picking apart postmodernism

“Postmodern artists challenge conventions of traditional artmaking and aesthetics, communicating their meaning through shocking subjects and new media.” Discus this statement, with reference to at least three artists.

Postmodernism is difficult to define, because to define it would disregard the Postmodernists’assertion that there are no definite terms, boundaries or absolute truths. Postmodernism expanded on, and reacted to, the ideas of Modernism and developed in the western world during the late 20thcentury.Emerging from the relentless urge for change, brought into the world by the electronic revolution, artists broke away from the restrictions of their contemporary world and started expressing themselves in new ways, through new mediums. Postmodernism changed not only the art world, but spread across music, literature, philosophy and architecture. Postmodern artists challenge conventions of traditional artmaking and aesthetics, in order to engage with the audience in a new way. No longer passive, audiences are invited to be co-collaborator,deciding on the meaning of the artwork for themselves, relevant to their time and place. Postmodern artmaking employs a vast variety of techniques, mediums, strategies and styles, such as the use of readymades, conceptual art, irony, satire, symbolism, recontextualisation and appropriation.

Marcel Duchamp, the pioneer of Dada, a movement that questioned what art should be, and how it should be made, also explored Conceptual Art. Originally a painter, Duchamp sought a new way of presenting objects themselves as art, such as his famous placing of a urinal in a gallery in 1917. This is a quote from Duchamp which I think represents his concepts and the idea of “readymades”.“I am interested in ideas, not merely in physical products.” These ideasmade people question the very notion of art and were quite controversial at the time, inspiring Postmodernism.

There are many Postmodern artists who have broken away from conventional,traditionalart,whether through material choices, concepts or aesthetics.I will be discussing three Postmodern artists who evolved into this postmodern world and who implore the postmodern way. They areLee Bul, David Salle and Banksy.

Banksy is an anonymous graffiti artist, political activist and film director, based in England. The infamous Banksy was born 1974 in Bristol, United Kingdom. Banksy is more than an artist, he is a revolutionary icon, who has changed our way of viewing art. He uses dark humour to convey political issues and philosophy. He is one of the most controversial artists in the world. Banksy has developed an entire art subculture without even trying. Banksy’s art is spread worldwide, covering the grey cities of Europe. Banksy started his graffiti art lifestyle by admiring the work of Blek le Rat. He often recycled his old ideas. By the age of 18 Banksy began developing a quicker strategy of graffiti, after almost being caught by the police. He fled and hid under a garbage truck. As he was waiting for the police to stop looking, he noticed stencilled letters on the truck, he decided then and there that stencilling would be his new graffiti medium.

Banksy uses multilayered stencils and spray paint as his medium of choice. Banksy’s canvas is the world around him, often using street signs and other objects that help convey his message. Very little is known about Banksy, he refuses to be interviewed and he tries to keep his identity a secret, he is the most world-renowned mystery artist. Banksy is just one of his street names, he was formally called Robin Banks or Banx. Staying a mystery, Banksy blocks out the relationship between artist and audience. His audience understands him only through his perspective of the world, as seen in his artwork. He often uses the audience as a subject in his work, painting spectators viewing the art piece. Banksy tells stories through his confronting images, often using appropriation, irony and satire to have a dig at society and its hypocrisy.

“Napalm”, 2010

Screen print, Prints and Multiples

50.8 x 68.6 cm

“Napalm” is a screen print of two iconic figures, Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald, holding hands with a napalm victim. The original image is of a girl (Kim Phuc) whom was portrayed in an iconic photograph from the napalm bombings in The Vietnam War in 1972, taken by a photojournalist. The girl ripped her clothes off as the napalm burnt through her skin. This art piece is an example of how shocking Postmodern art can be. This piece is rather scary, Mickey and Ronald stare with those fake smiles as they parade around a screaming child. Out of context this image could appear as if Ronald and Mickey are kidnapping a naked little girl.

