Appropriation is the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects. It is a strategy that has been used by artists for millennia, but took on new significance in mid-20th-century America and Britain with the rise of consumerism and the proliferation of popular images through mass media outlets from magazines to television.
Pop artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, and Roy Lichtenstein reproduced, juxtaposed, or repeated mundane, everyday images from popular culture—both absorbing and acting as a mirror for the ideas, interactions, needs, desires, and cultural elements of the times. As Warhol stated, “Pop artists did images that anyone walking down the street would recognize in a split second—comics, picnic tables, men’s pants, celebrities, refrigerators, Coke bottles.” Today, appropriating, remixing, and sampling images and media is common practice for visual, media, andperformance artists, yet such strategies continue to challenge traditional notions of originality and test the boundaries of what it means to be an artist.
1963. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 67 5/8 x 66 3/4" (171.6 x 169.5 cm)
Roy Lichtenstein appropriated comic book imagery in many of his early paintings. The source for this work is “Run for Love!,” the melodramatic lead story in DC Comics’ Secret Love #83, from 1962. In the original illustration (shown below), the drowning girl’s boyfriend appears in the background, clinging to a capsized boat. Lichtenstein cropped the image dramatically, showing the girl alone, encircled by a threatening wave. He shortened the caption from “I don’t care if I have a cramp!” to the ambiguous “I don’t care!” and changed the boyfriend’s name she calls out from Mal to Brad.
Working by hand, Lichtenstein painstakingly imitated the mechanized process of commercial printing. First he transferred a sketch onto a canvas with the help of a projector. He then drew in black outlines and filled them with primary colors or with circles, simulating the Ben-day dots used in the mechanical reproduction of images. Explaining the appeal of comic books, Lichtenstein said, “I was very excited about, and interested in, the highly emotional content yet detached, impersonal handling of love, hate, war, etc. in these cartoon images.”
In the 1980s, Imants Tillers appropriated Michael Nelson Jagamara's painting Five Dreamings 'without permission' in his work The Nine Shots. This act provoked intense discussion about Tillers' motivation as post-modernism and Australian indigenous art seemed to represent diametrically opposed cultural ideologies.
In 1999 Jagamara responded to Tillers by appropriating back his own motifs from Nine Shots in a series of paintings exhibited in the Third Asia Pacific Triennial and in 2001 Jagamara and Tillers agreed to make collaborative works in which each artist contributes layers to the painting, with Jagamara getting both the first and last say.
Imants Tillers & Michael Nelson Jagamara, Fatherland, 2008, acrylic and gouache on 90 canvas boards, 228 x 356 cm overall.
Copyright and Appropriation Art: Recent Legal Controversies - William Landes and Anthony Hirschel.
Gordon Bennett does not describe himself as an ‘appropriation artist’. But this approach is central to the way many people describe and analyse his work.‘Appropriation art’ is an established postmodernist strategy defined as:
The direct duplication, copying or incorporation of an image (painting, photography, etc) by another artist who represents it in a different context, thus completely altering its meaning and questioning notions of originality and authenticity.1
Often describing his own practice of borrowing images as ‘quoting’, Bennett re-contextualises existing images to challenge the viewer to question and see alternative perspectives. He draws on and samples from many artists and traditions to create a new language and a new way of reading these images. Perhaps a re-writing of history?
Bennett is interested in the way language and images construct identity and history, and the way this language controls and creates meaning. Appropriation for Bennett is a tool that enables him to open up and re-define stereotypes and bias. Fundamentally, he deconstructs history to question the ‘truth’ of the past.
born Australia 1955
Possession Island 1991
oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas
(a–b) 162.0 x 260.0 cm (overall)
Museum of Sydney on the site of first Government House, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
Purchased with funds from the Foundation for the Historic Houses Trust, Museum of Sydney Appeal, 2007
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Xavier Lavictoire
Samuel Calvert, engraver
John Gilfillan (after)
Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown AD 1770
wood engraving from the Illustrated Melbourne Post, December 25, 1865
State Library of Victoria, Melbourne
Blue poles 1952
also known as Number 11, 1952
oil, enamel, aluminium paint, glass on canvas
212.1 x 488.9 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
© Jackson Pollock, 1952/ARS. Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia
I began to use illustrations out of old social studies and history textbooks by way of critical intervention in the seamless flow of images that I plainly saw was designed to reinforce the popular myths and ‘common sense’ perspective of an Australian colonial identity and ‘pop’ history. I had in mind to create fields of disturbance which would necessitate re-reading the image, and the mythology. Gordon Bennett 2
At art college Bennett discovered how Australian identity was built on a subjective ‘writing’ of history. He found this liberating. As one of the dispossessed within this biased history, he claims that his only tool to combat this bias is the art of mimicry. He uses familiar and recognisable images that are part of an Australian consciousness to explore and question the meaning of these images. Ian McLean makes parallels between the ‘mimicry’ in Bennett’s work and the well-known myth of Echo.3
Hera, wife of Zeus, condemned Echo with the punishment of no voice. She could only echo or mimic the voices of others. This loss of identity caused her disappearance. Unable to express herself, she was defeated by the voices of others. This story can help explain Bennett's use of existing images, including other artworks. Due to his Eurocentric education and upbringing, Bennett feels he has no ‘voice’, he therefore ‘quotes’ and ‘samples’. But unlike Echo Bennett is empowered by echoing the voice of the past. This enables a new discourse about history to emerge.
