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Robert Heinecken, Double Take
Robert Heinecken, "Two Women - T", 1987Courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles, © The Robert Heinecken Trust

A short history of ‘stealing’ in contemporary art

Nine artists – including Collier Schorr, Roe Ethridge, and Richard Prince – engage and grapple with the complexities of appropriation, representation, and authorship in a new exhibition

Is appropriation stealing, borrowing, or manipulating creative license? Artists have been taking ideas and inspiration from other artists, or even cultures, for centuries. If you’re working with commercial imagery, does that belong to the corporation, the brand, the artist, even the model? The line is thin, continually up for debate, and always evolving.

Richard Prince, otherwise known as the “Prince of Appropriation”, has been courting controversy with his work since the 1970s. His particular method of ‘appropriation’ art, which has landed him lawsuits, is considered in relation to his own artistic peers (the infamous ‘Pictures Generation’ which included Barbara Kruger among others) and a younger generation (Roe Ethridge, Collier Schorr etc) in the new Double Take exhibition at Skarskedt gallery in London. At Skarskedt, the curatorial line is that appropriation is a form of ‘selective borrowing’, and the imagery is used as a starting point to discuss wider themes. Prince has said, "what I find is that the taking, the stealing, the appropriation of images has to do with prior availability, and it sets up a degree where things can be shared... It’s like 50 per cent off". Hank Willis Thomas, whose work is also featured in the show, has said that he wouldn’t use work if he knew the name of the original photographer.

“In today’s digital era in which every moment is captured on social media, Instagrammed and liked, our lived experiences are both consumed by and portrayed through visual media,” said Director Bona Montagu of the rationale behind the show. “Double Take explores the continued power of pictures in shaping ideas of identity, gender, race, desire, and sexuality”. The Pictures Generation were specifically inspired by the media-bombarded consumer culture of the late 1970s and early 80s, using cropping and superimposing as techniques to manipulate and re-contextualise source imagery; “their appropriation of recognisable imagery was a means to examine how images shaped their perceptions of the world and their place in it.” Montagu is also struck by how relevant these pre-digital techniques still are: “the same methods are used by the Internet generation artists to re-frame how imagery is received. What has perhaps changed is the volume of images and the speed with which they are recycled and consumed through the Internet.” It is the conceptual and formal properties of photography in particular which enables the artists to challenge the boundaries between the real and the fabricated. All nine artists engage and grapple with the complexities of representation and authorship – below we explore how.


Robert Heinecken’s gelatin silver prints of a series of 25 photograms titled Are You Rea (1964-68) are the starting point for the exhibition. Photograms are images created by exposing light directly onto light sensitive paper. In Are You Rea, both sides of the magazine have been superimposed. A self-referred “visual guerrilla”, Heinecken collected 2000 images from magazine such as Life, Time, and Women’s Day over a period of four in which he then narrowed down to make this specific body of work. The desire to highlight subliminal messages propagated through mass visual imagery and popular culture was seminal.


Barbara Kruger’s experience working in magazine design and as a picture editor granted her the ability to subvert mass media in a particularly pithy and provocative manner. The merger of image, language and text (in the trademark bold Futura type) is crucial to the three large-scale black and white photographs exhibited at Skarskedt. The red picture frames were also part of a strategy to commodify the images as ‘art works’ proper. Kruger’s appropriation of mass media is centred on a critique of gender stereotypes, consumerism, autonomy and desire. In a 2010 essay titled “Work and Money”, Kruger stated, “Its commentary is both implicit and explicit, engaging questions of definition, power, expectation, and sexual difference … Money talks … it makes art … Images can make us rich or poor. I’m interested in work which addresses that power and engages both our criticality and our dreams of affirmation.”


Akin to Kruger’s, literal and metaphorical, framing of the marketplace, Louise Lawler’s series of photographs of important artworks within neutral interior settings has in a stake in similar issues involving capital and the economy. In Nude (2002-3), Lawler sets up an installation of Gerhard Richter’s Ema (Nude on a Staircase) (1966), which was in turn inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase No.1 (1911). In a twist of hierarchies – the Richter canvas is photographed on its side and in the distance of the space. The visual dominance is given to the bland white walls and grey carpet. The image is one of neutrality – of representing the space – rather than promoting the painting. The value systems of cultural and financial investment are subverted.


