In recent art, “appropriation” has come to be associated with a certain presentational strategy—a kind of post-Conceptual style—in which a selection of found objects or images is arranged according to an abstract superstructure that’s usually articulated only in a press release or other supplemental text. Michael Fullerton tends to upend this formula even as he engages in complex conceptualist ploys. Without disavowing traditional artistic techniques, he creates intricate and idea-rich gallery displays that amount to sprawling investigations of art history, popular culture and various forms of power.
In his first solo exhibition in New York since 2006, Fullerton, a Scottish artist who trained as a painter in Glasgow, presented a series of oil-on-linen portraits influenced by Thomas Gainsborough. These paintings were joined by a group of electronic sculptures and a variety of related prints, as well as an abundance of museum-style wall texts. Fullerton’s subjects include figures from recent history and appropriated images from classic American popular culture—all organized to suggest a systematic critique more in tune with Haacke than with Warhol.
The opener of the exhibition was The Producer (all works 2013 unless noted), a portrait of Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, whose namesake production company became part of MGM. That painting was apposed with The Ultramarine (Kim Dotcom), which depicts the creator of the popular file-sharing website Megaupload. (The latter is fighting extradition to the U.S. on copyright infringement charges; a veritable anti-Goldwyn, Dotcom-born Kim Schmitz—made a fortune in part by facilitating the online piracy of Hollywood movies.) Nearby were portraits of MGM leading lady Jean Harlow (Cipher I [MGM Corp] and Cipher V) and Peter Gutmann (Peter Gutmann, Auckland), developer of cryptographic software. These and other juxtapositions suggested parallels, however loose, between the entertainment industry, tech entrepreneurs and prominent military contractors.
On one wall, a painting of a sleeping Snow White (Beauty [The Walt Disney Company, 1937]), taken from the 1937 Disney cartoon, hung next to a portrait of Marilyn Hewson (The Mistress, 2014), current president of the Lockheed Martin Corporation. In a nearby gallery, adjacent to a large metallic silkscreen painting of Lockheed Martin’s Polaris missile, two green lasers were mounted on a pedestal. One pointed toward Polaris, the North Star; the other to Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. (The lion is another allusion to MGM, and both constellations orbit around Harlow, a “star” whose portrait was close at hand.)
Fullerton’s exhibition amounted to a pictorial pantheon of leaders within what could be called a military-industrial-entertainment complex. Yet the portraits also raise questions about the relationship between the depicted subjects and the paintings’ formal qualities. Here too, MGM provides a point of reference, as the studio’s motto—”Ars gratia artis” (Art for Art’s Sake)—seems to belong to the same aesthetic milieu as Fullerton’s prettified paintings, which recall the kitschy look of hand-painted photographs.
Not all of the historical connections suggested by the exhibition were easy to draw, with a number of seemingly tertiary references at play. Cary Grant on Acid, circa 1955, for example, depicts the actor hallucinating the CBS network logo. But the density of Fullerton’s inquiry is offset by the exhibition’s moments of levity. One painting was simply copied from a jewelry advertisement in an in-flight magazine, which, the wall text insists, “was clearly influenced by 18th century portraiture.” The knowing tone of the (ironic?) observation was typical of the hyper-self-awareness of the exhibition, which suggested a high-stakes historical probe while simultaneously bordering on playful folly.