"An Internet year is like the span of 10 generations," the artist Jon Rafman explains. It’s sort of like dog years, some strange experiential kink that has to do not only with just how much media we see now every day—and, consequently, how fast we have to process it all—but also with the unprecedented ability our digital tools give us to remix and re-use, to not just pay homage to works of art that inspire us but to appropriate and transform them directly.
You could say that Rafman is something of an authority on appropriation in the Internet age—on a site called 9 Eyes, he isolates enigmatic slices of life from Google Street View to terrific effect. But another one of his projects, New Age Demanded, ups the ante considerably, collapsing traditions of Greek sculpture, modern art, and sci-fi literature into a collection of arresting, imaginary sculptures.
The ongoing project began two years ago, developing "out of a newfound love for working with my hands," Rafman explains. But that doesn’t mean painting or sculpting in the traditional sense—"Not my real hands," he clarifies. "My virtual hands." What emerged was a series of busts, variously deformed and distorted, rendered in diverse digital materials. One looks like a block of ice with the face crudely chiseled away; another like a human head rendered in solid gold, and then dropped from the observation deck of a tall building.
With these first pieces, Rafman says, he was going for something akin to sci-fi book covers—glimpses into fantastical, unknown worlds. "I kind of imagined the busts as alien heroes from different dimensions," he explains, players in "long-lost space operas." But as he continued to add new busts to the collection—now totaling nearly a hundred—he started to include a new element in the pieces: modern art. Whereas those first busts typically explored a tension between form and material, the recent pieces wear canonical works of modern art like a skin, starting a "conversation between the underlying structure and the surface," Rafman says.
On one level, it can be read as an homage, but Rafman suggests there’s something a bit more subversive going on than that. It has to do, in part, with realizing painting’s greatest fear: turning into a decorative object.
"It’s a play on, maybe, interior design chic," Rafman says. "I was trying to play with that line between art and design . . . in this day and age, there’s a sort of lightness to everything that’s digital—there’s this freedom to remix anything you want and create whatever composite you feel like—so in a way I was just doing that to these great, canonized modernist paintings, so on one level they become like wallpaper or shrink-wrap."
Of course, that conversation with art history and the decorative arts is just one of the planes on which the pieces operate. Rafman says what he likes most is just the topological nature of the forms themselves—something like "a landscape meeting a Greek bust," he explains. And in reality, his busts could have been layered in any number of skins.
"There’s a level to them that’s arbitrary—I use them, on one level, because they have really hi-res images, and I need those to work." Okay, maybe painting’s real greatest fear is being used in an Internet art project just because it’s available in super high resolution.