Three Small Paintings

There is a little gallery in Old Town Albuquerque that you probably won’t find on social media. They don’t’ have an official website. There is a Yelp page for the Santisima, but they are careful not to feature any of the work they sell within the gallery. The shop is located down one of the numerous pedestrian streets that wind through a maze of low-slung adobe buildings. Among all of the doorways that take you into any of a dozen galleries featuring jewelry from “local artisans” (EVERYTHING seems to be made from locals, as though there is a central factory hidden somewhere in the walls), look for the one with the petite statue of a woman dressed to celebrate Dios De La Muerte. Inside the gallery are walls packed with bright and eccentric paintings from any one of two dozen artists somewhere in New Mexico. Everything on the walls is an original, one of a kind. The handful of prints for sale in the racks are officially licensed and unavailable anywhere else in the world.

Nothing in this place is a reproduction. Inversely, the gallery owner works double time to make sure nothing of his artists gets reproduced anywhere else. For a while, when marketers told him to have a website and promote his new gallery releases through Facebook. In doing so, he routinely fell victim to having the images ripped off only to be printed as posters or T-shirts or postcards in a factory in Mexico, only to be sold at bandit booths near roadside attractions or in any of the gas stations that dot the landscape between here and the next town.

It is a bold move, but it might be a lesson worth learning. Although there are no sales of online products, the gallery still does extremely well with the sales it does make. Originals cost a little more and might be harder to come by, and that just might the whole point.

 

Around the turn of the century, a German critic named Walter Benjamin rolled around with this idea of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Somewhere in the 1920s, Walter was concerned about the idea of how ancient texts, images, and art were being presented in a world where photography, printing presses, and electronic transmissions (heyo telegraph!) were starting to become more and more prevalent.

The gist of his argument can be summarized today in the fact that everyone knows, sort of, what the Mona Lisa is. The smirk, the look.  Most of us have likely viewed it through an online medium, printed in a book, on the side of a coffee mug. It has been noted to be “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.”

Those who have visited the painting in person are usually underwhelmed by the size of the original or have been outraged by the line to view it. Others will comment on how some travel all around the world to be in the same room as the painting only to take an Instagram story of it. Between the coffee mugs, the insta-stories, and the critics who spend their whole careers breaking down the meaning of the image – what is the actual point of something like the Mona Lisa in our modern times? Does seeing the painting a thousand times on a digital screen inspire anyone to take up the brush? Does the painting technique or the story or the mystery of the thing convey across our modern art distributions? Does the Mona Lisa exist purely to drive tourism and gift shop sales?

Paintings were stretched over canvases to be archived in galleries or discussed in salons, or they were delicately strewn across earthen walls as frescoes. Plays were done anywhere a stage, and a crowd could gather. Movies were seen in theaters where the runs were months long and you frequently saw the same movie numerous times before the films were packed up and moved to the next region. All music used to be live music.

So, in our modern days of digital reproduction, what does this all mean?

Today we have screens. Lots and lots of screens. Most of them are two dimensional with rather impressive sound systems. Just about any content can be streamed to any pocket anywhere in the world. None of that content is ever actually “owned” anymore. The black and white films of the 40s and 50s created for luminescent screens are now presented in high definition on a screen that the creators couldn’t have even imagined.

More modernly, there is a whole crew of people finding oddities of the modern, wide-screen presentation of Malcolm in the Middle which was never meant to be shown beyond their 4:3 format. Every bit of music that is being recorded on an analog platform is eventually compressed down, digitized, streamed and delivered to everyone through the same 1/8th-inch jack that every set of headphones comes with.

All of this is bad for the historic culture of the media that came before the iPhone generation. Yet, probably not so bad for those who are creating in step with it. Like Soderberg’s release of Unsane, a feature film shot entirely on an iPhone. He also knows that a good portion of his audience will likely be viewing the movie on a mobile device. Which might be a better experience than the time I watched Dunkirk on an iPad on a flight back from Mexico.

 

So why am I wondering what settings are best for exporting a photograph I shot on a full-frame lens so that it is best presented on Instagram? Why do so many of us feel inclined to reduce our work to something that is compatible with a three-inch screen? Why are there creators out there who feel pressured to constantly be updating feeds that are scrolled through as fast as possible, only to have the content disappear out the top of the cell phone?

Why the algorithm? Mona was never subjected to an algorithm.

We have been told by a new generation of digital marketers that continuously updating the free content is the key to generating business. I don’t think that’s true. I’ve explained in previous posts about how making a play for volume ultimately creates bad art and drives creators to do stupid stuff. Someone “liking” a photo has never meant less than it does right now.

What is the point of social media if no one is legitimately social?

Maybe I never actually post a photo online again! Wouldn’t that just kill my dreams of quitting it all and traveling the world as a photographer?

Given, I have submitted a handful of images to Unsplash as their presentation is marginally better than a three-inch screen. Over there they are free for use and seem to be more appreciated than anything on Instagram. I have also printed numerous photos I’ve taken in large formats as sale items and gifts for those who have supported my work in the past. Frankly, I think all photos should be printed to some degree.

Maybe, just maybe, our relationship with art and artists (or with fans and patrons) isn’t to consume through the three-inch screen, but to have it serve as some kind of index. The trailer for the movie, the flier for the performance, the taste of what is to come. The modern marketers might have had it wrong. Why bother overloading your fans with free content on the medium they consume everything else too? Maybe the real sales power is in the mystery.

 

I bought three paintings from Santisima gallery that afternoon. Two four by sixes, a five by eight. I would add photos of them here, but that would go against the wishes of the artist. They are gorgeous. Three, small giclee paintings of women in skull-makeup face paint. All of them wearing full brim hats, all done in a delicate black and white. You will have to come by the house sometime to see them.

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