Above: MAJ Fall 2019 cover:
Brian Reeves, Painting Simulator 7: Thumb in Repose, ink jet with laser-perforated and scored for folding, 12 x 12 in., 2019
Welcome to the Fall issue of the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly. The theme for this issue is Appropriation. More than twenty artists and writers have shared with us their ideas and images about appropriation. In addition to our themed essays, we include some surprises that are both timeless and timely.
We are featuring Edgar Allen Beem’s extensive, historical, inclusive essay, Maine and the Art World, written in 2012. It was originally commissioned to appear in Maine Art New, a selection of essays and artist profiles edited by Edgar Allen Beem and Andres Verzosa, to have been published by the University of Maine Press. Unfortunately, the book project was cancelled in February of 2019, but we are delighted and honored that this brilliant survey and sampling of Maine’s artists and institutions has found a home here.
Once you start thinking about the role of appropriation in artistic creation, you end up seeing it everywhere and in multiple embodiments. It could be simply drawing from life and thus appropriating what’s before your eyes or quoting from works of art, a manner of disclosing your sources of inspiration, of placing yourself into an artistic filiation of sorts, and of paying homage (maybe of showing that you know your history of art!). Or perhaps of acerbically thumbing your nose at the art world and at hallowed notions of originality as do the artists who, practicing what has become known as “appropriation art,” get in legal trouble for violating copyright. In a way, appropriation can be seen as synonymous with creativity: is there ever creation ex nihilo? At its core, it is a dialogue, a positioning vis-à-vis those who have preceded us and our peers, objects and cultures, forms and ideas. It is like the weaving of a fabric, two threads, the warp and the weft, that meet, cross, and produce a new material. There is also a dark side to appropriation when it becomes theft and poaching and contributes to consolidating hegemonic power. But then, as it leads to the silencing of a culture, it also ceases to be a real dialogue.
Brian Reeves thus speaks of “Appropriate Appropriation.” Reeves compares influence to a bell that rings us and produces sound waves that resonate within us, eventually altering our pitch and our voice. Reflecting upon his work as an art educator, he considers the different types of relationship to past works, envisioning them as different sounds. For Reeves, “we borrow and repurpose in order to be a part of the conversation” and he concludes that “all is appropriation.”
Daniel Kany, on the other hand, in an essay trenchantly titled “In/Appropriate,” recounts an instance of negative appropriation, one that amounts to pilfering, and in the course of his essay offers thought-provoking reflections on copying in the Orthodox tradition of icon making and in the art of the first-nations of the American Northwest Coast.
For Debra Yoo, looking at art helped rejuvenate her practice at a time when she felt her works had become “stilted and somewhat stale.” In her essay, she recounts her long fascination with Russian icons. The works we reproduce go beyond the simple making of icons, to addressing the meanings these religious images, endowed with extraordinary powers, assume for Yoo, as she revisits their technique while incorporating photos taken in Russia. Their layering becomes a metaphor for the potent memories of her trip and for the creative process.
Alan Crichton remembers the formative experience of copying the “Masters” and evokes his appropriation of imagery from a book of symbols—mentioning what is retained and what is changed and what that process means for him. He also considers the ethical dimension of such “borrowings” and how they can be handled in an acceptable manner, along with the questions that are raised: whether or not to acknowledge sources and if yes, how?
For the two art historians who form the collective Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman references to the works and writings of other artists come naturally. In a mock interview—indeed appropriating the form—W-P+P-W mention some of the very varied artists to whom they playfully pay homage. They also discuss how materials not typically associated with “high art” are appropriated and how through the invention of a personal iconography with recurring motifs, they blur the lines between the individual identities to create their fictional persona.
Although when invited to contribute to this issue, Lesley Dill expressed her reservations about the use of the term “appropriation,” she evokes the importance of her friend and mentor Nancy Spero, whose work she says “was deeply inspirational” to her. The fact remains, Dill’s work, often in the guise of garments, thus alluding to the body they cover, appropriates excerpts from writers, and the letterforms she chooses reference specific textual worlds, from medieval manuscripts to printed books. Note that Lesley Dill makes an appearance in Edgar Allen Beem’s essay in this issue.
David Wade reflects upon photography’s mimetic nature and sees in it “a form of acquisition, of duplication” that produces “surrogates of reality.” It is also a form of excavating and of collecting. For Wade, Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades or Richard Prince’s appropriation of images from advertisements represent a “lowering of the bar of authorship” and such works, along with the widespread and more-democratic-than-ever use of photography, might have profoundly affected conceptions of originality and of reality.
The archaeological activity alluded to by Wade is echoed in Pat and Tony Owen’s piece, in which they recount mining UMVA’s old newsletters and unearthing materials dating from a quarter of a century ago. These rediscoveries prompt them to muse on the question of whether ideas can truly ever be new. They reach the conclusion that “art is made up of opinions that have been formed from a smorgasbord of ideas” and that originality comes from the ways in which we “fuse it all together.”
This is what happens when Ann Tracy appropriates and juxtaposes two famous depictions of women by Dutch seventeenth-century painter Johannes Vermeer, generating a new narrative. Vermeer’s figures seem to enter in a dialogue as does Tracy when she borrows a photo taken by a sheep farmer friend of hers. And when she pays a homage of sorts to Richard Price, she takes the chain of appropriations a step further.
