Palimsest – Function Follows Forms of Desire



“The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” – Oscar Wilde

"What the artist does is jump-start your mind and make you see something fresh, as if you were a visitor to the moon. An artist breathes life back into stereotypes." – John Baldessari

Strange bedfellows — Baldessari and Wilde. But on second thought, perhaps not.

For my Palimpsests, I start with works of art considered “masterpieces,” many immediately recognizable. These paintings have become touchstones to the canon, historical documents, pillars supporting the art historical power structure, and enshrined in museums around the world. And, until very recently, this canon has been predominately white, male, and Eurocentric. Much in need of deflating.

These canonical works shape the understanding of our contemporary visual world. I have found that by playing with, or altering, them, I can prompt the viewer to become more aware of the habitual way we view these objects and, indeed, almost all images. Each personal, lived experience of an image contains within it the potential to rewrite or re-form our habitual, lethargic ways of seeing the world. We find this habit not just in the viewing of art, but also in how artists, 21st century artists especially, go about creating art. I’m not trying to awaken the viewer’s appreciation for these masterpieces so much as renewing the viewer’s passion for the act of seeing the world — as if for the first time.

Western modernism and postmodernism hinge on the artistic practice of appropriation (or mechanical and digital reproduction): The scavenging of found images. The “masterpieces” I appropriate for my art making are considered historic and therefore stable. That is, established art history teaches us its approved way of seeing these masterpieces. But I want to see these works differently. And I want you to feel free to see them differently from how I or any art expert tells you to see them. To this end, I have decontextualized meanings in unexpected ways — creating abstract visuals composed of images invented and culled from the annals of visual history. In this way, I hope to rescue the act of seeing from the aura, or “patina,” that art history tries to give the original object.

It is my hope that, by borrowing or distorting visual material in this way, my own work will point to a critical artistic practice of questioning existing power structures and challenging value. This practice is antithetical to the instantaneous and virtual experiences typical of today’s digital universe. Each of my own pieces are a personal response to the original image. I am most adamantly not being flippant or demeaning of the original works. Indeed, I only appropriate works that I regard highly, works that cause me to stop and question how I see the world. Yes, I generously employ absurdity, discontinuities, and incongruities. I also appropriate the familiar, in this case the over-familiar, so familiar that it is rarely given a second thought. I hope my palimpsests prove provocative critiques of the anesthetizing and seductive effects of the position art history has been given in our society.

Arthur Taussig - 2022