BY TAYLOR HOBSON
David Klamen repaints a variety of masterpieces that spans centuries, from works by Old Masters like Francisco de Zurbarán to Impressionists and Modernists like Claude Monet and Clifford Styll. While Klamen may choose from a wide range, he appropriates upon each piece within a similar visual framework. The original piece is depicted at an angle on a sparse museum wall, accompanied by nothing but an informational placard. These elements are so reliably constant that minutia such as the degree of the angle, the color of the artificial wall, and the size of Klamen’s actual canvas seldom seem to ever change.
Such repetition almost lulls one’s eye into a sense of predictability. At points, however, this becomes pleasantly disrupted. For instance, at this showing at the Richard Gray gallery, one could confuse the actual light on the exhibition wall and the illusionistic effect of the shadow on the canvas’ painted museum wall. In another room, proportion became an issue, whereupon a Zurbaran and Franz Kline hung side-by-side, both painted at similar angles against sterile, blank walls. At a first glance, the original paintings depicted appear to be the same dimensions, save for the comparative sizes of the reproduced museum placard beside each- the one visual clue that the Zurbaran would dwarf the Kline in an actual museum space.
Klamen might be having fun with some tromp le’ oil parlor tricks here, but it is evident that his “paintings of paintings” are more about exploring perspective from a figurative point of view. His strict use of consistent compositional elements has a specific intent. It forces the viewer into the same very specific position in each work, that of the museum visitor.
One wonders as to what exactly is the purpose of this visual buffer. It leaves the viewer feeling detached, as Klamen’s illusory spaces feel contrived. Yet here is where his genius lies.
Were Klamen to simply reproduce each painting as closely as possible to the original, he would polarize his audience like a visual Pierre Menard. Like Jose Luis Borges’ fictional re-writer of Don Quixote, the identical reproduction of original works would lack layers. It would corner him into a conceptual territory already occupied by appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine or Mike Bidlo, where there is no middle ground between genius and hack. The measured nature of Klamen’s hyperrealistic brushwork suggests that he is interested in more nuanced issues of representation. These works explore the entwined relationship between art objects and museums, pressing the subtleties of how art is exhibited and how we see it to the foreground.
The angled view of each composition is the crux of Klamen’s deconstructive agenda. This device helps to avoid a direct, literal reproduction of each piece and emphasizes the contemporary context of art history. By opening the angle of the paintings, he creates a space in which the present seeps into the past, allowing the art to exist outside of its isolated historical context and self-awareness.
The display of art is being trumped over the substance of the work itself. To some, this approach might seem tastelessly irreverent- a joke at the expense of the art historical pantheon, in which a Mondrian has been slapped together in the same visual context as a Rembrandt. Yet Klamen doesn’t seem to be making light of these works as anachronistic relics. In fact, he allows us to consider the ways in we interact with masterworks of the past. When Klamen’s skewed angle of perspective makes the wall a part of the artwork, it appears that he is suggesting a relationship that has moved beyond the original image itself.
The iconographic presence of a cultural treasure from a long lost age has always carried a cache to it, especially upon encountering it in person. Yet Klamen restricts the magnaminous qualities of his masterpieces. They lack any sense of opulence. His take on the Zurbaran work presents an uncleaned canvas hanging unattended to in a dimly spit space, its magnificence hidden under years of dirt and grime.
Here, one might consider the differences in viewing an art object in person versus the menagerie of its reproductions, a contrast that has only become more apparent with the advent of the information age. The internet has created the grandest of virtual museums, where the entire span of art history exists in one large Google image search. In a way this cheapens a masterpiece’s visual resonance. Yet it only heightens its mystique, making the unique experience of seeing the original in person that much more of a privilege.