JON RAFMAN

New Age Demanded by Jon Rafman has been extensively blogged about elsewhere, so for a bigger range of stills go to his website, or go here or head on over to Artsy's Jon Rafman page.

Some jpegs of Rafman’s work have been living on my desktop for a few months now, tickling my eyes periodically. Some look like futurist sculptures, some have the tortured feel of a Francis Bacon painting. Most of the busts look like they were generated in a 3D program, or at least were digitally conceived, yet they also give the impression of being real-world sculptures photographed under studio lights on a studio background.

They are pleasantly confusing.

My normal approach to work on this blog is to concentrate more on the choice of toolset: why and how has the artist used a computer to make this work. But the more I investigate the source of the title New Age Demanded - Ezra Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley the more I realise how rewarding a relationship between the poem and the images could be. Both are pretty complex (as was Ezra Pound - not many people could claim to be an American expatriate poet, publisher, economist, anti-capitalist, madman, vorticist, journalist AND fascist anti-semite.) Both are very intertextual and referential. Both are about the market systems they exist in. 

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley  is about Pound’s career, about poetry, other poets and the market for poetry. Similarly, New Age Demanded is all about the art market, other artists and maybe even Rafman himself.  At the heart of it, what the two works have in common is an artistic disillusionment and a sharply cynical reflection on the influence of commerce on arts and culture. At least that’s what I think.

If I was to break down what I see when I look at New Age Demanded it’d be this: Rafman has taken the iconic classical bust and deconstructed it. The busts are malformed, in turns carefully and carelessly handled. The eternal form of the classical bust is being playfully toyed with to produce endless and chaotic permutations. He’s grafted a new skin onto each one and superficially tarted it up. Each skin pays homage in a cursory, almost decorative way to a past master of 20th century art. This process has been serialised to over 100 editions, producing something that feels like a catalogue or inventory. They look addictively collectible but throwaway. In fact, what they most resemble are the little souvenirs you might find in a museum or gallery shop - a Dali mug or the Picasso fridge magnet.  They use art history like wrapping paper.

Alongside my brief (and speculative) interpretation, consider the following passage, which Rafman seems to offer as a key to the work:

The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace
… 
The ‘age demanded’ chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the 'sculpture’ of rhyme

Maybe it’s just me, but I think it reads almost perfectly as an ironic mandate for a gallery shop manager!

The New Age Demanded images appeal to a perverse part of me that both hates the museum gift shop phenomenon and finds it emblematic of the most interesting and problematic aspects of contemporary art: not only the sophisticated and now naturalised commodification of both art and artist, but the gradual allegiance of the art-viewing public towards the shop rather than the art. Art is supposed to be somehow anathema to materialism, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be about ideas and emotions and stuff. Stuff you can’t buy. So why do we complete our experience by browsing through a choice of mass-manufactured talismans that represent our experience? And what’s more, why do we feel more at ease doing this than we do when experiencing the work of art itself?

You could conclude that New Age Demanded is a comment on the art market and commodification. Perhaps Rafman produced the collection as a joke - it’s a nice, cohesive, referential series about art. Curators can pin them up on walls, spin it any which way they want and collectors will want to catch 'em all like Pokemon.

Maybe the joke is on me, though, because I really want to buy one.