Allegory in appropriation art by Jure Kastelic
Jure Kastelic (b. 1992) is a Slovenian photographer, currently studying BA Photography in Brighton, UK. This essay was a part of first year’s theoretical study obligations.
Allegory is one of the most universally used devices in literature and, more importantly for this essay, in visual arts. Allegory is spread across all forms, genres and can appear in different modes. Historically allegories allowedfor institutions such asChristianity to translate pagan symbols and traditions into their religion. Similarly, Renaissance artists used their own allegorical code of depicting symbols that suggested conventional appearances and attributes of them. The whole allegory foundation of Western world leans on Plato’s theory of appearances with higher meaning. Likewise the definition of allegory, as suggested by Macey, is a form of narrative or a visual image whose literal or obvious meaning masks one or more other meanings.1 Owens argues with approval, and claims that the function of allegory was and still is to rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear. Allegory is, therefore, the mediator between past and present and translates what would in other way disappear. Critically, allegory was for the last two centuries perceived as an outmoded, exhausted device; a matter of historical but certainly with no critical interest, Owens cites Borges.2 The complexity of contemporary work produced with new technologies, ideas and approaches restored and refreshed interest in allegory for artists as well as critics.
Wells argues that, ‘Due to the development of information networks on a global scale, which allowed capital, ideas, information and images to flow freely around the world, weakening national boundaries and profoundly changing the ways in which we experience the world’,3 in the 1970s, a new trend of appropriating art emerged. It may be viewed not only as one of the strategies of work in postmodernism but also the very ‘language’ in which the postmodernist debate was conducted, says Evans.4 The first exhibition of New York appropriators was put together by Douglas Crimp. The ‘Pictures’ exhibition in 1977 was highly influential and trend setting for many artists. They showed works of Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Philip Smith. The approaches of these artists to the image had much in common with that of Prince and Stezaker, who were not included, and about whom I am going to write about more in depth later in the essay.
John Stezaker and Richard Prince, both born in 1949, were two of the artists in late 1970s that started to look at historical and critical conventions of modernism and questioned it with new approaches that consist of re-photographing, appropriating and re-using imagery. Throughout this essay the main focus of analysis will be on Richard Prince’s Untitled (Couple) (fig. 1) (1977) and John Stezaker’s Mask LXV (2007).
image by Richard Prince - Untitled (Couple)
Richard Prince’s photograph Unititled (Couple) consists of a man and a woman cut just above their waists, with the man on the left and the woman on the right. They both are looking in to the distance slightly on their right. The man has slightly curved eyebrows as if the sun distracts his view but the woman’s expression is neutral. He wears a dark color suit with a blue tie. His left hand is in the lower part of the image and he stands right in front of the woman. She wears a black dress and has a black cap with a red rose on her head and she holds man’s arm. Both of their faces look tanned and shinny, almost sweaty. They stand between two columns, one to the right of the man and one to the left of the woman. They seem to be involved in a larger story that is incomprehensible in a single image. The photograph is 45,5 centimeters high and 59 centimeters wide. The warm tone most likely comes from the Kodak Ektacolour print, which has a tendency to become yellowish-brown.
Prince uses photographs that he confiscates from everyday circulation. He then re-photographs and thus re-contextualizes. According to Owens, allegory occurs whenever one text is doubled and that the text should be read through another (for instance Old Testament should be read as a preconfiguration of the New). But in the case of appropriating art, due to its structure, allegory occurs in itself and is internalized. Or in other words, ‘the signifier is like a pointer, and the signified is what gets pointed to5’. The obvious ‘meaning’ (red rose = love) or the signified part of the sign is ignored. Our attention is focused on the signifiers within the image. There is a territory within the structure where the true latent allegory specific to appropriation art has to be discovered in analysis of the image’s nature itself. Newman6 specifies this as an internal doubling (re-photographing the reproduction from a magazine) and endless displacement of its origin (removal of captions and titles). By doing that, in this particular case, he has made the image anonymous. The fundamental function of a photographic camera to eternalize a memory and the function of representation are consequently denied. Newman argues that it becomes something like an ‘anonymous memory’ – or the memory of anyone.7 Or as Solomon-Godeau cited Linker8, he produces ‘a real without origin or reality’. By that they mean that the image does not contain any memories. The viewer is the one who has the memories to pertain to the image.
Prince’s work is predominantly based on still images, but Newman cites Philips’s remarks9 that while working at Time Life clipping pages, Prince ‘started seeing commercial advertisements in magazines as if they were frames from a movie.
He rather re-photographed the scenes in which he was interested in and did not restage them as Wall or Sherman were doing at that time. He re-photographed the already staged images, which have connotations to some unidentifiable cinema or television narrative. But as still photographs, they do not have the flow quality of a moving image. Therefore, it is perceived as a fragment, which has a notion of non-presence. This kind of non-presence can be registered in ‘the-out-of-frame’. Newman argues that this originates from the direction of the man and woman’s looks. They seem to be looking at something important for the larger story that they are involved in. But as a still image, one will never know. So the viewer has to use imagination or project fantasies to determine the content of out-of-frame. Framing and therefore excluding something is precisely what the definition of a still photograph is.
