By now, postmodernism is a phenomenon that is familiar to us all. Mash-ups, remixes and appropriations ("samples") in every medium from music to visual art have become so common that it's almost a cliché.
Emerging local artist Nicholas Courdy has been using appropriations of images from noted works throughout art history, recombining artists like Edgar Degas and Keith Haring, or Salvador Dalí and David Hockney, juxtaposed in digital collages to imply relationships between the artists' work, and the cyclical nature of art history.
The Palestinian-American graduate of the Painting and Drawing program at the University of Utah's Department of Art & Art History is in the middle of a one-year artist residency at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, and his exhibit Metaphornography opens in the museum's A.I.R. (Artist In Residence) space on Thursday, May 6.
Courdy's new work in Metaphornography seeks to advance his artistic practice by borrowing from cinematic sources as well as static images from fine art. The exhibit features video projections as well as TV monitors displaying content in various ways. His digital collage juxtapositions utilized a finely tuned compositional aesthetic, but these video works make things much more frenetic.
Exploring the nature of desire, the video clips range from B movies to Betty Boop cartoons. Erotic scenes cut to a bomb exploding in the background of a classical painting cut to video static, creating a sense of hyperactive dystopia which, unlike his earlier work, emphasizes the effects of technology. Snippets of music from Debussy to low-brow movie soundtracks, chopped up with the Ginsu knife of sampling, add to the disorientation. He explains the effect he is aiming for: "The hope is to create a space of overstimulation, where the viewer is compelled to find areas of focus."
Focus is the one thing that's most difficult for the viewer to achieve, as the constantly changing work sends your eyeballs careening like a pinball. "The show's title, Metaphornography, emerged from my process of creating the narrative vignettes that comprise a majority of my work," he says. "These works contain a slew of visual metaphors and deal with romantic themes. The process of creating these videos involved consuming a large amount of digital media, and, through the process, I have been able to explore a rich array of content that I may not have normally explored, one example being sexploitation films of the '60s."
Courdy also found some not-entirely-surprising shifts in the portrayal of erotica from those vintage films to the present day. "I became interested in how the advancement of media capturing technologies also advanced the explicitness of eroticism or erotic media, or vice versa," he says. "The juxtaposition of these things became the structure for the exhibition ... [they] mirror my perspective of the current Internet landscape, and how social media has allowed digital media consumption to fuel romantic fantasies or desires."
What does this work say about romantic and sexual desire, and its relationship to pleasure in art? It's a truism that visual art has, throughout history, been a male-dominated arena that has objectified women, and that objectification has been exacerbated by new media. But the art of collage is also the art of selection; one with some degree of artistic intention at play. Courdy's aspiration to combine high-and-low aesthetics appears to be an attempt to visually consume everything in an act of erotic and aesthetic gluttony vomited—or, perhaps one might say, ejaculated—onto the screen. But the repetition is also machinistic: One fantasy interrupts the last, and they are never consummated.
Some of the videos are literally framed within the borders of artworks, and that reminds us that what he is doing is grounded in the history of art. "The foundation of my work is really built upon the idea of appropriation which the postmodernists, notably Duchamp, gave us," he says.
But he takes the postmodern aspect of appropriation a step further, into the contemporary idea that everyone can be an artist. "I've employed something I call 'compilation aesthetic.' A bulk of my work appropriates content from the public domain and uses it to create something new—meaning anyone with access to the Internet could find these same elements and make something of their own," he says. "It's also a sort of silent collaboration with the people who have given their content to the public domain, or lost the copyright through time."
If it's easy for anyone to appropriate and recombine images, it doesn't necessarily follow that the results will be inspired or imaginative. The "quick-draw" nature of Courdy's work may make it appear on the surface to be somewhat facile or random, but that impression might belie the subtlety of the interactions. His work is remarkably stylish and technically masterful. It's too early to tell Courdy's potential, but the ambition and scope of this exhibit is highly admirable.