Aly Aitken | Artist Unknown

8 – 24 June 2017


The Passion of Appropriation


Appropriation art has been with us forever it seems, or at the very least since Marcel Duchamp started concocting his Readymades in the early 1900s. It returned with gusto in the late 1970s with the advent of postmodernism. It simmered amongst American conceptualists before it found its way down under, arguably with Imants Tillers when he created Untitled (1978) when he scanned reproductions of Hans Heysen’s Summer (1909) and presented them unashamedly as his own work. Debate and disputes flared as many of his contemporaries followed suit with naysayers disputing the validity of such tactics. At the heart of the debate was the question of whether, with their lack of originality, such works were ‘real’ art.


Although she makes it clear that appropriation per se was not a priority, forty years on Aly Aitken has returned to the fray. Conceived as a singular work of 25 components, Artist Unknown is comprised of reproductions of Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 work The Arnolfini Portrait executed by international factory painters who specialise in creating copies of original artworks. Aitken’s only ‘real’ contribution to these works are cardboard frames, thus calling into question notions of value that are attributed to works of art. As she notes: “Cardboard is a throwaway material, the antithesis of widely admired, gold-framed museum pieces. The juxtaposition of materials asks the viewer to consider the value ascribed to oil-on-canvas as opposed to the jerrybuilt immateriality of disposable cardboard.”


Aitken is not an artist who seeks glorification. Indeed, the issue of anonymity, and her desire to remain anonymous, at least in theory, was intrinsic to the piece. Thus the title, Artist Unknown, ideally refers to herself as much as it does the unknown factory painters who execute the canvases.


Amongst the ironies at play with Artist Unknown is the fact that by insisting that the 25 canvases on show are a singular work she has created an installation that could in reality, due to the spatial restrictions of most domestic spaces, only be acquired by a museum. And, by essentially appropriating appropriation she has reignited a debate that is decades old. Here, apart from the framing, the artwork is performative – the solo act of tapping on a keyboard in order to commission the copies of The Arnolfini Portrait.


But Aitken’s coup de grâce is in fact the very act of framing. She may not have lifted a paintbrush, but there are clearly punishing hours in the fabrication of her elaborate, baroque and outlandish borders. She is in fact essentially dismissive of her choice of Van Eyck’s picture, suggesting that “any” Old Master painting would have suited her purposes. In this, I suspect, she is being somewhat disingenuous. For in commissioning her Van Eyck’s she has also specified certain details to be blown up. So she has in fact undertaken two forms of framing, firstly cropping chosen elements from the overall work before passionately rendering her frames.


The claim she makes is that: “The aim is to question why we continue to admire paintings created centuries ago; is it the mastery of medium and subject matter or is it really just Art as Commodity?” Again, I suspect it is not that simple. The resulting work, Artist Unknown, acts more as a homage to an acknowledged masterpiece, an avid, almost fevered study and the framing, with its intense cutting, folding and molding suggests a reverential and almost obsessive tribute to a much-loved work of art.


– Dr. Ashley Crawford

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