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A Question of Authorship

Bruce Wang Citizen Wang Studio
A question of authorship

Article By Naomi Elfred Ross @

A Question of Authorship
16/04/2022 by Naomi Elfred-Ross

Bruce has recently commissioned me to do two screen prints for him; one of him and one of his partner, Kathryn. I have wanted to do a portrait of Bruce for some time now and having recently had the opportunity to dip my toe back in the world of screen printing, I have been reminded of how much I enjoy the process and the vibrant impact of the end result. Theres something quite joyous about its boldness. This reintroduction was the creation of a self portrait and one of my husband, Adam. I monoprinted the background, working gesturally and rapidly, as I was using the screen.

I then created templates taken from photographs of Adam and I (I dont have access to the technology of photographic screen printing) and screen printed the images, in black, on top.

The end result had a real pop art sort of flavour and I am hoping that Andy Warhol doesnt try to sue me, from the grave, although I have a suspicion that he wouldnt mind. The portraits are meant as a gift for our 10 year wedding anniversary, which is later this month, so all of this is top secret information! Anyway, I was pleased and flattered that Bruce had asked me to do this for him. As we conversed through messenger, a discussion about who took the photos that were used for the print took place. Bruce was very much of the opinion that, if I were to have full authorship over the end result, I should take the photos. I must admit, that was my initial intention.

However, I also started to reflect that I was not the photographer here and have never claimed to be. I take snaps with my camera phone, which is particularly helpful when Im thinking about the composition of an artwork of gathering ideas.

I use my phone as a sort of sketchbook, but I am an amateur. Whereas, Bruces brand is very much in the field of photography, in which he has become quite the icon. I was interested in the idea of recontextualising his images, using a different medium. I was also interested in the relationship between Kathryn and Bruce and what each might draw out of the other, as they sat for one another. Surely the camera would see something I would have no hope of finding? Theres an argument either way, so in many ways, I am open to try different approaches and to see what grabs me. However, it was the matter of authorship that really got me thinking.

What does it mean to have full authorship over a work of art and is it at all possible? I also wondered why it is necessary. It felt like a very purist way of thinking and given that artists have an important role in drawing ideas from and commenting on the world existing around them, are we not borrowing and reappropriating all the time, in a world of mass media and information overload? It is surely impossible to block all of that out and create from scratch. Can it not be said that, even though an artist might borrow and reappropriate ideas from other sources, the end result will surely bring a new way of seeing. Returning to the pop art movement and Andy Warhol specifically, he had intentionally sought to produce work that was mass produced and as anonymous as an advert on a billboard, but his work is still always recognisably his. As was his intention, he had no shame in borrowing from mass culture and yet he could not avoid but bring something new and exciting and this could only have come from him, the artist, the author. Warhol was interested in iconic brands and for me, Bruce is my iconic brand, he is Citizen Wang and as an artist of a different discipline, I want to reinterpret his work. To give it a new context.

My thoughts then turned to the Dadaists, which is a movement both Bruce and I have often talked about and are very much defined by the reappropriation of pre-existing objects. MoMA defines appropriation as the intentional borrowing, altering or copying of pre-existing images and objects. It has been a well used form of expression for well over a century and the practice was, in fact, thought do be pioneered by dadaism. Marcel Duchamp, one of the key figures of the movement made readymades, by selecting and modifying readymade objects. He also used an approach that involved simply repositioning and then signing an object he had chosen, imbuing a sense of irony and downright cheekiness. Marlene Dumas is a favourite artist of mine who rarely, if ever, works from life. Instead, she borrows from media images and historical references. Her ghostly portraits are intense and emotionally charged, as they address existential themes and political topics. She often deals with controversial topics and so the use of borrowed images enables her to have the necessary distance from the subject to enable her to paint. What emerges is something quite unique and would not be recognised as anything but a work by Dumas, in her very unique style. Surely there is no question of authorship here. However, the subject of authorship is something that artists continue to grapple with and understandably so as we do live in a culture of mass litigation!

I was recently having a conversation with a fellow printmaker, who said that he felt he always had to start his creative process by observing and sketching from life. This is, of course, a personal choice and he seemed to have no issue with others using different approaches. Perhaps it is something he enjoys doing and thats fair enough. However, I prefer to feel the freedom to choose. I find there is much inspiration to be gleaned from browsing online and hacking up newspapers and magazines, as it tells me about the world around me from a range of perspectives, not just mine. So, coming back to how I will approach Bruces commission. Well, I suppose, as he is paying me, he must be allowed some input, but it he wants a work that Naomi Elfred-Ross can sign, as her own, with confidence, I have to request my creative freedom and hope that hes onboard, as Im potentially reliant on him lending me something of himself. I can only hope that he will feel flattered by my wish to offer my own perspective of him and Kathryn and the brand of Citizen Wang. What do you say Bruce?

Ps. Some of the thoughts and assertions made in this blog have been borrowed and reappropriated for the purpose of my argument. I am unable to recall many of the sources, as it is all information stored in my brain from the many occasions I have flicked through art magazines or online searches. I give thanks to all those unremembered contributors to this piece.