The rip-off artist
As with most creative forms these days -- film, music, writing -- it's nearly impossible to find a work of visual art that doesn't evoke a work or artist that came before. Pop-culture analysis is bloated with accusations of precedents to the point of becoming a self-perpetuating joke. If we can label American Beauty as a rethinking of The Graduate, Wilco as a loving rehash of Brian Wilson, Greil Marcus as a (downward-spiraling) student of William Faulkner, then you can pretty much walk through any gallery or museum with any self-proclaimed art expert and hear the names of purveyors rolling off the tongue ("This artist is obviously copping Joseph Cornell").
Maybe it hasn't reached the arch status of rock criticism or film pitching, in which creators and critics alike roll their eyes while trying to come up with the most perverse combination-definition of a work: "The band is Devo meets Tom Waits" or "The script reads like The Three Amigos through the eyes of David Lynch." But it's beginning to approach that, as contemporary art continues its migration into the regular world (from its previously precious one) and ideas are cashed out.
These days, it's not about tracking down something wholly fresh, given that most every aesthetic angle has been tackled in some form already. Then, "novel" has never been a stand-in for "good" (Harmony Korine's films being an example of that), any more than "good" has ever excluded the phrase "It reminds me of..." Show me a person who dismisses, say, new wunderkind John Bock solely on the basis that he gives a nod to conceptual art leader Joseph Beuys, and I'll show you someone who wouldn't know commendable art if it walked up and lit his cigarette.
But there is a line between "influenced" and "pilfered," the latter excusable only if carried off with irony and flat-out confession. Glenn Brown can photo-realistically mimic the sci-fi impasto of Frank Auerbach, because that's his stated goal and ultimately his comment on appropriation and art-meets-graphics tension. There's no hedging; everyone accepts it as clever and valid. Ta da -- a new artist is born right on the back of another. It's all just recontextualized.
So what happens when a new artist's work looks disconcertingly like another's -- especially a very influential other's -- and the new artist shrugs off the comparisons? Can the art hounds declare it "good" if they're too busy declaring, "Oh, my God, is this a Francis Bacon?" When the answer turns out to be "No, it's an emerging artist," eyebrows raise, then furrow; throats are cleared, and questions are asked. Why would an artist choose to make work so like another's and not make that the droll point?
Artist Rosalyn Bodycomb has apparently withstood these questions for a while. A Fort Worth-based artist with an inarguable gift for painting, the issue comes up whenever people view her work. The streaky movement, the smears and implied forms, the flat, hollow weariness in the subjects' faces: Francis Bacon, indeed. Downright mistaking a Bodycomb for a Bacon would be a stretch, but calling it "Bacon-esqe" might be an understatement. According to her rep, gallery owner Cynthia Mulcahy of Mulcahy Modern (where a few of Bodycomb's works are on display right now), this doesn't faze the painter. She doesn't get defensive, doesn't change tack. She just continues painting the way she wants to, which just happens to be a lot like an eccentric Anglo-Irishman who drank too much and sparked plenty of controversy in his 1950s heyday. (Or even in this day, if you're considering the Bible Belt's reaction to the recent Fort Worth retrospective of his work.)
How do you judge work like this? If you're like some, and, for example, the band Oasis pisses you off because it sounds too much like the Beatles without the endurance training, then you might be prone to dismissing Bodycomb for rubbing up too close to her source material. That is, rubbing too close without hitting the same visceral target. Or if you're like others, you accept her fine compositions as autonomous creations with their own personal meaning; to hell with Bacon. But Oasis vacillates between owning up to Lennon-McCartney theft and occasionally mocking the whole argument. Bodycomb doesn't claim or own or mock anything.
In the end, her paintings are "good," in all the technical, compositional, and even visceral departments. You could even think, "Well, art may be getting repetitive, but painting has really reached its limit, so what can you expect?" or, "If two inventors can come up with the same contraption at the same time on different sides of the globe, who's to say two artists with different backgrounds don't best express themselves in roughly the same way?"
Two of the pieces, "Sculpture Shed" and "Blue Mountain College Series I," both oil on canvas, look personal enough. The former comes off like an enlarged freeze-frame of an actual conversation; the latter, a snapshot of an acquaintance. And the Bacon elements are all here: densely menacing backgrounds, unfinished strokes that have their own momentum to complete the thought, and, of course, all those streaks and smears. Move over, Mr. Angsty Brit Investment Banker trapped in a screaming vacuum. Two grungy bespectacled guys in black T-shirts and contemplative postures are pushing you out of frame.
But what's most telling is that the best of Bodycomb's three showcased works is the large monoprint that departs from Baconland. One glance at the ruddy, narrative-bound "Amy, Albert & Adolph," and you want more of that, not her Bacon cops. So Bodycomb has come up with a truly original aesthetic. She just isn't using it enough, and we can grow a bit more critical as we wonder why.
In this piece, three people perch on two modular red couches, an expanse of brown coffee table and brown wall extending before and behind them. The one woman and pair of men sit in uncomfortable yet affable silence, dimly aware of the viewer's gaze and yet more concerned with what's happening among them in their own world. Aging relatives in a garish hotel lobby waiting for a taxi to take them to separate freedoms? In-laws making the best of a wait in a hospital sitting area? Good friends enduring the silence in between conversation jags about architecture and the weather?
The immediacy and sincerity in their postures are so deftly captured in Bodycomb's gestural shapes, you can make of it what you need to, which is most likely whatever memory it triggers in your own mind. Precision meets the universal -- this is the kind of art we all hope to see when we enter a gallery. It speaks as much about the artist's thoughtful and unique translation of life as it does about larger abstract truths. And this is exactly what makes artwork not just "good," but "great."
And that's the point. Bodycomb can rehash Bacon aesthetics all she wants to "good" affect, and we can carve out finer points about her subject matter being slightly different, her slightly tweaked color scheme, how she tones down the streaks in favor of mood -- yes, that makes her different from any other painter, including Bacon. But after all, terms such as "greatness" and "genius" have rarely been attributed to any artist who can't get a viewer past copycat accusations. And if any artist can show the potential for originality that Bodycomb has in her piece "Amy, Albert, & Adolph," then it seems a shame to add her to the burgeoning lump of pop-culture retreads. And more of a shame that she would continue to make work that puts her there.
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