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Painting Modern Masterpieces Onto The Skins Of 21st Century Gadgetry

Artist Jon Rafman resurfaces mass produced goods–from motorcycles to vacuums–with works from high modern painters.

Remember Google Street Views, the incredible collection of weird, beautiful, and scary images captured by Google’s roving army of camera cars and curated by Canadian artist Jon Rafman? Rafman created the remarkable series as he sat at his desk, clicking through Street View–effectively repositioning art a byproduct of the internet.

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With a new show at Flatiron gallery American Medium, Rafman is back to manipulating our perception of art’s value–this time in sculpture form.

In Brand New Paint Job (BNPJ), Rafman wraps totally banal consumer goods, like couches and laptops, in celebrated Modernist paintings. For example, he’s airbrushed a motorcycle with Barnett Newman’s abstract expressionist masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue. A rack of T-shirts and a clothing steamer are all covered in David Hockney’s iconic 1967 painting, A Big Splash. A jet ski hangs from the ceiling, coated in the deep ultramarine hue invented by Yves Klein in the 1940s. In one corner, Italian Futurist Umberto Buccioni seems to have gone wild, covering a couch, carpet, and vacuum in Cubist geometries. An XBOX racing cockpit, a camcorder, and a laptop are shrink wrapped in work by Keith Haring, Claude Flight, and Joaquin Garcia-Torres, respectively.

Before he was asked by American Medium to produce a gallery show, BNPJ was one of Rafman’s digital projects. Using simple 3-D texturing tools, he applied digital bitmap versions of the paintings to mundane objects downloaded from Google’s 3D Warehouse. With a single application of a bitmap, paintings that had been studied for decades, obsessed over, and bought for millions of dollars became part of Google’s vast database of shared models. With these physical recreations of his models, Rafman asks us to think about canonical art in the same way we think about mass-produced goods or open-source files.

So, is the value of that motorcycle being increased by Barnett Newman, or is Barnett Newman being cheapened by the bike? “A conversation is going on between the surface and the underlying structure,” explains Rafman. “In this way, the clash of the cultural weight of a high modernist paintings and a mass produced vehicle is not simply another example of the blurring of the distinction between high and low culture.” In other words, it’s an irrelevant question. Despite their different price tags or assigned cultural values, we treat the bike and the painting much the same way–as objects to be owned.

If you want to try out BNPJ on some files of your own, Rafman has created BNPJ.exe, a game based on the piece that you can download here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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