Why did Banksy pick this napalm victim to hold hands with the two familiar figures of American capitalism? I think Banksy was exposing how shallow and excessive American mainstream culture can be and how American consumerism holds hands with the military to advance it’s ends. This image was blown up large, to amplify the impact on the audience. The colour scheme is simple black and white. I think Banksy is making a statement, considering how colourful Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald usually are. Maybe Banksy is making a statement by using the same colour palette in which the original black and white wartime photograph was taken. It makes me feel disturbed, the child’s face is screaming with pain. I personally don’t like how confronting this piece is, it shocks me and makes me feel like losing faith in humanity.

Lee Bul, born 1964 in South Korea, is a Postmodern sculptor and installation artist, who, like Banksy, uses her art as a means of communicating with the world. Bul is experimental when it comes to her material practise. She uses new media, such as metal, resin, chains, crystals, beads, and organic matter. Her artworks are provocative, questioning patriarchal authority and the marginalisation of women, by revealing ideologies that permeate our culture and political world. She also explores issues of Korean women being perceived as decorative objects. These concepts come forth through large mechanical sculptures and installations that convey the ideas of a futuristic society. “The audience is not a wide meaning, I have an interest about you (as a human being), but I’m not calculating about you, I’m not guessing what you will feel.” This quote demonstrates how Bul feels about her audience, like many Postmodern artists she does not want to tell her audience what to think and how to feel but rather challenge them to think for themselves.

“Cyborg W1-W4”, 1998

Cast silicone, polyurethane filling and plant pigment

185 x 81 x 58 cm

“Cyborg W1-W4” challenges the boundaries between human and machine and are a clear representation of Postmodern art, disorientating, confusing and conceptual. The installation consists of four, exaggerated, milky white robotic bodies with missing limbs and no heads. They appear to have armor on. The bodies are very voluptuous and sexual. It reminds me of video games where the women are portrayed unrealistically. It could represent the human desire to achieve existence that excels the limitations of the physical body, to further become something not human but robotic. They demonstrate a thin line between ideal and reality. The use of silicon to construct her Cyborgs is ironic because silicon is a material commonly used for breast prostheses in plastic surgery. She could be making a statement of what lengths a woman will go to for the ideal of perceived perfection. Her work is intriguing and confronting at the same time.

Davie Salle, born 1952 in the United States, is another Postmodern artist whose work is often confronting for audiences. Salle’s paintings would have been viewed as extremely radical during the 1980’s in Oklahoma. Traditional painting was past its prime and artists such as Salle were expressing new ideas. Salle uses realistic images in unrealistic ways, to captivate the viewer and make them think. He says, "I feel that the only thing that really matters in art and life is to go against the tidal wave of literalism and literal-mindedness - to insist on and live the life of the imagination." This quote demonstrates the limitless mindset of Postmodern artists such as Salle.

“Sextant in Dogtown”, 1987

Oil and acrylic on canvas

244.3 x 320.7cm

“Sextant in Dogtown” is a surreal piece, portraying a confused woman doing a selection of strange movements with objects. Salle combines borrowed images that confuse the viewer. There’s a small image of a dead bird and there are two cheeky looking jokers laughing at a hole in the wall. What is Salle trying to say through these abstract images? In my opinion it is a rather icy, melancholic image. It is interesting how Salle refrains from exposing the woman’s face. She appears to be doing aimless chores. Salle works with light and texture and they contrast well with the bright colours of the top images. Salle incorporates movement and form through his innovative technique of painted collage. Personally, this work makes me feel confused, leaving me wanting to know the full story, like a film. It feels like he’s telling a story but with no dialogue. I think that’s Salle’s intention, that he wants us to experience the confusion.

In conclusion, Banksy, challenges the viewer to see beyond the superficial facade, to face society’s political ugliness. Lee Bul exposes out technological addictions, humans separation and morphing into our modern way of life. Davie Salle, explores the humans condition, and the dysfunction of contemporary human identity. These are examples of Postmodern artists, with diverse material practices and shocking subject matter. Artworks such as “Napalm”, “Cyborg W1-W4” and “Sextant in Dogtown” challenge conventions of traditional artmaking and aesthetics. While their mediums are all very different, they each have something in common, they communicate through confronting visuals and urge the audience to get involved, to not stand silently as a passive observer. Through the viewing of these artist’s work we see how diverse and dynamic Postmodernism is.