Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Creative piracy: the paintings of Russell Connor

Russell Connor makes paintings based on artistically significant paintings, both within copyright and without. He juxtaposes Goya and Manet, Renoir and Gaugin (“By joining the two worlds, my painting represents the familiar phenomenon of older, or less "civilized," cultures seeking to survive by displaying their picturesqueness to the tourists.”), Rubens and Picasso, and so on. He says:

For me, to copy is more than to study, or to piggy-back on the glory of the past -- it’s a kind of time-travel, fantasy encounters with heroes, letting me tread some halting steps along the path they walked. It deepens a sense of empathy with both the artists and their subjects, who, in the long history of time, were here just yesterday.

I’m present in these pictures through the way they are designed and through the limitations of my technique. If I wanted to, or could, make exact replicas, I would disappear from the meeting.

I’m struck by how close his words are to what Justice Holmes said in Bleistein v. Donaldson Lithographing: “The copy is the personal reaction of an individual upon nature. Personality always contains something unique. It expresses its singularity even in handwriting, and a very modest grade of art has in it something irreducible, which is one man’s alone. That something he may copyright unless there is a restriction in the words of the act.” Such a low standard works fine … until we get to derivative works. Connor invests his copies with his creativity, but Picasso’s heirs might still want to have a word with him. His articulated artistic justifications for his juxtapositions, however, make the transformative and critical nature of his copying evident.

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