If you are reading this article it means that you like ironic art and that you enjoyed reading the first part we dedicated to this particular aspect of art.
As we have seen, starting from Pop Art, fun and satire begin to play a greater role in the world of contemporary art. More and more cutting edge, irony does not spare anyone or anything and becomes an effective tool able to convey the author’s message in a more incisive way.
Banksy (Bristol 1974), an artist and writer who is one of the greatest exponents of Street Art, knows this very well. The secret identity is a moral and aesthetic choice that emphasizes its non-belonging to the system and a further way of fighting it: the use of stencils, previously prepared in the studio, allows it a rapid realization that is well suited to its sudden incursions in the nightlife of public spaces without ever having been discovered, a trick that is part of his “joke”.
Direct communication and the use of simple and incisive language reach and interact with a very large number of people belonging to different classes and ages.
His is an art of protest towards current politics, culture, ethical and social issues, which is expressed through a sharp satire: often at the limit of modesty, his works deal with “uncomfortable” and often unspoken subjects, as in the case of “Snorting Copper”, graffiti appeared on a London wall in 2006 that depicts a policeman making a cocaine line.
On other occasions, Banksy is the spokesperson for the counterculture and leads a revolt against the large multinational companies that manage and govern most of the planet with the sole purpose of enriching themselves to the detriment of the weakest.
The Bristol artist reworked advertising images and icons of our time as an act of social denunciation, often drawing from the English punk aesthetic of the ’70s, as in the case of works that reproduce the portraits of Queen Elizabeth or Winston Churchill in an ironic and desecrating way.
His political commitment, always very strong, led him to take a position on the Palestinian question, and in 2005 he made some stencils on the dividing wall in the West Bank. Its presence in such an oppressed and delicate area culminated with the opening in 2017 of the Walled Off Hotel in Palestine, a hotel that offers a view right towards the Wall.
His interventions did not spare even the works of the great masters of the past and the denunciation against consumerism makes its appearance in “Japanese Bridge” (1899), one of the most famous works of Claude Monet: the charm of the garden of Giverny is troubled by abandoned shopping carts and reflective signs (“Show Me the Monet”, 2005).
Not only famous persons and artworks have found place in his paintings, but also animals – often highly symbolic – like monkeys and rats: the latter are among his favorite objects, as they are animals living in shadow, rejected by society and therefore perfect metaphor that represents the “excluded”.
Banksy was able to collect and re-elaborate the witness left by Keith Haring, to whom he makes clear and direct references, especially in “Choose your Weapon” (2005), a work that alludes to the “Barking Dogs” of an American artist.
We must not forget the great hit at the Sotheby’s London auction in October 2018, when “Girl with Balloon” (2006) destroyed itself under the incredulous eyes of those present, becoming the first art action ever made during an art auction. If you think that those who bought it at £ 1,042,000 (including interest) found themselves with nothing in their hands you are wrong, because I am sure that when it comes back to market, the work will have acquired a new charm and extraordinary value.
The last intervention by Banksy that made much talk was his appearance in Venice during the opening of the Biennale in the guise of a street vendor, in strong controversy with the question of the cumbersome and annoying presence of cruise ships, an apparition followed from the murals in the Dorsoduro district.
By the way in Venice, this year the Serenissima risked not being included in the list of UNESCO Heritage due to the out-of-control tourism and the problem of large ships that continue to furrow the waters of the lagoon; among other things, last June 2, a cruise ship clashed against a tourist boat re-igniting the controversy.
Banksy’s humor centered the problem, anticipating the episode almost like a prophet.
Banksy, “Snorting Copper”, Londra 2006
Banksy, “Barcode”, 2004
Banksy, “Happy Choppers”, 2003
Previously mentioned, another exponent of street art is Keith Haring (USA 1958 – 1990), one of the greatest promoters of the concept of art within everyone’s reach in the effervescent New York of the 80s, when he turned the entire city into an immense canvas for painting.
The choice to create works in the urban context is not only a desire to express themselves beyond the traditional artistic channels, but embraces the symbolic meaning of democratic art and the international success of his works has contributed to the spread of art forms in public spaces.
Colorful, simple and direct, his works can be read both at a more superficial level as playful and childish images, and at a further level of deeper meanings using a biting humor, aimed at raising public awareness very delicately towards some social issues.
In addition to being a highly acclaimed artist, Haring was also an entrepreneur for himself creating a brand of sweatshirts, t-shirts and gadgets offered at his Pop Shop in New York, further pushing him towards global visibility.
Keith Haring, “Ignorance = Fear”, 1989
Keith Haring, « Andy Mouse », 1986
Provocative and captivating, Christopher Wool (Chicago 1955) has always focused on the immediacy and irony of double meanings, focusing in particular on the visual representation of the language using different styles and using different mediums such as screen printing, stencil, spray paint and paint.
