How Google Image Searches Influence Artists Today

Jörg Immendorff, Rühmen 1 (Picabia) (1990)
Jörg Immendorff, Rühmen 1 (Picabia) (1990)
Photo by Michael Underwood. Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery.

After former President George W. Bush's paintings of world leaders went viral last year, Greg Allen of the art blog greg.org made a discovery. Bush's versions of Vladimir Putin or Tony Blair appeared to have been inspired by photos pulled straight from an Internet image search. "[I]t seems he Googled the world leaders he made such impactful relationships with himself," Allen wrote, "and took the first straight-on headshot he saw." This struck Allen as lazy. Why is a guy with real-world experience that the rest of us can't match relying on Google?

But maybe Bush is more in tune with the zeitgeist than he gets credit for. Go around downtown's new spaces, or to Thomas Duncan Gallery in Hollywood, or to the Underground Museum in West Adams right now, and you'll see photographs and paintings sourced from image searches, some of which resemble screens or will look good on screens once they're photographed and uploaded.

There's a lot of hipster minimalism that could just as well have been designed on a computer: understated paintings or sculptures that really don't seem to be saying much of anything but look smart and savvy, as if their maker knows what's cool these days. Christian Rosa's spare abstractions fit this profile, as do the Jacob Kassay paintings that look like fogged-up mirrors. If quirkiness is there, it's under control.

"Everything starts to look the same," says curator Parinaz Mogadassi, who works for Michael Werner Gallery and runs a Dusseldorf- and London-based alternative space called Tramps. She organized the group painting show at Hannah Hoffman Gallery in Hollywood, and tried to privilege idiosyncrasy over sameness.

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"Painters are being championed like never before," she explains. "[Painting] is not expensive to produce and has the potential to sell for a lot of money, so now every Tom, Dick and Harry seems to have reinvented themselves as a painter. This makes for a lot of shit painting."

She cites a number of paintings that resemble graphic design, with calculatedly placed marks or stripes or found images.

But it's also not fair to blame the boringness on the fact that artists are increasingly imitating digital images or using inkjet printing in place of paint. "We've all become more sophisticated," Mogadassi explains, referring to digital resources, "and as long as we don't become cynical, it could just motivate more dialogue."

The idea for the show, a concise grouping of 13 paintings that span six generations, came out of a conversation Mogadassi and Hannah Hoffman, who used to work together at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in New York, had about artist Michael Williams. Williams recently stopped painting labyrinthine scenes, in which a lobster might be typing on a desktop amidst a swirl of color, or cartoonlike abstract shapes might surround a lonely watering can. Instead, he created digital renderings printed onto canvas. These were necessarily smoother — you just can't replicate gunky paint with a printer — but still unconventional, Mogadassi and Hoffman thought. In one, a cowboy with a hand so big and heavy it must be the reason he's doubled over tosses dice off a dock. The lines in that print are inconsistent, sometimes squiggly.

Mogadassi wanted "not an exhibition that lines up anyone and everyone that uses Photoshop and Epson printers," she says, but one that drew connections between quirky, nontraditional approaches painters had taken over the last century.

She titled her exhibition "Image Search." "[I]t quickly conjures this idea [or] process of looking and discovery," she says. But she wanted the looking and discovery to be instinctual, so that moving from one painting to the next would be like clicking through a terrain where personal or geographical connections coexisted with visual ones.

The oldest painting in "Image Search" is Francis Picabia's Masque from 1949. It looks almost like a collage. A smirking woman — is she wearing a nun's habit? — leans to one side of a velvety dark background. Her ear floats unattached on the other side of the canvas, as if it's been snipped from her two-dimensional head with scissors.

Rita Ackermann and Harmony Korine's Basement Children (2013)EXPAND
Rita Ackermann and Harmony Korine's Basement Children (2013)
Photo by Michael Underwood © Rita Ackermann and Harmony Korine, Courtesy the artists and Hauser & Wirth

The show also includes a portrait of Picabia, made circa 1990 by Dusseldorf-based painter Jörg Immendorff. He found a photograph of Picabia from the 1920s, shirtless and boxy with his chest puffed out, and painted his own yellow-tinted version of the artist in that pose, standing in front of what's either a snow-covered stone or a frosting-covered pastry. The background is an intense black above a bumpy green terrain, and Picabia looks frightening, as does nearly every figure in Immendorff's work. Two other paintings by Immendorff, who loaded a cannon with drawings of flowers and babies during a Vietnam War protest in the 1960s, hang in the show, and they're characteristically aggressive and absurd.

A few other artists in the show worked near or around Immendorff in Dusseldorf. Albert Oehlen taught there. Sigmar Polke, who died at age 68 in 2010, studied at the Dusseldorf Academy, and his painting of a sea creature–like splash uses the same shade of blue as Raphaela Simon's work nearby. The youngest artist in the show, Simon studies in Dusseldorf now and makes surprisingly uneven stripe paintings with smudges here and there — just a step or two out of sync with the slicker, hipster-minimal aesthetic.

Michael Williams' Head, a print-on-canvas, shows a hairless tan-and-beige streaked face with only one ear, although, unlike in Picabia's painting, the ear is still attached. Basement Children, the 2103 painting Rita Ackermann made with filmmaker Harmony Korine, uses the same wild marks and orange hues that Immendorff uses in one of his paintings.

The pair made that painting in a call-and-response sort of way. Korine chose a film still showing a computer screen, blew it up, printed it on vinyl and sent it to Ackermann to paint on. She covered it with ghostly nude figures who are either involved in some sort of devilish ritual or just completely disoriented after too wild a night.

"It's not helpful for every last idea at play to be clearly illustrated," Mogadassi says. "A little bit of mystery goes a long way."

It’s funny, though, that the most mysterious and daring paintings in the show are still those by the older artists — Picabia, Immendorf and maybe Polke. They’re confident and comfortable in their inexplicable oddness, while the younger artists’ work comes off as more calculated and careful. Maybe this is because the digital tools and tropes these younger artists are using are still new to them; maybe it’s because they, like most of us, just haven’t figured out how to reconcile the look and feel of digital imagery with the look and feel of the physical world to which paint-on-canvas belongs. Whatever the reason, it seems they’re still searching for a way to make an image that’s technologically savvy and its own bold, eccentric thing.

Whatever the reason, it seems they're still searching for a way to make an image that's technologically savvy and its own bold, eccentric thing.

Hannah Hoffman Gallery, 1010 N. Highland Ave., Hlywd.; through Feb. 28. hannahhoffmangallery.com


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