One of the most heroic and well-known images of Australia’s past is Captain Cook landing in Botany Bay in 1770. This event was re-enacted in many pageants and dramatisations during Australia’s Bicentenary in 1988, as a way of celebrating 200 years of Australian history. It is interesting to note that this same year was declared a period of mourning by Aboriginal people. The impact of colonisation on Aboriginal people and culture from this point was devastating.
It is no accident that Bennett uses this event to question the way history is written and interpreted. Samuel Calvert’s engraving, Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown AD 1770, became the starting point for Bennett’s exploration. He quotes directly from this image, which is in fact a copy of a copy, as Samuel Calvert copied this image of Captain Cook landing in Botany Bay from a previous image by Gilfillan, which is now lost. It is appropriation of an image that has already been copied with an image that has become central in the pysche of an Australian history. It demonstrates Bennett’s understanding of the power of this image.
In Possession Island, 1991, Bennett meticulously photocopies and enlarges Calvert’s image so that it can be projected, cropped and copied onto the canvas. Calvert’s image becomes one of the layers of the painting. It is reproduced in flat, bold and black line work. Bennett lodges this image in layers of dots and slashes of red and yellow paint that refer to other artists and images. These act as ‘disturbances’. They physically prevent the viewer from seeing the image clearly, but psychologically encourage the viewer to delve into the image more deeply and question:
Where did these images come from that they’re relating back to in their minds in order to stage this re- enactment? It’s like images become part of the Australian unconscious. They’re buried, and this is a way of bringing them back into memory, but remembered in a different way from the way that I was taught, looking at them from a different angle and looking at how they work, where they came from initially, and how these images still support contemporary stereotypes, etc. Gordon Bennett 4
The only clearly defined part of Possession Island is the black skinned male figure in the centre. Bennett establishes him as the focal point. He is not disturbed by slashes of paint, but painted carefully and outlined by the precise grid behind him. Once again the letters A B C D feature as a potent symbol and complete the grid. The figure is dressed in tattered western clothing. Amidst the chaos and confusion of dots and slashes of colour he remains imprisoned by the grid, reduced to servitude. Reflecting the colours of the Aboriginal flag, splashes and drips of red, yellow and black paint across the surface of the painting quote the distinctive style of Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), which Bennett began to sample in 1990. Jackson Pollock is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His status as an artist has been elevated to hero with his contribution to Action Painting. Pollock was influenced by Navaho sand paintings, which were created on the ground. Inspired, Pollock removed the canvas from the easel and worked with it flat on the floor, using movement and gesture to flick and drip paint onto the canvas.
Quite apart from Pollock’s probable genuine interest in Navaho ground painting, we have the myth of the sophisticated and civilised ‘white’ artist who discovers something of value in the art of ‘primitive’ indigenes and brings it back to enrich the lives and cultivated sensibilities of ‘real’ artists and ‘ART’. Gordon Bennett 5
Bennett intentionally fuses this iconic style of ‘Western’ painting with the famous Aboriginal white dot painting of the Western Desert, reproducing the mix in Possession Island. Thousands of dots fill the canvas. The effect is that they dissolve into a mass of colour, dots and slashes of paint . The viewer is made to step back and allow the eyes to form the images. This is similar to the way aPointillist painting can only be seen effectively from a distance to bring the image into focus. Looking at the image from different viewpoints helps us to discover different perspectives.
There’s a sense of layering and historical layering as being a text; parts of it can be re- interpreted and the citation is working in a similar way to writing where you cite another author’s point of view. So if I use Pollock drips or a pastiche of Pollock, I’m referring to him and the work then takes on board some of the meaning of how his work was interpreted and his historical position. Gordon Bennett 6