly Western and male, so I find myself appropriating/repurposing ideas from people that are relatively close to me in skin color, religious indoctrination, and sex.

08 Reeves GoyaSleepofReason copy

Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, intaglio print, 1840.


11 reeves aftergoya copy

Brian Reeves, The Sleep of Reason Produces Navelgazers (After Goya), digital drawing, 2016

Digging a little deeper, one realizes our differences go well beyond those three variables, as do our similarities. From up close, it can seem like humans are discrete entities, with our own thoughts and feelings. Step back and it could seem we are one organism, like a layer of billions of individual slime mold organisms forming over the planet. Like the estimated 37 trillion individual cells in our bodies are to each of us, we could see each of ourselves as more a part of the whole of Humanity, as if we’re just appropriating from other parts of our collective self.

10 reeves electronicmonster copy

Brian Reeves, illustration for “The Electronic Monster,” printed in Isthmus, a weekly newspaper in Madison, WI, 1996.


09 reeves tvornottv copy

Brian Reeves, illustration for “TV or Not TV?,” printed in the Madison Edge newspaper, 1993.

The Sincerest Flattery
It seems it’s usually a positive move—flattering, informative, boundary-questioning, new hybrid form generating—to adopt aspects of another person’s or culture’s work that feel right to the artist, with common sense etiquette keeping malice, mockery and disrespect in check.

13 reeves picasso lesdemoisellesdavignon copy

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, oil on canvas, 96 x 92 in., 1907

I recall the spark of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, singled out for its bold rejection of the orthodoxies of French painting, and for his depiction of African mask-like faces. While Picasso and others are, in one sense, part of the colonizing force oppressing cultures, his own writing on the experience of visiting, in 1907, an exhibition of African masks in the Trocadéro Museum of Ethnography sheds light upon his respect and his discovery of what painting can accomplish:

A smell of mold and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately. But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them color and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an aesthetic process; it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path.

I’m thankful for those who have dared to reach outside their comfort zones to cross-pollinate me with influences beyond what’s considered safe and inoffensive—liberally sprinkling cultural mutagens—hopefully helping me gain sensitivity and confidence to do more of the same.

15 reeves SlopCatalog4 copy

Reeves with Adriane Herman, Slop Catalog #4, 10 x 10.5 in. x 24 pages, commercial offset lithography printed with web press, 2002.
In the Slop Art project, the artists did deliberately submit their work, but I’m still appropriating the work of others by presenting the whole as a work of my own, albeit with writing, posing, organizational, and conceptual collaboration with Adriane Herman.


* Image at top of page: Brian Reeves, Proposal for Thumb Vs. Forefinger World Heritage Monument, 10 x 11 in., poster markers, 2019.
An idea for a large scale public sculpture commemorating one of our most advantageous adaptations. Thank you, Claes Oldenburg