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A Closer Look -- Real Fake Art

Real Fake Art by Michael Wolf
Wandering through a gallery whose collection I wasn’t well acquainted with, I happened into a room where several Francis Bacon paintings hung. Completely unprepared for my reaction, I found myself grateful for the bench conveniently placed right in front of them. Bacon’s paintings are raw and powerful, disturbing and emotionally arresting. They are paintings that make me stop in my tracks, which makes it all the more odd to see Bacon’s Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X in a narrow alley, held up by a sweet faced young woman who stands nearly a foot shorter than the canvas. It is Bacon’s painting — or rather, it is his composition, his subject, very nearly his color choices -- but the painting in this image was produced by the woman who holds it. Real Fake Art by Michael Wolf is full of uncanny views like this — the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, Vincent van Gogh, Edward Hopper and even a few photographs from the likes of Bernd and Hilla Becher and William Eggleston, held by the person who has painted them — a man or woman in the village of Dafen, near Shenzhen China.

From Real Fake Art by Michael Wolf
Michael Wolf has long proven his adeptness at investigating a topic like this, merging the complicated implications of his subject matter with a human element, showing both the mechanized nature of their tasks, but also their very human talents. He shoots with a certain formula, but the images are made more compelling through their differences. The painters stand at street corners and in alleyways — concrete, tile and buildings, pipes and windows and no trace of the sky, the only foliage from the occasional potted plant. The urban spaces Wolf photographs in, presumably adjacent to the painter’s homes or work spaces, are often dark and wet, with the occasional vegetable, meat or clothing hanging in the air. They are a goldmine for juxtaposition — the treasures of museums presented in dirty trash strewn streets, sumptuous European interiors captured in the paintings contrast with the worn Chinese exteriors. A woman stands on stair steps holding a copy of the Jasper Johns’ Flag — Chinese writing around the doorway and small fingers peaking out of the grates in the door. It is one of a number of images, along with a portrait of George W. Bush and Ed Ruscha’s Made In U.S.A., that make easy commentary on US reliance on China for manufactured goods and loans. Enormously enlarged versions of the Mona Lisa, which always seemed so small for its fame at 30x21 in, and numerous copies of van Gogh’s Sunflowers speak to the commoditization of fine art, yet the Sunflowers, along with Bacon’s Pope (itself an interpretation of another work of art), recall the repetition of the subject matter by the artist himself — both van Gogh and Bacon painted several versions of these famous images. But it’s not just famous paintings that are replicated — photographs from Bernd and Hilla Becher, Lee Friedlander, August Sander, William Eggleston, Thomas Ruff — opening a whole new can of worms with the change in medium.

From Real Fake Art by Michael Wolf
From Real Fake Art by Michael Wolf
 They are simple images that resound deeply; the production of these consumer products is an inadvertent criticism of the Western conception of art, threatening our understanding of what is acceptable, exhuming a myriad of complicated issues and thoughts regarding art and its contemporary interpretation. Reproductions are frowned upon, but ubiquitous in our world. Is this much different from the production technique of Thomas Kinkaid, well known for his own certified factory-produced paintings, each printed on canvas, with selected brush strokes applied by trained workers? A few of Kinkaid’s paintings are shown in this book, selling for a good deal less than his own approved reproductions. (And the Chinese copies are actually painted.) The book’s essay by Boris von Brauchitsch focuses much of its attention on the concept of forgery and deception, which, as compelling a discussion as it is, isn’t entirely relevant to the reproductions depicted here. Between the exceptional fame of most of the images, the quality of reproduction and the prices listed by each painting, it is clear that the retailers of these paintings aren't attempting to pass them off as originals. Which puts the work into a new context — they are entirely consumer products. It speaks to the devaluation of a typically prized skill — or perhaps to the over-valuation of the artist’s hand. As von Brauchitsch mentions in his essay, many heralded painters employed workers to assist in applying paint to canvas, which is no different today, though it is seldom spoken of. Is the issue of the artist's hand a concern of the fine-art world, and not the average consumer? Have the buyers of these paintings, clearly art lovers, felt pushed out of the inflated, rarefied fine art world? Or do these paintings sell because taste trends to what culture deems to be excellent; perhaps consumers would rather purchase a reproduction of a critically and widely adored painting than take a gamble on something unique, leaving them open to interpretations of taste. Or maybe it's just an issue of affordability.
From Real Fake Art by Michael Wolf
The conversation can go on and on. von Brauchitsch’s essay mentions that Wolf allowed the painters to copy the photographs he took of them. I would love to see these images. Regional international office for development and design has embarked on an on-going project with some of these Dafen painters, requesting them paint a self portrait. The results are intriguing. It is a project that transforms the painters from factory workers on an art production line to artist, engaging an ‘emerging artistic consciousness,’ as Regional phrases it, through self portraiture. How easily we forget that these paintings are coming from skilled people; people who, if they painted from their own imagination, we would call artists. The art world implications will continue to be discussed, but the human factor is easy to forget as the conversation spirals. Wolf's images fight against this -- the painters in their bleak surroundings stare right back at you, daring to be recognized with their work. -- Sarah Bradley

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