What makes art iconic?

Philippe Le Miere 'After Vincent Dali van Salvador Gogh - The Persistence of the Starry Night Memory'

What does it mean for something to be iconic? Deriving from the Greek word for image, “eikon”, to call something iconic is to anoint it recognisable, emblematic, quintessential. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is iconic, so is a peace sign, Chanel handbag and Madonna and Child. By becoming an icon, images depart nature to enter the world of symbols. They are held in the collective imagination, standing in for an idea, artist, feeling and time period, sometimes all at once.

Shaike Snir 'Demeter'

Kate Beynon 'Peace (from Transcultural Charms Collection)'

An Artist’s Icons 

For an artist, part of becoming well-known is assembling an iconic visual language. Either articulated by a series or peppered throughout their oeuvre, an artist’s icons can appear as subjects, themes or compositional mechanics (think Mark Rothko’s ombre canvases). 

In Australia’s art history, few symbols are more iconic than Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly, Charles Blackman’s Alice in Wonderland and John Olsen’s gawky frogs. To spy one at a state museum feels like star-spotting. More than just visually catchy, these icons struck a chord with audiences – taking familiar subjects and expanding their meaning. Nolan’s Ned Kelly, for example, is as much a symbol of the bushranger myth, as it is of modernism Down Under.

Sidney Nolan 'Landscape'

Charles Blackman 'Alice Jug'

John Olsen ‘Frogs & Tadpoles’

Subverting Icons 

Here’s the fun part. Once something becomes iconic, it’s up for grabs. In the tradition of postmodernism, contemporary artists have appropriated, remixed and recontextualised icons of art history and popular culture, begging the question – why is this iconic? 

In his work, contemporary artist Philippe Le Miere explores how iconic works of art live on past their creation, finding new meaning in new contexts. In ‘Charles kelly sidney school girl lost ned blackman nolan' three icons of Australian art merge: Blackman’s Schoolgirl, Nolan’s Kelly and Frederick McCubbin’s lost girl in the bush. Our culture’s preoccupation with the lone figure, the bush ranging outsider is made stark. By placing icons, self-evident by design, in new contexts we witness them anew. What’s unspoken, demands inspection. 

Philippe Le Miere 'charles kelly sidney school girl lost ned blackman nolan'

Lin Onus 'Gumbirri Garganingi'

Michael Leunig 'alive and well'

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