Is Philippe Le Miere a plagiarist? Before his new series this charge may come to mind – but it would be erroneous. Featuring recent auction blockbusters, Original Copy is a call to look twice. It refers to the strange happenings of the contemporary art world where contested portraits sell for the GDP of Mozambique, pixels gain and lose authenticity, masterpieces randomly surface and those enshrined in art history fame are cemented as brands.
Under the bright auction lights, what remains of the relationship between value, beauty and authenticity? In a culture of infinite reproducible data what anoints certain images masterpieces and others not? The artist is not here to answer you. Rather, these works - famous paintings reimagined through Le Miere’s own unique style - are calls to embrace creativity. In a stupefying visual landscape, he encourages us to reclaim “the valuable original through originality”.
A forgotten De Vinci, superstar restorer, dubious authenticity, billionaires and enough money to buy an island – the story of 'Salvator Mundi' is the stuff of a Hollywood thriller.
In his rendition Le Miere conjures the bizarre tale. While ‘Salvator Mundi’ translates to Saviour of the World, one must ask: what world is saved? And who will claim this brave new world?
One tenet of Original Copy is the slippery concept of authenticity. It rears its head both explicitly and implicitly, particularly in the work ‘after andy warhol marilyn monroe’ – a response to the recent controversial auction of Andy Warhol’s digital-art-turned-NFTs. According to one expert, by upscaling the original file every pixel “touched by the hand of Warhol” is warped, destroying any claim to authenticity. According to the auction house however, upscaling is merely a form of restoration.
Warhol’s work deals in appearances. He was both bewitched and disconcerted by celebrity, reproducing mass mediated images of the famous in an almost neurotic compulsion to find meaning. Indeed, that we clamour for authenticity now may speak to its absence in our lives. There is something odd about attributing authenticity to a JPEG, claiming it can be touched by human flesh, unique, restored or conserved. In the age of digital reproduction, where’s the aura – in the art, screen or distending auction results?
These Cryptopunks are the fruit of an algorithm written by technologists Larva Labs. Rather than about beauty or life, they ask, with the thrill of a Silicon Valley start-up or a Pokemon card collector, what is someone willing to pay to own the intangible; what’s the value of ownership in and of itself?
In his version Le Miere translates pixel to paintbrush, refracting against the dizzying ends of postmodernism. As art moves further from the physical to the conceptual and now digital, what’s gained and lost? What’s art without beauty and value without meaning?
History Right Now
Responding to existing paintings is a longstanding artistic tradition. It’s an act of translation and recontextualization, of bringing these images into a new world – and Le Miere does just this to George Seurat’s famous 1884 painting ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’. In this new world, its subject - parkland - has different connotations informed by the pandemic. Face to face with Le Miere’s refracted rendition, one can’t help but recall gathering on grassy knolls, masked faces turned towards an open sky.
By reimagining existing works, Original Copy encourages us to recognise our unique way of looking. The extreme aesthetic control with which Seurat painted is disturbed by Le Miere. An appetite for unruliness percolates beneath its surface. The effect is gestalt-like, an impression of an impression that demands the viewer fill in the blanks. Do you see a Modernist masterpiece, an image of lockdown or something else? Perhaps the tension struck by suspending diametrically opposed forces – lockdown and chaos, originality and derivation, the past and future.
Discovery in Captivity
Original Copy was born during the pandemic. Stuck inside, Le Miere trawled ArtNews.com, watching its bandwidth fill with tumefying sales results. Yet another small fortune won at auction. He would visit the websites of auction houses to cross-reference the results, then stop by social media to see what the town square was murmuring about. “Of course, this was not exactly hiking 'en plein air' into the landscape” concedes Le Miere, but under stay-at-home orders it was pretty close.
When a work caught his eye, he remade it in own vision, uncovering an unexpected kind of creativity. This creativity can be witnessed in ‘after Jean-Michel Basquiat Versus Medici Pablo Picasso Femme assise en costume vert’ – an amalgamation of two paintings, named in the work’s title, both of which recently made huge gains at auction.
Le Miere learned of the sales online where they were reported with the same cool detachment as a tennis commentator. Nothing was said about their aesthetic content. Rather, the Basquiat was constellated in data: bidding, starting at $15.5 million USD, climbed to $26 million in ten minutes; it was originally bought in 1987 for $23,100 USD and so forth. The Picasso was discussed in similar terms bar one deviation; the reporter noted that the sense of communal relief and optimism that usually follows a sale like this was absent. The auction occurred online.
By fusing these works, Le Miere suggests they belong in a similar aesthetic tradition. Both Picasso and Basquiat have been elevated to masters and consequently, their reportage has turned from creative to financial. In his interpretation however, their creativity is once again emphasised. The audience that was eerily absent from the auction floor is found in you – you decide what you see in Le Miere’s painted surface. Do you recognise Basquiat, Picasso, Le Miere or something else?
The stories behind Original Copy seem like fairy tales – they have that same sheen of too good, strange or neat to be true. Luckily art isn’t in the business of pedanticness. Indeed, it itself is a kind of fairy tale. An idea passed from artist to academic, curator, collector and audience. In this process, details are enriched or discarded. Every viewer puts their own spin on it, finding a different peak or valley in the undulating tale. The stories we tell one another may be copies but under new eyes, inspirations and contexts, they prove completely original.
View full Philippe Le Miere collection here.