Re-Contextualizing the Masters: An Essay in Photofunia Collages

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The Gypsy Girl (1628), cropped from a painting by Frans Hals gives a contemporary newscaster "the eye" in an online photo collage, made at photofunia.com

When teaching Art History I always stress to my students that art exists within social and historical contexts. It matters where you see a work of art, as do the things that surround it. Meanings emerge and change -- sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically -- in relation to context. Modern and contemporary artists have been well aware of this situation: social context is the reason that Marcel Duchamp's Fountain created a such sense of shock when it was first exhibited as a "work of art."

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Marcel Duchamp's 1917 Fountain, was a signed urinal re-contextualized as "art." 
Image via Wikispaces

By turning Duchamp's thinking around, I have recently been using the instant photo collage generating website Photofunia as a way to virtually re-contextualize well known works of art. Interesting things happen when you take works of art outside of museums and galleries. As it turns out, the results don't always seem so odd, as we live in a media society where we commonly see works of art in advertisements. Despite that, I had some fun shifting contexts and hope that some of these Photofunia collages will at least make you think or smile.

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Rembrandt's 1659 Self-Portrait looks out of place and a bit forlorn appearing on a heavily tagged delivery truck in a busy city...

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On the other hand, the graphic energy of the animals in the Paleolithic Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux fits in rather well with the vibe or urban graffiti: a shared human impulse to decorate surfaces comes to the forefront.

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A Diego Velasquez portrait of a Spanish Infanta (princess), painted to advertise her desireability as a child bride, makes a very formal and awkward beer bottle label.

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An odalisque from Picasso's Women of Algiers fares rather better in replacing Benjamin Franklin on a $100 bill, since Picasso's paintings seem to have themselves become a form of currency.

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Three leering heads from Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch rhyme rather nicely with the expressions of politicians in conference with Vladimir Putin.

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Jacques-Louis David's image of Napolean Crossing the Alps -- which has appeared in far too many cognac ads -- radiates triumph on a rooftop billboard. Goya's Third of May, 1808, which can be glimpsed on the billboard below undercuts David's painting by dramatizing the atrocities committed by Napolean's troops in Madrid.

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A sense of kinship is apparent as a man walking glances at Rodin's Walking Man.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel feels like a cautionary tale seen as a New York mural.

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A hand-held photo of Pieter Claesz' Vanitas Still Life suggests that the contemplation of mortality continues through time and technological change.

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Finally, a "wild-card." What happens when you take an Instagram post by suicidegirls, which artist Richard Prince recently re-contextualized as a work of art for sale, and re-contextualize it again as a work of art in a traditional museum, where people might take photos of it and re-Instagram it?

Is the result "art" or just an empty exercise in context? I'll let you decide...

A Note to Readers:

If you are inspired to try re-contextualizing works of art at photofunia.com, I hope you will email me some of your best efforts at seedblogs@gmail.com. I'll share some of the best ones on Facebook and Twitter.

Yari Ostovany at Stanford Art Spaces

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Chelleneshin #21, oil on canvas, 30 x 22 inches

The paintings of Yari Ostovany, now on view at Stanford University's Paul G. Allen building, are stylistically related to works by second-generation American Abstract Expressionists -- for example Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski -- but as curator DeWitt Cheng notes, they also are inspired by and refer to the artist's Iranian cultural background. For example, the title of Ostovany's painting Chelleneshin refers to a period of solitude:
Chelleneshin is a compound word in Persian consisting of the words Chelleh; which describes a period of forty days; and Neshin, which literally means sitting. It refers to a seeker going into solitude for a period of forty days and forty nights to pray and meditate. In several mystical traditions, The Cycle of Forty is a common duration needed for spiritual metamorphosis and transitions to another, transcendent dimension.
Ostovany's interest in and ability to reference culture strikes DeWitt Cheng, who organized the exhibition, as admirable: "I find his seriousness about spirituality and his cultural heritage interesting and inspiring. I wish that more artists today took it upon themselves to attain a modicum of cultural literacy both inside and outside of their disciplines/professions. And Yari makes beautiful, gutsy paintings too."