In this way we can say that this work is fragmented, incomplete and therefore allegorical. Owens says that ‘allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete- an affinity which finds its most comprehensible expression in the ruin, which Benjamin identified as the allegorical emblem par excellence.’10 In comparison to modernism, Newman says that ‘there is no way of completing the fragment by reference to a totality; on the other, the incomplete fragment, unlike self-sufficient modernist work, necessarily refers outside itself, discursively and temporally.’11
image by John Stezaker - Mask LXV
Likewise, John Stezaker’s work deals with the fragmentary, which will be discussed later. His image, Mask LXV, consists of two images. The basis represents a black and white photograph 25,5 centimeters high and 20 centimeters wide. It seemingly represents a portrait of a woman cut just above her chest. She wears a dark blouse with a white collar. An artificial light comes from above, which indicates that the shot was imaginably posed for a glamour shot (the lighting used for glamour shots called butterfly lighting enhanced the attributes of the sitter and was popular in early days of black and white films). The background is blurred but one gets a feeling that it is an interior. The image has a white frame that looks a bit used and has a sign ‘T.9.’ in the lower right corner. In dead center, right on the face is laid a smaller photograph of rail track directed from a tunnel. In the distance is a rocky landscape. This image is in a standard postcard format and is also in black and white.
As the title suggests, the postcard on the top of the photograph works as a sort of mask. But the function of the postcard, due to its content, is to escapade the surface and show what is behind or beneath it: it opens a space through which one looks. But on the other hand, Stezaker often cites Canetti’s remarks (as he did in the interview12) that the mask conceals more then it reveals. It covers the flow of facial expression with something fixed and when the viewer encounters the featureless face, a sense of potential horror is invoked, ‘the mask is meeting with death in the midst of life’. In other words, the postcard is blindfolding the sitter and reveals a ‘mask-like’ configuration but the viewer still seeks facial features. He is engaged to find a face and searches for any lines and formations that could be perceived in that way.
Stezaker built over the years an enormous archive of film stills, old images, postcards, etc. that he later recycled for the series Masks. He purposely used images of less known film stars (because they were cheaper than films stills of famous actors13) and less known touristic places to get rid of all the implications that suggest the content. Owens14 links the trend of archiving and reusing to allegory. The clearing of the image’s resonance, significance and thus meaning immediately causes an emergence of a desire for the image to be directly transparent. But as a fragment, likewise Prince’s work, the image just induces with a meaning, it is enigmatic. Therefore Mask LXV can be categorized as a surreal image. Firstly, it is important to note that Stezaker is renowned to have great knowledge about Surrealist photomontage. In the talk15 he even admits that the first Mask he made is surreal. Due to this fact, we should define his work with David Bate’s help. Secondly, we have to recognize what a surrealist image is. Bate16 proposes that, ‘the surreal is semiotically speaking, a signifying effect, the confusion or a contradiction in conventional signifier-signified relations in representations and where a meaning is partially hidden, where the message appears ‘enigmatic” regardless of how it has been produced.’ Further on he continues by distinguishing three groups of photographic signifying functions: Mimetic, Prophotographic and Enigmatic. For us, most seemingly fitting is Enigmatic:
Here the signifying plane of the photograph itself has been disrupted, not just a gap opened between signifier and signified, not an explicit intervention and signifying contradiction (oxymoron) introduced into the signifier itself. Exactly what is being communicated, ‘signified’, is not clear; it has become opaque, ‘enigmatic’. No longer purely mimetic, the photograph confuses the usual status and conventions of a photographic image with respect to reality. Introduces fantasy.17
In comparison, Richard Prince and John Stezaker share many resemblances as well as differences. Generally, they were born in a generation of appropriating artists whose art imply the exhaustion of modern imagery. They suggested that modern world circulation of images has more than enough to satisfy artist’s needs and they do not wish to make more, because they doubt they can make it more interesting.18 What made Stezaker and Prince distinct in Appropriation art is that they wanted to break free from text. ‘Whereas Prince left his images as they were, simply framing out the text, Stezaker most often made a programmatic use of the cut and collaged different images together.’19 But their purpose was the same - they tried to expose the real image and to reintroduce pure image. Stezaker says, that captions (text) ruin the ambiguity of an image by limiting all the possibilities that an image might insinuate. The reason why they confiscate imagery from everyday circulation Grendberg vividly describes:
‘For them, imagery is now overdetermined – that is, the world already has been glutted with pictures taken in the woods. Even if this weren’t the case, however no one ever comes upon the woods culture free. In fact, these artists believe we enter the woods as prisoners of out preconceived image of the woods, and what we bring back on film merely confirms our preconceptions.’20
In wider discussions, Prince and Stezaker are closely associated with photographic practice. Stezaker’s work is now even in an enormous photography exhibition in Saatchi Gallery in London (25 April to 22 July), which just mirrors the contemporary perception of photography that is more and more accustomed to a less photographical and more ‘curatorial’ approach. Strangely enough, only Prince can really be defined as a photographer in this duo. His photographical approach is unique in a conventional photographical sense, but on the other hand, Stezaker’s approach is ‘cameraless’ (maybe his modern futuristic successor would be Mishka Henner). Compared to other appropriators Stezaker argues that he is unique in his intention and approach. He regards himself more as a ‘collagist’ and he does not like the term ‘appropriation art’. He uses Blanche who argued that the imagery should not be related to the culture, but it should be an exile from reality. He questions why are artists dutiful to reflect the environment (which is the imperative of appropriation art).
