Future Perfect: What does appropriation say about us?

31 July 2016

SIG: Contemporary

I recently came across the work of Penelope Umbrico on a visit to Milwaukee Art Museum.  Contemporary artist Umbrico sifts through millions of images now instantly available in the Internet Age via social media sites and appropriates them as source material for her work.

I’ve read a few articles on “appropriation art” over the last year and I’m still making my mind up; art or theft?  Artist Sherrie Levine, is perhaps most known for her work with re-photography – taking photographs of well-known photographic images from books and catalogues, which she then presents as her own work. Richard Prince is another artist with similar modus operandi, famously making a series of cowboy photographs re-photographed from advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes.  The courts have both castigated and defended Prince.  More recent controversy involving Prince making money from re-appropriation of Instagram images is what’s had me thinking about Umbrico’s work for the last month or so.  On some level she’s doing something similar to Prince.

One form of appropriation takes existing art and reproduces it with an original twist whilst another simply copies.  Whilst copying might be defended by saying “it’s bringing this work back into the conscious of the art world” (Levine) I’m not buying that argument (certainly I wouldn’t spend my own money on a copy presented as an original work).  Personally I’m comfortable with new art from old where there’s an original twist.

Umbrico says “My focus on collective practices in photography has led me to examine subjects that are collectively photographed. I take the sheer quantity of images online as a collective archive that represents us - a constantly changing auto-portrait.”  I like that idea - these new works of art are representing the collective ideas of what makes a good photograph on today’s social media.  She wants to know why we take and share photographs and what it says about us as humans.

Future Perfect, currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, features more than 30 installations, including around 5,000 individual images.  The effect, of the larger pieces in particular, is stunning.


Images (appropriated) by Sean Goodhart LRPS