I recently interviewed Yari Ostovany and asked him both about his background and his art.

John Seed Interviews Yari Ostovany

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Yari Ostovany

What can you tell me about growing up in Iran? Were you always artistic?

My father's love of music (both western classical and Persian classical music) meant that music was always filing the air in our house when I was growing up. My first love was poetry, modern Persian poetry to be precise. When I was 14 a friend of mine who had started taking painting classes encouraged me to do so as well saying that she thought it wold suit my temperament perfectly. My first art class was a Tehran University extension class while I was still in high school (my sophomore year). I was hooked. Gallery hoping in Tehran became my favorite pastime and the newly built Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art my hangout.

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The Third Script, #30, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

Tell me about your studies in Nevada and San Francisco. 

I did my undergraduate work in Northern Nevada (University of Nevada in Reno) and my graduate work at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was fortunate enough to cross paths with some wonderful teachers in both places. I think living in Northern Nevada instill a sense of space, a sense of vastness in ones work.

How did your art develop while you lived in Cologne? I maintained a studio at first in Merten (halfway between Cologne and Bonn) and then in Cologne proper. I work on many pieces at the same time and so change manifests itself slowly in my work, so I can't quite put my finger on exactly how living there affected my work.

Have you had any important mentors? I have been fortunate to have two outstanding mentors, both from the San Francisco Art Institute; the late Carlos Villa and Jeremy Morgan whom I continue to learn from still.

Tell me about some of the poetic sources that inspire your current work. 

For me it is not about any specific poetic sources. I am interested in the non-linear and in general it is the lyrical and poetic quality in things that draws me towards them. I suspend myself in an atmosphere, a feeling and let it wash over me. True, occasionally a book or the oeuvre of an author or an artist kindles a creative spark (flow) as in the work of John Berger whose sensibility I connect with in a very direct way but for the most part it is the general atmosphere of a piece for example Attar's Conference of the Birds or Beethoven's Grosse Fuge.

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Conference of the Birds #55, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches

Can you describe some of your working methods? 

I approach my work in the studio with as much of a Zen beginner's mind as possible, quieting the mind, connecting to a greater energy and using the energy of the gravity of the earth to push and move paint. There is a lot of pushing and pulling of paint using traditional as well as non traditional tools. I start with gestural marks (sometimes calligraphic-based), solid forms and shapes which then begin to disintegrate as the layers explode and implode, are added, rubbed out, re-applied, scoured into and scraped away and built back up, expanding and developing in a rhizome like, lateral structure until the distinction between the foreground and the background and the spatial hierarchy begin to dissolve - somewhat akin to layers of memory - and give way to another, ephemeral sense of form and visual phenomena.

Are there any living artists that you admire? Too numerous to mention but to name a few Gerhard Richter, Pat Steir, Tony Magar, Anselm Keifer, ...

What are your interests outside of art? Music (mostly classical, jazz and world music) philosophy, mysticism, literature and theater.

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Yari Ostovany: photo by DeWitt Cheng

Exhibition Information:

Two concurrent solo exhibitions, Numinous, by Yari Ostovany and We Will Never Not Have Been by Jamie Bollenbach, will both be on view through July 10th in The Center for Integrated Systems of the Paul G. Allen Building, Stanford University. The exhibitions continue in the adjacent David W. Packard Electrical Engineering Building.

For a map and directions, visit the Stanford Art Spaces Facebook Page

About Stanford Art Spaces

Stanford Art Spaces is an exhibition program serving the Paul G. Allen Building, housing the Center for Integrated Systems, the program's longtime sponsor, and the David W. Packard Electrical Engineering Building, with smaller venues located throughout campus. All are open during normal weekday business hours.

For further information, or to arrange a tour, please contact Curator DeWitt Cheng at 650-725-3622 or dewittc@stanford.edu.

Can't Sell Your Art? Try Jacking Up Your Prices...

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Here is a true story for you:

 A few years ago a young artist from Europe walked into an upscale Los Angeles gallery. He carried with him a portfolio of his recent work, including a number of smaller paintings that he had put tremendous effort into. When he showed the gallery director his work it seemed to go well: there were murmurs of approval and meaningful glances.

