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Friday, May 9, 2014

Joy Garnett

Castle Bravo, 1998, Joy Garnett (from the Bomb Project).
Joy Garnett, 2013
Can human tragedy or catastrophic natural events be the source or artistic beauty? Is an artist permitted to take a photo from a newspaper, magazine, or the Internet and use it as the basis for a work of art? If you're like most people, even most artists, you would probably hedge your answers to both questions with a thoughtful "that depends." Of course, that's no answer at all but simply begs more questions, principally, "on what?" And when pressed, that's where everything gets complicated, murky, legalistic, even criminal. Those are both questions posed by painter Joy Garnett (left) through her work. Joy is among the very few artist younger than I am whom I have written about. She was born in 1965. I'm not in the business of making or breaking the careers of living artists. Moreover, whatever you or I think of her work is not the point. It's the questions raised by her work that make this attractive young artist important.

Plume 2, 2005, Joy Garnett--powerful, dynamic, beauty or horrible death and destruction?
The first question is relatively easy when it comes to the "on what" part. Creating beauty from catastrophic or tragic events depends mostly on the skill of the artist, both technically and intellectually. Garnett's Castle Bravo (top) depicts a nuclear detonation based upon government photos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. I guess if you like really "hot" colors you could call it beautiful, but only if you can divorce the painting itself from the image content. Nuclear weapons would not be deemed "beautiful" in any sane subjective context. Garnett's Plume 2 (above) presents a different dilemma. That's not one tornado but appears to be three or four, and they're not "test tornado." People are dying. The lives and livelihoods of those not killed are, nonetheless, being destroyed, given the damage such "plumes" leave in their wakes. Can, and perhaps more importantly, should artists and viewers attempt to separate the painting from its content? Should artists even create such work? Is it morally obnoxious? Is the freedom of expression claimed by artists broad enough to encompass such works? If you look at art history, the answer has to be, yes. Artists have been painting human tragedies since the first painting of Eve biting into the apple. However, few have tried to make such works into things of beauty. Beauty being in the "eye of the beholder" probably makes that a moot question.

Rise, After Bosch (Superdome), 2006, Joy Garnett. Here, the two questions meet.
It's in Garnett's Rise, After Bosch (Superdome) (above) from 2006, that the two questions posed at the top begin to meet. Though noticeably short on the intensely colorful, eye-catching "beauty" seen in the other two works, there is a sort of poignant beauty, knowing as we do the story of human suffering that occurred in this massive "shelter" and in seeing it deserted, the sun rising, shining down on the wreckage representing the hope of a new day. Beyond that though, this painting, is based upon a, no doubt copyrighted, news photo. What Garnett has done rests on the legal concept called "fair use." I've not seen the original photo but I'm guessing she did not use the entire photo, probably didn't replicate the original colors (it's pretty drab and low-contrast for that to have been the case). It's obviously an Expressionistic piece, making no attempt whatsoever to actually copy the photo, and in all likelihood changing it significantly as to size. She no doubt left out details and perhaps even adding some on her own. In other words, she's probably safe from a lawsuit.

Molotov, 2003, Joy Garnett
(from the "Riot" exhibition)
That wasn't the case in 2003 when Garnett posted her painting Molotov (left) on her Website. It hadn't been there very long before Joy got a nasty little letter from lawyers representing photojournalist, Susan Meiselas, demanding she "cease and desist" and threatening a lawsuit if she didn't. The painting was based upon a news photo taken by Meiselas during the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution (left) in 1979. Caution being the better part of good sense, Joy removed the image from her Website. Though Meiselas had originally demanded Garnett transfer all rights to the painting, once it was removed online, the matter was not pursued.

The original Meiselas photo used by Garnett.
Interesting story, but it doesn't end there. A rogue Internet Website, which had been following the controversy, posted the offending image and soon the were dozens of others doing the same, some mirroring Joy Arnett's entire Web page as it had been before she removed the painting. Some years before there had been a big copyright infringement battle between and another site, eToy, which came to be called the "Toywar." Joy's case was dubbed, "Joywar." In little more than a week, Joy found her cause (and her painting) had spread to protesting Websites around the world. Sometime later, Susan Meiselas and Joy Garnett met face to face at a conference dealing with the legal problems of fair use. Their differences had to do with context. Meiselas objected to the historic context of her photo being stripped away while Garnet argued that one artist should not seek to censor another using copyright laws. As can be seen above, the painting did not utilize the entire Meiselas photo and omitted background details, its cropping serving to create a totally new structural composition. There was no lawsuit; Meiselas neither lost nor gained financially from the whole affair.

Shepard Fairey's Hope poster based on the AP photo at left
--significant changes, but not significant enough to avoid legal "hot water."
Joy Garnett was not the first artist to become enmeshed is such legal entanglement. A New York street artist named Shepard Fairey nearly went to jail as a result of his Hope poster painting of Barack Obama derived from an Associated Press news photo he'd "Photo-shopped" as the basis for a well-known campaign poster. Though such cases would normally be limited to civil suits, Fairey's sin was that of anticipating such a lawsuit and destroying the photographic working papers he'd used in creating the painting. That's called destroying evidence. A plea agreement allowed him to avoid jail time but cost him $25,000 in fines and 300 hours of community service. The civil case was settled out of court.

Air Strip, 2003, Joy Garnett--the joy of Joy.


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