Sunday, October 21

The New Face of Originality: An Exploration of the Evolution of Origin and Appropriation in Contemporary Art

All art has an origin, an initial spark of inspiration that ignites the conception of a piece. This conceptual seed can spring from a multitude of cultural, historical, environmental, emotional, and intellectual sources as well as vary in its manifestation from a subliminal whisper to overt appropriation. Art does not exist in isolation; it is affected by context and cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Art is informed by history, culture, environment, and the individuality of both the maker and viewer. The innate references that exist in all art raise questions of originality and authenticity. How do we define artistic originality? Is artistic originality a necessary validation of creative merit? Can complete authenticity exist in today’s interconnected and cross-fertilized culture? Has everything already been done? Many contemporary artists confront these questions and explore the intricacies of authenticity in their work. The answers are not definite, but lie in the realm of opinion. However, it is clear that there is an intense desire for fresh, inventive work that permeates the contemporary art world. Particularly, in an image-saturated culture such as ours artists and viewers alike crave new ideas and perspectives. Personally, I believe that contemporary artistic uniqueness is attained through individual perspective and synthesis not through the quite impossible task of pure original creation of concept, technique, or form. It is the filtration of concept and image through the artist that makes the work fresh.

Art began anonymously, but not independently. The concept of individual authorship was irrelevant to prehistoric artists; today they remain nameless and their work is attributed chronologically and stylistically to ancient cultures and geographic locations. However, the modern viewer could argue that the same conceptual dilemmas of originality and authenticity that are prevalent in contemporary art also apply to the most ancient artistic examples. The basis of this contention lies in the nature of humanity; humans are social creatures that function as part of a society or culture. We exist in a communal environment where nothing can be considered totally separate. All things are connected through context and interaction. While we are each individual and unique in our own personal ways, the collective social current still informs who we are and by extension what we create.

The issues of originality and authenticity emerge in contemporary metalwork and jewelry in varying degrees. Some artists distinctly confront these concepts in their work through direct appropriation or visual allusion to past art or mass-produced imagery. Jan Yager’s work (fig.1, 2) demonstrates one method of image appropriation within the world of contemporary metalsmithing and jewelry; her pieces combine culturally significant objects with indigenous historical aesthetics to create poignant political commentaries. “Yager re-invigorates the radicality of [trouvaille, the found object], raising its stakes by melding it with Post-Modern strategies of adaptation (of past forms) and superimposition (of contemporary references over allusions to the past). In keeping with the most adroit of Post-Modern manipulations, Yager’s work selfconsciously creates a critical (and often ironic) awareness of historical distance in order to sharpen political focus on the present.” 1 She devoted ten years to City Flora/City Flotsam, a series of pieces exploring Philadelphia’s urban reality through objects found on the city’s sidewalks. Within her work she fuses object appropriation, endemic stylistic references, and political perceptions to create what she terms “memory devices” and “portraits of a specific place and time”. 2 Yager’s American Collar, composed of 140 crack vials, 223 crack caps, and two syringes, confronts the viewer with the memory of “European intrusion into Africa, the African diaspora, and contemporary racism, inequity, and the slavery of addiction.” 3 The piece is a marriage of urban objects and the aesthetic of African beadwork; the disc form references the Maasai wedding collar and serves as a symbol for African creativity and aesthetic skill. Pieces such as Crack Baby and American Ruff explore Yager’s observation that crack is a form of urban currency, and challenge the public perception of who is afflicted by the addiction. American Ruff (Fig. 1) recreates the form of a lace collar worn by wealthy Northern Europeans during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries using silver wire, 943 plastic vials and white caps. This historical imagery creates a striking correlation between the previous wearers of the ruff, the owners of ships that transported goods, colonists, and slaves “who would amass enormous wealth, all from the comfort of their offices,” 4 and their contemporary counterparts, drug dealers and heads of corporations aiding the circulation of exploitation, desire, and desperation. Jan Yager’s work “stretch[es] the limits of conventional decorative allusion, taking us to territories of cultural repression, so we come back touched by a collective history spanning over 300 years; her realism re-visions the past, whose meaning is altered, bound to and haunted by apparitions of the present.” 5

