Sunday, February 14, 2016

Like Waving a Red Cape in Front of A Bull(y)

I recently reviewed Sold Out, the Tim Rietenbach exhibition at Angela Meleca Gallery for Columbus Underground. If you haven't had the chance to see it, go now. It's a terrific show that plants its flag in that aesthetic sweet spot just between incisive and cynical. It's an exhibition that's piercing in its cultural observations, but somehow generous as well. Rietenbach has an approach to art making that acknowledges the conceptual elements of art in the 21st century while managing to hold a high degree of visual interest. And while I discussed a number of the pieces in the show in some detail, I made absolutely no mention (save an illustration) of what was undoubtedly my favorite piece.

For all it's apparent simplicity, Rietenbcach's Brutus serves as ground zero for so many potential discussions it's hard to know where to begin.

 Tim Rietenbach, Brutus, 2015 33 1/2" x 31 1/4"

Let's start with the formal elements. Brutus clearly pays homage to the grid and color abstractions of Paul Klee. But while Klee worked these compositions out with paint, palette knife, and his own sense of color theory, Rietenbach uses commercially available paint samples from retail home centers. This material choice calls into question both the role of the artist and the traditional hierarchy of mediums (a hierarchy that places oil painting above all else). Further, Rietenbach's Brutus playfully flirts with the dichotomy between analog and digital. The image offers the appearance of extreme "pixelation" while remaining resolutely analog. In this regard it offers a subtle hat tip to Gerhard Richter's famously "out of focus" paintings.

   Paul Klee, Alter Klang, 1925 30cm x 30cm

Brutus also blurs our spatial sense. While Rietenbach's work certainly reads as a two-dimensional construct, it's actually fabricated in three. These retail paint chips are affixed to a wire lattice support and hover above the ground. It's balancing act that presents viewers with a (mostly) flat image while reminding us that these chips are in fact actual, physical objects.

Oh, and about that image; anyone from central Ohio will llikely recognize it as the head of Brutus Buckeye, the mascot of The Ohio State University's athletic teams (Don't see it? Try squinting).

Brutus Buckeye TM (a registered trademark of The Ohio State University)

This provides a whole new frame of reference by which we can view Brutus. Pop-culture aesthetics are in play now, as is the tacit acknowledgment that even the most comically mundane elements of our visual landscape can serve as inspiration for contemporary artists. Rietenbach's Brutus goes further than that though, punching up in a way that has me cheering for the underdog as enthusiastically as I might the Buckeyes themselves (full disclosure, I'm a graduate of Ohio State and count myself as at least a casual fan).

But wait, punching up? Underdogs? What's that about?

Well, it's about what might be the most interesting element of Rietenbach's humble piece. This business of appropriation in art, of taking that which already exists and using it to create something new, often finds itself at odds with intellectual property concerns. It turns out the world of contemporary creativity is rife with disputes between artists and the holders of various trademarks, copyrights and patents. Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Alice Randall, and Andy Baio are just a few examples of creatives who've faced legal action in their efforts to appropriate and transform. Baio's story in particular resonates in this instance. The pixelation process he employed in his ill-fated Kind of Bloop project is one that's visually similar to Rietenbach's approach. (For a full accounting of how wrong the legal workings of intellectual property law can go, check out Baio's blog post, Kind of Screwed).

Which is to say it's at least conceivable that The Ohio State University would have a look at Brutus to determine if their trademark rights have been compromised.

If that sounds far-fetched, it's not. The Ohio State University has a whole department charged with the task of overseeing all aspects OSU's trademark business. Make no mistake either, it is a business. Per the Trademark and Licensing Services web site, "the Licensing Program has generated over $130 million in royalty revenue from approximately $1.3 billion in licensed retail sales". And if you think that OSU is too big to go after the little guy, think again. As this report from NBCi shows, enterprises large and small can fall under the watchful eye of the Trademark and Licensing Services.

Of course creative endeavors are quite different than selling mugs, t-shirts, or cookies, and the law makes allowances for this. The legal doctrine of fair use can provide some cover for artists, especially in those instances where a significant transformation of the original can be established. Still, the cost of arguing your case before the court (along with the possibility of losing) is often enough to lead many artists to either give up the fight, or worse, not even consider the possibility of appropriation to begin with.

Knowing how aggressive OSU is about trademark protection, it will be interesting to see if they respond to Rietenbach's work. From the perspective of one who values art's ability to comment on (and borrow from) our existing culture, I hope they'd let Rietenbach and Brutus be.

If, as Ohio State Assistant Vice President Rick VanBrimmer asserts, the school doesn't want to be "the bully on High Street" this would be a good chance to prove it.

Tim Rietenbach's Sold Out will be on view at the Angela Meleca Gallery until March 12, 2016.

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