His works composed of large black letters on a white background aim to reflect on the current tensions of society and become a means of criticizing the aesthetics of traditional artistic representation: sharp word plays, ironic phrases and double meanings are a parody of the archetypes of academic painting.
Wool began working on canvases composed of words and phrases in the 1980s, a period in which the conceptual movement boycotted painting and a new generation of artists – including Jean-Michael Basquiat and Richard Prince – imposed itself on the international scene.
The artist has also suffered a strong influence from the action painting of Jackson Pollock regarding the procedural practice of the creation of the works, but during the 90s he elects the serigraphy as a preferred technique, which he still uses. The casual and highly intuitive style is reflected on the canvas in smudges, overprints and “imperfections” that combine to make his works unique.
In one of his most famous series, “Black Book Paintings” (1989-1990), the words are vertically divided on three levels and the concept, while remaining comprehensible in its entirety, is enriched with second meanings.
Christopher Wool, “Assassin”, 1989
Christopher Wool, “If You”, 1992
Enamel on aluminum
Christopher Wool, “Untitled”, 2005
Enamel on aluminum
Richard Prince (Panama 1949), a painter and photographer, has also reflected on language and concepts. Since 1977 he has established himself as one of the pioneers of appropriation in contemporary art and his most famous reworking is the famous “Cowboys” series ( 1980-1992), in which he re-photographed the advertising campaign of a famous cigarette brand. The controversial, highly ironic, conceptual work is a criticism of the American lifestyle and the power that advertising images have on the human mind. As well as the nurses of the “Nurse” series (2003), taken from the covers of C series economic novels, they have something seductive but also very disturbing.
Richard Prince has therefore always caused controversy over issues related to intellectual property and also the recent series “New Portraits” (2015), in which each piece is an image taken by Instagram, investigates today’s problems related to privacy and control we have over ourselves and the information we consciously put on the net.
These shots, borrowed from some of his followers, magnified and resold at around $ 100,000 have created discontent resulting in lawsuits, and the funny thing is it’s not the first time the artist gets in trouble for violation of copyright, as for example already in 2013 the practice of the ready-made had brought him to court against the photographer Patrick Cariou, a case later won by Prince.
But it does not end here: even recently he has had problems with two professional photographers, Dennis Morris and Donald Graham, as well as with his former Gagosian gallery, but in this case the reasons for the breakup are not known.
The most amusing and light-hearted works remain his jokes, which since the mid-80s have challenged the traditional canons of the era, playing on the idea of creating a work of art that is actually the representation of a joke. His lines transposed on canvases with bright and cheerful colors, however, are much more than carefree sentences, as they reveal tensions often buried under the surface of social interactions.
These sentences, with their almost advertising and didactic rendering, are part of a broader research by the artist, which aims to redefine the concepts of paternity and aura of the work of art through a process of appropriation of images taken from the mass media , from advertising and entertainment typical of the 70s.
Prince uses different mediums such as drawings, installations, paintings and photographs that highlight how modern icons and more generally American identity have been specifically designed to encourage consumerism.
Richard Prince, «Untitled», 1995
Acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas
Richard Prince, “Untitled (Fireman joke)», 1987
Acrylic on canvas
Instead George Condo (USA 1957) uses an imaginative language that pays homage to the traditional portraiture of the great European masters of the past, reworked and mixed with icons of contemporary American culture as characters from comics and cartoons: the fusion between the two aesthetic canons creates a mirror of contemporary social customs.
It is from the 1980s that Condo began to include in his works a mix of humor, irony and veneration towards artists such as Rembrandt, Goya, Caravaggio, Mirò, Picasso – embracing the entire spectrum of European and American art.
The artist’s eclectic style is characterized by dynamic figures, bright colors that incorporate surreal and expressionist elements, from Pop Art to Disney characters: this is how the grotesque paintings populated by bizarre characters characterized by bulging eyes, abstract bodies, prominent cheeks and biting mouths are born, which reflect the hysteria and paranoia of today’s society.
The artist coined the term “Artificial Realism” to describe his work, which creates a decomposition of reality then reconstructed according to the author’s personal order, a sort of psychological cubism that aims to describe the different moods of his characters. The reference to Picasso is not accidental: at the age of 13, George Condo sees a work by the Spanish artist published in a newspaper and from that moment it will become one of his greatest sources of inspiration.
In recent years, the American artist is very much appreciated by the market who amuses the great connoisseurs of art, becoming one of the most requested artists also as regards investments.
George Condo, “Little Ricky”, 2004
Oil on canvas
George Condo, image from Art Basel 2019
Another artist who revisits icons of art is Francesco Vezzoli (Brescia 1971), one of the most successful Italian contemporary artists, exploring the power of popular culture using different means of expression including embroidery, sculpture, video art and performance.
The study of media and television language leads him to an analysis of the stereotypes of contemporary culture and the influence of advertising on the human mind, research that translates into works that move between historical citations and contemporary figurative culture. A performer, he himself becomes the subject of his works, taking possession of images already known.