Kathy Buszkiewicz (Fig. 3, 4) is another contemporary artist whose work employs appropriated cultural imagery as a visual catalyst for social commentary. Her jewelry examines our contemporary notions of value, and speaks to the issues of “economic status, exorbitance, social waste, misplaced priorities, and the conservation of precious resources.”6 Her pieces typically combine US currency with traditional, organic material such as wood, metal, and gems; she elegantly transforms paper currency into forms imbued with aesthetic beauty and desire then places this literal wealth in juxtaposition to the materials used to make objects of value. Her work conjures questions of value, wealth, desire, and consumption. “She asks us to distinguish what we desire from what we love, and consider origins, price, and sustainability. In a consumer culture manufacturing massive cravings for limited resources, Buszkiewicz focuses on the dangers of value determined independent of cost- particularly the hidden and the long term.”7

The jewelry of Liv Blavarp (fig. 5,6,7) exemplifies a more subtle visual citation. Much of her work is steeped in a rich blend of African, Norwegian, and Scandinavian influence; however, she gracefully transcends these aesthetic and technical references and maintains a unique visual vocabulary. While pieces such as Necklace, 1993 and Hatshepshut, 2000 “exemplify the Scandinavian tradition of fine woodworking, they also allude to a primitive past of elaborately decorated Viking sailing vessels. Beautifully constructed and sophisticated in design, they also demonstrate a love of wooden toys, as well as a knowledge of historical jewelry, especially ancient Egyptian breast plates and more contemporary African neckwear.”8 Blavarp is a master of joining historical and multicultural vocabulary, while sensuously subverting these allusions beneath a powerfully original visual impact. Her work strikes a perfectly harmonious balance between the past and the present.

Lilly Fitzgerald’s (Fig. 8) jewelry further dilutes the concept of appropriation, drawing not on solid historical citation or tangible objects but emerging from subconscious imagery from her own past. Her work dances along the edge of a collective pool of unconscious observed imagery. “Fitzgeralds’s inspiration derives from subliminal impressions made by images or experiences from her daily life- a doorknob, a particular stone, and various natural ephemera.”9 There is a sufficient level of specificity in her work to evoke substance, soul, and resonance, yet the themes and imagery evoked reach viewers on a universal level.

Contemporary art is defined by its reaction and contribution to the issues that have surrounded the art world since it began. As we look back through the lens of the artistic and creative past, it becomes obvious that originality and authenticity are birthed from the perception and culture of each generation of makers, wearers, and viewers. The conceptual and formal issues confronting the art world have remained relatively constant for centuries, and it is only the answers, interpretations, and perspectives surrounding these notions that differ. Today originality and authenticity reside in transforming the ordinary, and infusing existing imagery, aesthetics, conceptual explorations, technology, and material with the distinctively unique perspective of artist and viewer. The new definition of originality is the filtration of past and present artistic investigations through the contemporary individual. Gordon Lawrie captures this essential thought perfectly in reference to his own work:

“Making is for me part of a continuous process in which themes and ideas are constantly worked and re-worked . . . I am fascinated by fragments of the past dislocated and drifting in time, by man-made marks on the landscape, and by symbolism refined and modified by belief. These disparate but related themes have been honed, polished, and refined over thousands of years. I seek to build on them and overlay them with my ideas and feelings, inevitably adding a personal interpretation. I would like my work to have a cultural and historical but contemporary integrity, bridging past and present.” 10

© Jennie Poston 2007

1 “Intervening in Amnesia: Jan Yager’s Mnemonic Adornment”, Tracey Rosolowski, Metalsmith, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 18.
2 Ibid, pp. 17.
3 Ibid, pp. 19.
4 Ibid, pp. 24.
5 Ibid, pp. 25.
6 “The Value of Wood and Nickels- Jewelry by Kathy Buszkiewicz”, Kate Stassen, Metalsmith, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter 2001, pp. 35.
7 Ibid, pp. 35.
8 “Liv Blavarp: Jewelry 1984-2001”, Susan Isaacs, Metalsmith, Vol. 22, No. 5, Fall 2002, pp. 48.
9 “Substance and Soul: The Work of Lilly Fitzgerald”, Shelly Wiles, Metalsmith, Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2002, pp. 38.
10 Metalsmith, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1998, pp. 25.

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