Reflection on Mr and Mrs Thomas Walker, Camden Town Originally painted by William Allsworth, 1855 (Ink on Oil on Canvas, 2016)
When it comes to the standard conception of graffiti, we think boldly painted tags, witty stencils, or murals in urban environments. But artist Paul Stephenson has taken graffiti out of this contextual landscape and onto the faces of various artworks themselves. His latest exhibition, Forced Collaboration, at Stolen Space Gallery in London, features three series of works that explore our contemporary relationships to art, particularly how we see it through the veneer of digital technology.
Essentially, Stephenson buys 200-year-old original oil paintings by known artists—usually of iconic or recognizable genres like still lifes—at auctions, and messes with them. He then takes a photo of the work, as he does in the case of his Watermark Paintings, and uploads it to his Shutterstock account, giving it the white 'X' watermark that ostensibly stops people from bootlegging it. Stephenson calls this version his "virtual original," then creates a meta-version by painting this white 'X' onto the original oil painting, thus permanently altering it.
"It’s a relationship between me and that person or the work." Stephenson explains to The Creators Project. "The idea came when I would search Google Images for pictures and I'd always see this Shutterstock watermark. I started seeing it all the time and I thought, That’s part of the image. That’s how everyone’s seeing it now, so I should make that part of the painting."
Watermarked Painting #436544659 (Shutterstock meta) Originally painted by Thomas Bond Walker, 1901 (Oil on Canvas, 2016)
The next series, Reflection Paintings, is also a relationship between Stephenson and the paintings, seen through the prism of digital displays. Stephenson explains that, because of the shiny surfaces of our screens and phones, reflections have now also become parts of the images we see when we look at them on our devices. In this series, the artist paints reflected clouds, street lights, and other objects directly onto original oil paintings which, again, he bought at auction. Paintings that he admits were "fairly expensive."
"It’s a collaboration, it’s an overlay of how they saw things and how we see things," says Stephenson. "It’s all the things that when you’re looking at something on a screen or a computer or a phone they affect what you’re seeing. This in-between of the original image and the way we see an image now, it's an interesting medium—there's this interesting grill that we look at things through, that’s what I'm interested in.”
Lady of Shalott (Google Cultural Institute) After Waterhouse (Hand Painted Oil on Canvas, 2016)
The final series, Internet Paintings, are all completely new oil paintings Stephenson has created, but this time he's recreated paintings as seen through Google's Cultural Institute, which lets you virtually tour some of the world's most famous museums. Stephenson's recreations come with the nuances and glitches of seeing these works online and filtered through Google's 360 backpack cameras: complete with distortions, bending, or just completely blurred-out. Stephenson's version of The Haywain is in an irregular-shaped frame, while his The Lady of Shalott is warped with ceiling lights crossing through it. Warhol's Orange Car Crash, (5 Deaths 11 Times in Orange) has navigation panels on it, and lights, too.
The Haywain (Google Cultural Institute) After Constable (Hand Painted Oil on Canvas, 2016)
The works are slightly absurdist takes on how we often make invisible the digital signifiers of the contemporary world. In these paintings, Stephenson reminds us of the fact that they're part of our reality, just like the rural scenery of the River Stour was part of Constable's. He's also mischievously foisting a collaboration onto these painters and artists.
"Bansky and the Chapman brothers have all worked on old oil paintings and they were all about the punchline," notes Stephenson. "But I’m more interested in the relationship with the original artist and the collaborative nature of that. And the idea that this is proper graffiti. Because there’s this idea that graffiti isn’t what’s written, it’s not the message, it’s the surface it’s written on that makes it graffiti. So if you take a blank canvas and use a spray can and tag it, it’s not graffiti, it’s just spray can art on a blank canvas. What makes it graffiti is that it has to be done on a surface that has already lived, already has had an existence that wasn’t intended for being written on. So those oil paintings, they weren’t intended for me to change. In that sense, it's graffiti."
Watermarked Painting #444530605 (Shutterstock meta) Attributed to John Constable, circa 19th Century (Ink on Oil on Canvas, 2016