Evans21 in his text acknowledges seven different groups in Appropriation art: Agitprop, The Situationist Legacy, Simulation, Feminist Critique, Postcolonialism, Postcommunism, and Postproduction. Stezaker and Prince can be found in the group titled Simulation. Evans says that this group is most regularly understood, cited and represented as a representative of appropriation art. The group is gathered together around texts of Jean Baudrillard, and the likes of Levine, Barthes, Crimp, Owens and Newman.
Prince’s and Stezaker’s work embody principal ideas of postmodern use of allegorical devices. Both can be discussed through the framework of allegory, defined in a ‘postmodernistic’ approach, which occurs in the images itself. Their work is not self-sufficient; it is in a way incomplete. Prince’s dead-pan approach to dissection of modern aesthetics of magazines can leave the viewer confused, maybe empty. His work should be seen in a series so that it has the potential to invoke question about everyday imagery used as readymades, and for this essay most importantly, for allegory. Only with repetition can a series of images attract one’s attention to the nature of images and not their pure content. Stezaker’s work is more engaged with certain time and space: his images originate just before his birth. Even without any texts or captions, his work resonates something nostalgic, something known, but when everything put together so strange and unique.
Prince’s and Stezaker’s work was essential in defining appropriation art and it’s critical space as well as attracting attention of the art world. Their old work still resonates today and is still very popular. It is shown and acknowledged in photographic group shows and awards (like Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for which Stezaker was nominated) that are less photographic (in ‘drawing with light’ sense) than ever. Their work evoked new thoughts about photography and stated debates about new ‘isms’ in regards to modernism and postmodernism. They also triggered the emergence of new critical theories about allegory and how does it occur in confiscated images. Their approaches and seemingly easy methods profoundly complicated how we percept allegory in postmodern art. Their impact on photography is deep; it allows using new technologies and images, that are more concerned about the actual image not the technical aspect of the photographic apparatus.
1. Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, Penguin
2. Owens, C. (1980) ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’ in Bryson, S. et. al. (eds.) (1992) Beyond Recognition, University of California Press
3. Wells, L. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction, 4th edition, Routledge pp.21
4. Evans, D. (ed.) (2009) ‘Introduction//Seven Types of Appropriation’ pp.14
5. Grundberg, A. in Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Routledge pp.167
6. Newman, M. (2007) Richard Prince: Untitled (couple) pp.67
7. Newman, M. (2007) Richard Prince: Untitled (couple) pp.12
8. Solomon-Godeau A. in Wells, L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Routledge pp.161
9. Newman, Michael (2007) Richard Prince: Untitled (couple) pp.60
10. Owens, C. (1980) ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’ in Bryson, S. et. al. (eds.) (1992) Beyond Recognition, University of California Press pp.54
11. Newman, M. (2007) Richard Prince: Untitled (couple) Afterall Books pp.60
12. Herrmann, D. (2010) ‘The Third Meeting’ in John Stezaker, Ridinghouse pp.43
13. Herrmann, D. (2010) ‘The Third Meeting’ in John Stezaker, Ridinghouse pp.42
14. Owens, C. (1980) ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’ in Bryson, S. et. al. (eds.) (1992) Beyond Recognition, University pp.54
15. Kemper Art Museum. (2012). Panel Discussion with John Stezaker. [Online Video]. 01 February. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMFcH3R2mLw
16. Bate, D. (2004) Photography and Surrealism, I.B. Tauris pp.22
17. Bate, D. (2004) Photography and Surrealism, I.B. Tauris pp.28-29
18. Kemper Art Museum. (2012). Panel Discussion with John Stezaker. [Online Video]. 01 February. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMFcH3R2mLw
19. Newman, M. (2007) Richard Prince: Untitled (couple) Afterall Books pp.12
20. Grendberg, A. in Wells L. (ed.) (2003) The Photography Reader, Routledge pp.172
21. Evans, D. (ed.) (2009) ‘Introduction//Seven Types of Appropriation’ pp.18