Emulating the typical patterns of cinema and advertising, Vezzoli tackles the ambiguity that prevents us from distinguishing reality from fiction in an analysis of myths and icons of popular culture.
These themes are addressed both in short films that portray phantom television productions, and in portraits of famous people – often in black and white – who are crying golden embroidered tears: the seductive language of advertising gives way to a deep contemplation of feelings and obsessions that affect the human soul.
Vezzoli has also revisited Boccioni’s work “Unique Forms in the Continuity of Space“, adding a heel 12 to the famous Futurist sculpture, symbol of progress and movement. The bronze “Unique forms of continuity in high heels (after Umberto Boccioni)” of 2012 aims to ridicule fascism through a sharp satire and at the same time adds a touch of glamor to Futurism.
“Unique forms of continuity in high heels (after Umberto Boccioni)”, 2012
Francesco Vezzoli, “Cassandra Crying”, 2016
Print on canvas with metallic embroidery
Maurizio Cattelan (Padova 1960), who has often aroused and deliberately sought debates and controversy, has made irreverence and irony his style.
His works include sculptures, performances and provocative actions as in 1997, when invited to the 47th Venice Biennale he presented the work “Tourists”, 200 stuffed pigeons placed on the beams of the Italian pavilion. In visiting the space before the event Cattelan had noticed the abandonment and raging degradation together with the presence of many pigeons: he decided to “leave everything as he found it”.
One of his most ironic works is perhaps his self-portrait that emerges from the floor (presented for the first time in 2001 at the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam), amazed to find himself in an exhibition hall.
The installation was very much disputed during the Sotheby’s auction in May 2010, and the award of $7.92 million (excluding rights) to a buyer left in the shadow had earned him the title of the most expensive living Italian artist.
Surely scandals and provocations have had a strong impact on the artistic career of Maurizio Cattelan, as when in 2004 he exhibited three children-dummies hanged in the oak tree in Piazza XXIV Maggio in Milan – an installation aimed at raising public awareness towards the problem of domestic violence – considered offensive to public sensitivity and decorum. It is certainly a very powerful form of communication that requires non-trivial interpretative skills.
Having caused a lot of talking about himself in 2010 with the provocative “L.O.V.E.” – theme song for Freedom, Hate, Vendetta, Eternity – an 11-meter Carrara marble sculpture that stands in Piazza Affari in Milan opposite the headquarters of the Stock Exchange, building built during fascism. The work depicts a hand intent on the fascist salute but with all the fingers cut off except the middle finger, a vulgar gesture of irreverence against fascism and the world of finance.
In addition to those mentioned, Cattelan has created a remarkable body of works aimed at reflecting public opinion on issues that concern us all closely.
Just recently, you’ve heard of another of his works, an 18-carat gold toilet pan entitled “America” stolen a few days after the opening of his new retrospective at Blenheim Palace, the English home where Winston Churchill was born.
Certainly theft has increased, not only the particular aura that already surrounded this interactive work – a satire on excessive wealth flaunted by the United States – created in 2016 and installed at the Guggenheim in New York for almost a year, during which around 100 thousand people could admire and use it.
The sculpture had already been talked about when Nancy Spector, curator of the exhibition, proposed it to the White House instead of the requested Van Gogh loaned but considered too delicate to be moved.
The gold toilet, estimated at around one million pounds, had already been ironically linked to Trump – who among other things has an adoration for the precious material – even though the reference to the President has always been denied by the Italian artist.
In the motivations for the particular choice Spector explained how “the work perfectly channels the history of the 20th century artistic avant-gardes”, but the sarcasm was all too obvious.
The work was inspired by income inequalities and the cycle started with the Duchamp fountain (1917) and continued with the “Artist’s shit” by Piero Manzoni from 1961.
“America” stands as a supreme gesture of contempt for money and with its title adds further questions to the Duchamp’s irony, also due to its date of birth which – almost – coincides with the establishment of Trump in the White House.
Intellectually, Cattelan’s work implies different meanings, almost combining concepts and values of the two works mentioned: while “Fountain” was considered without economic value, so that Duchamp’s friend Alfred Stieglitz had thrown it away, the Artist’s shit” had the value of the weight of gold.
It is therefore natural to wonder why the work was stolen: a conceptual wonder or 103 kg of gold?
Maurizio Cattelan, “Senza titolo”, 2001
Maurizio Cattelan, “America”, 2016
Maurizio Cattelan, “L.O.V.E.”, 2010
As you have seen the irony and lightness – sometimes only apparent – are not lacking in the world of contemporary art and in today’s world artists increasingly choose performance and installation as ideal media as they perfectly indulge themselves to creations of all sorts.
The sense of humor is not always synonymous with lightness, often the meaning of many works is to be found beyond the surface.
There are still many artists worth talking to you about, you will soon discover them in the next article!
See you soon!
The shades of the art rainbow are endless: choose your favorite!