(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
A group of local artists is challenging the boundaries of copyright law with an East Boston exhibition that promises to be full of secondhand ideas, pilfered motifs, and outright thievery.
All Works Guaranteed Stolen, running from Jan. 6 – 22 at the Atlantic Works Gallery, features work that ranges from clever takeoffs and pastiches of existing art and entertainment to pieces that merely mimic, modify, or even just physically enlarge their source material.
The idea for the show came from printmaker Mitchel Ahern, but he said putting it all together has been a group effort for the members of the artist-owned gallery and their guests. He and other artists paused Wednesday afternoon while hanging the show in the sunny, top-floor gallery at 80 Border St. to discuss what made them decide to risk a bevy of lawsuits.
Ahern said the exhibit is their statement against the corporations that successfully lobbied Congress to extend copyright protections beyond the period intended by the framers of the Constitution and that aggressively prosecute possible violators.
“The right of artists to use the pieces of their society in their art is being significantly curtailed, both legally, but also there’s a huge chilling effect,” he said. “Most artists don’t have lawyers, and even if a piece they want to use might be considered fair use, a lot of people are pulling away from it because they don’t know if it’s fair use.”
Ahern, 51, who lives in Swampscott, said that even an artist acting within the law could wind up in court, often up against a major corporation with money to burn on legal fees that an artist couldn’t possibly match.
“You can spend tens of thousands of dollars proving yourself innocent,” Ahern said. “The legal system’s become very punitive.”
Gallery member Sonia Domkarova, 27, a Czech immigrant who lives in Gloucester, said it’s natural and inevitable that an artist will take inspiration and incorporate images from the world around her.
“Just living in the culture that we live in today … everybody’s just so influenced by the images coming at them from when they’re little kids,” Domkarova said. “Like television, and billboards and everything around you, it’s just something that gets in your head and stays there.”
She and Ahern argue that art has always taken from the world and the times in which it was created and that this natural tendency is only enhanced by the ease with which modern technology enables us to see, absorb, internalize, transform, and share ideas and images. They say the notion that artists must be prevented from incorporating their influences is a relatively new one, and ultimately destructive.
The impulse may be natural, but the way it’s employed by these artists is idiosyncratic in the extreme. For the exhibit, some worked in the manner of a favorite artist, such as Bo Petran, whose “Slunečnice. Homage to Anselm” mimics the rough-hewn, post-apocalyptic style of contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer.
Others, like abstract painter Justin Augspurg, took images from multiple sources and combined them in ways that leave their provenance evident but create new and unique objects. Augspurg, 32, said he made his collage for the show using the same method in he uses when he paints.
“I will sort of have a number of different ideas overlapping in my paintings and dig out different things,” Augspurg said. He explained that a couple of the images in his collage had been cut out of his own drawings and paintings, while others were taken from advertising posters or wheat-pasted street graffiti.
“I kind of miss the vandalism of graffiti,” he said, reflecting on how the street art has become acceptable enough to hang in museums. “It’s sort of gone now.”
A few artists push the question of how little transformation can still be considered a legally approved “transformative use.” One is Martha McCollough, who took a single panel from a recent edition of the newspaper comic strip “Mary Worth” and — with a few alterations — enlarged it until it resembled a Roy Lichtenstein comic strip painting.
Domkarova argued that all these approaches are valid, and she didn’t think any of these appropriations could be damaging to their sources.
“Do you think Andy Warhol did any harm to Campbell’s soup?” she asked.
For a gallery of images from All Works Guaranteed Stolen, click here. For more information about the exhibit, visit http://atlanticworks.org/exhibitions_2011/january/exhibition_january.html.
Email Jeremy C. Fox at email@example.com.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)