Similarly, Ruth Sylmor builds upon a succession of appropriations as she photographs a Parisian souvenir shop, where amongst aprons, one holds a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Sylmor photographed another instance of the appropriation of this “painting famous for being famous” when she encountered it pasted on a wall, altered (with a duck beak), accompanied by text (advertising a record by Duck Sauce), damaged, and bearing a tag.
Using PublicAccess keys, Jordan Seiler appropriates spaces usually reserved for corporate advertisements and in so doing responds to the plethora of signs that fill our streets. The photos, taken in cities throughout the world, show ad boxes filled by many artists that offer an alternate and often humorous discourse, an alternative to the messages imposed upon us by advertisement. As Seiler concludes, these signs become “an opportunity to distract us from ourselves, in the search for one another.”
Public space—this time, that of the museum—is also appropriated in Jim Kelly’s photographs, who manipulates the placement of artwork, thus raising questions about “ownership and what constitutes public domain.”
For over a century now, through the practice of collage and assemblage, artists have appropriated ready-made elements and combined them. As materials are recycled, they are nevertheless manipulated and transmuted: this is what we see in Tom Butler’s work with Victorian cabinet cards. Taking advantage of the standardized format of these early photographs, Butler cuts them along vertical lines and gathers the fragments into what is supposed to suggest mountain ranges—while we are still able to recognize the shoulders, a body part charged with meaning for Butler.
Thinking about Kurt Schwitters and his collages, Amy Bellezza created two pieces for this issue. Wellness directly emulates a work by the German Dadaist while incorporating a fragment from her own life: the label of food she feeds her cat. Burglary draws upon a personal experience, with each found object conveying a specific meaning. The selection and assembling of these elements allowed Bellezza to express her trauma, to process it, and, in a way, to own (we are reminded of the etymology of “appropriation”) and overcome it.
Dan Dowd traces his fascination for the found objects he uses in his assemblages back to the thrill of discovery first in dumps and later in junk-shops. For Dowd, these discarded objects or fragments evoke memories of his childhood and adolescence, while their worn surfaces bear witness to their use and to the passing of time. But when the actual act of assembling commences, formal choices come into play as colors, shapes, patterns, and textures are combined, and the discarded bits are given new life.
In the works of Butler, Bellezza, and Dowd, as disparate objects are assembled, we are made more aware of the creative process behind the finished product. That the journey matters more than the destination is why, when Bridget Matros, in “Insight/incite,” talks about the programs for kids and families she runs at Waterfall Arts in Belfast, Maine, she laments that photos do not do justice to conveying the participants’ experience.
Process—and experience—is at the core of the controversial performance piece presented and discussed here by Tom Fallon.
For Alice James, as she faces incapacitating health challenges, the appropriation of a new medium can allow for continuing creativity: she endows the digital medium with fluid, lively, and painterly qualities.
As Carl Little reviews the retrospective at the Bates College Museum of Art of watercolorist DeWitt Hardy (1940–2017), we encounter yet another instance of appropriation. As Hardy’s Chamber of Genius from 1994 borrows from Thomas Rowlandson the title and its subject matter, some of the British artist’s trenchant wit penetrates the apparently candid and benign depiction, which also makes a clever allusion to Norman Rockwell.
That works of art are the result of a dialogue is central to Betsy Sholl’s poetry selections in this issue: Ellen M. Taylor responds to her experience teaching at the Maine State Prison, Martin Steingesser to his own past and to his experience reading the letters of a Holocaust victim, and Julia Bouwsma to a shameful event in Maine’s past.
In our featured essay, Edgar Allen Beem looks at the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial and through it, takes stock of “Maine and the Art World.” Beem declares: “It’s a two-way street now” and so we are brought back to the idea that art—and all the ways in which art-making involves a kind of appropriation—is a dialogue, a back-and-forth. And indeed, Beem notes that “[t]he reason Maine’s art world connections matter at all is that what distinguishes serious contemporary art from popular pictures of pretty places is a function of the degree to which an artist is engaged in the ongoing, never-ending dialogue about what art is, can, and should be.”
Reporting on the important exhibition at the Colby College Museum of Art, on Wabanaki art, that opened this summer, Véronique Plesch, connects the issues at stake in this show with those of this issue.
Finally, this issue contains very positive news from our UMVA Portland chapter, which is thriving thanks to exhibitions at their Gallery and a new website. They also report having started work on their graphic identity for greater consistency and appeal. The Lewiston Auburn chapter report contains details on recent community events and exhibitions but also announces the sad news of their decision to dissolve the chapter. Their report is followed by reactions, acknowledging the incredible work that has been done and also hoping to find ways to continue the chapter. For our “In Focus” feature, Christine Sullivan met with Hilary Irons, the newly-appointed University of New England (UNE) Gallery & Exhibitions Manager, who describes her vision for the gallery and forthcoming exhibitions. UMVA acting President, William Hessian, has a message for readers, and ARRT! and LumenARRT! show what they have been up to recently.
The Introduction to this issue was written by our guest assistant editor, Véronique Plesch
Read and enjoy! Don’t forget to check out the Archives of past issues. PLEASE forward the journal far and wide, send us feedback, check out the theme for the Winter issue (What do you think is the role of the POLITICAL in your art?), and submit your work. We hope you will consider joining the Union of Maine Visual Artists.
From the editors,
Natasha Mayers, Nora Tryon, Dan Kany, and Betsy Sholl (poetry editor)