Then, the gallery director asked a much-anticipated question: "How much do you want for these?" The artist responded without hesitation. "I need to get about $1,000 each for them, so I expect you could sell them for about twice that amount."

The conversation came to an immediate halt. "Hmmm..." said the gallery director; "Come back in a a few years when you are getting some higher prices for your work."

Yes: that happened.

Here is what this anecdote says to me. The problem wasn't the art, as the gallery director clearly liked it, but rather that the artist didn't price his art high enough. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? Yet the gallery director made the right call, as he knew his clientele well and understood that low prices would put them off.

Rich people need to feel rich when the collect and they need more breathtaking "price points" to feel their affluence when they choose art. Add to that, art dealers have to pay the rent, and they like high priced art too. One of the reasons that more and more art dealers are interested in re-selling blue chip works is that a single transaction might bring them ten times the profit of selling work by an emerging and lesser-known artist.

Art is a luxury, not a necessity, and when it hangs on your wall part of what it is meant to broadcast is that you can afford fine, expensive things. The comedian Steven Martin apparently understood this and parodied it very nicely when he put price stickers on all the art that hung on the walls of his first apartment. If you are a serious collector, you don't want to be seen as what one former curator for a local billionaire once characterized in an interview as "Another fucking Jaguar driving dentist from Encino."

Welcome to the wacky world of art pricing where the word "bargain" can curse a sale and an artist's reputation. Whether you are a collector or a collector/speculator you are going to respond to the enticing idea that an artist's prices are moving up, not down. You don't want to stand in your living room explaining that "I love my Rolf Smeldley painting: I got it just as his reputation and prices were tanking." Upward marching prices are erotic while declining ones are just sad.

If Picasso paintings from the 1950s are now going for $179 million a pop, that makes you want one even more, right? When it comes to luxury items conspicuous consumption rules and bargains are for mall shoppers. As a collector, you want to generate envy among your peers, and buying relatively inexpensive works is unlikely to do that as only connoisseurs will appreciate your taste. Money, on the other hand, is a universal language that everyone understands. What many don't understand is that art and money have some strange chemistry together.

Think about this: if you don't have taste, but you do have money, art can hide your deficiencies. Expensive art flatters those who have the "wisdom" to shell out for it. You are always going to look "smart" when you what you have bought keeps going up in value.

We all learned the laws of supply and demand in Econ 101--the law of demand states that the quantity of a good demanded falls as the price rises--but the art world defies this maxim. Andy Warhol, Thomas Kinkade and other sharp artist/businessmen understood this and they upped production knowing that the more walls their work was seen on, the more demand would rise. They also kept moving up their prices as they moved up their production, and both died wealthy men. If you can make yourself into a brand in a capitalist society, you can sell lots of art and move your prices up at the same time.

In the gallery world, the emblem of "success" is the posted price list, stickered with red dots. Who knows how many of these prices and dots are real--dealers have been known to fudge the results a bit to heat up the market--but doesn't this price list for the works of Ross Blackener, posted at the Mary Boone gallery two years ago, stir up feelings of envy and competitiveness? If people are lining up to pay six-figure prices for Ross Bleckner's work it must be good, right? Assumptions like that hold up the foundations all art transactions, as art has no real practical value. if your family was starving you would trade your Rembrandt for a ham sandwich to feed them... at least I hope you would.

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Ross Bleckner's price list: red dots indicate sales.

Before the housing market crashed and burned in 2008 a friend leaned across the table at lunch and bragged to me about a recent real estate investment. "My father told me," he explained,"to buy California real estate because it never goes down." A few months later his father was proved very wrong--at least momentarily--and many people I know think that art is the next bubble, ready to burst when the world's billionaires lose confidence in art as suddenly as the Dutch once lost interest in tulip bulbs.

Until that happens, I say move your prices up. It's a shell game, I know, but it apparently works. If you find this advice cynical, keep in mind that if you are a modest person who doesn't brag about what you do and who is embarrassed by the idea of over-charging for what you do, you may actually deserve a raise. If the art world hasn't seemed to "value" you are your work enough in the past few years, you may need to tease it a bit.