Richard Prince, the pin-up of appropriation art, features dominantly in this exhibition. A quote from the artist opens the catalogue, “The great thing about appropriation is that even though the transformation reads as fiction, everybody knows that the source of the appropriation was at some point non-fiction, (magazine, movie, etc.), and it’s these sources, or elements of non-fiction, that gives the picture, no matter how questionable, its believable edge”. Cowboys, cigarettes and girlfriends prevail – cropped and enlarged from advertisements and features in fashion and lifestyle magazines. Prince’s use of mass-circulated imagery is grounded in exploring the stylisation of life as fiction, in order to manipulate the general public’s desires and aspirations. Like Lawler, through calling into question the nature of authorship and artist status, there is a deliberate levelling of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.


In contrast to the slick and polished advertising images used by Prince, Shearer’s archive is collected from the Internet. Shearer uses computers to house multiple libraries of hundreds and hundreds of photographic images that are catalogued according to subject matter. At Skarskedt, they have hung Shearer’s large-scale work Guys (2005) that is centred on heavy metal culture. The images – often grainy, sourced from amateur websites – are organised in rough grids, akin to a formal index but also grounded in the open-ended ‘cut and paste’ aesthetic of fanzines and collage.


Collier Schorr’s photograph Dorothea (2012) is taken from her series 8 Women, which spans her practice from the mid-nineties onwards, and seeks to introduce the female gaze into the dialogue about gender and representation. Here, rather than using another artist’s source, she appropriates her own fashion magazine photography. In Dorothea, Schorr photographs a portrait she took and had published in a printed book, deliberately framing the image to show the centrefold, alongside the model’s name and agency.


Similar to Schorr, Roe Ethridge also undertakes photographic work for fashion labels and magazines, but has been taking these glossy commercial images and adapting and paraphrasing them for his artistic practice since 1999.  In conversation with Anne Pontégnie, Ethridge stated that he sees his commercial work as “part of a larger inventory. I can return to and repurpose something being produced outside my own attention”. Also, similar to Shearer, he borrows images that are already in circulation via the Internet. This re-sequencing and recombination of images is designed to question the dichotomy between what is staged and what is spontaneous. In his new series Pic n’ clip (2016-17), Ethridge has taken images from computer desktop archives built over the last 12 years. The images - which range from sources like news websites, Florida state football blogs, or digital glitches - are flattered and printed in transparent layers and embellished.


Anne Collier’s investigation of popular culture and mass-circulated imagery is grounded in questioning photography’s role in fixing ideas of gender and desire. Collier was deeply inspired by the sexual politics latent in the work of Cindy Sherman and Louise Lawler. Working with a large-format plate camera in a studio gives the work a sense of aesthetic clarity and dimensional flatness. Images like Woman with a Camera (Profile) (2016) and Endpapers #1 (Photographing the nude) (2016) cement Collier’s interest in depictions of women in professional camera magazines from the late 1970s and early 1980s. In an interview with Alex Farquharson she explained, “I became interest in self-reflexive images of women posed as if taking photographs. The resulting images were typically highly sexualised and often unapologetically sexist, and it was clear that the women were merely acting. As a female artist working with photography in the present tense, these older, seemingly anachronistic images still exert a powerful change”.


Hank Willis Thomas’ sees himself as a “visual culture archaeologist and DJ”. His work is known for his enduring exploration of black male identity through the eyes of corporate American imagery. He is exhibiting one work from two separate series: Branded (2006) and Unbranded (2015). In Why Wait Another Day to be Adorable? Tell Your Beautician “Relax Me.” (1968/2007), Willis Thomas takes an advertisement targeting African American women to use hair relaxer and digital removes the text, thus attempting to remove the cultural stereotypes and implicit racism. By reworking advertisements aimed specifically at a certain minority, he shines a light on the bias and hierarchal structures embedded in magazines and general media.

Double Take runs at Skarstedt until 27 May 2017