"Messin' with the Masters" Remixes Art History at Mesa Contemporary Arts

Musicians remix songs all the time. Artists do the same thing, only they call it appropriation. So just think of "Messin' with the Masters" at Mesa Contemporary Arts as a compilation of visual remixes of old art world masterpieces.

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For centuries, artists have outright copied the work of culturally significant artists. In days of yore, it was de rigueur to slavishly reproduce, stroke by stroke, paintings and sculpture crowned with the title of masterpiece by then acknowledged societal arbiters of good taste and high fashion.

During the Renaissance and well into the Enlightenment, entire European studios and workshops were filled with fledgling art students and guild craftsmen humbly honing their technical skills in hopes of being as good as the master, or at least good enough to work alongside him. Asian cultures had a huge head start on Europe in this department; they were producing art based on the work and styles of master artists centuries before it ever became culturally mandatory for their Western counterparts.

Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, household-name artists like Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso shamelessly started filching bits and pieces of visual elements and styles from revered art historical masterworks to create entirely new art. By the 1980s, a full-bore movement called appropriationism reached an apex, in which artists borrowed, reused, and recycled -- sometimes wholesale -- art from times and cultures past, even using the work of their contemporaries, including, according to critic Arthur Danto, "...bad drawing and bad painting." Placing those ripped-off components in new contexts or tweaking their presentation gave new subversive meaning to old imagery, ideally elevating it to high art. Some critics solemnly declared that appropriationism marked the end of art, the avant-garde, and art history itself.

So much for that dire prediction. Mesa Contemporary Art Museum's "Messin' with the Masters" gathers together the work of contemporary artists from around the world who have, for the most part, skillfully appropriated iconography and styles from acknowledged masterpieces to give dissimilar, often satiric, meaning to their own art. Yes, the iconic Mona Lisa, Grant Woods' American Gothic, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper inevitably pop up in "Messin'," but so do classic Japanese Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and the golden glow of pre-Raphaelite paintings. For the most part, the show eschews mere knockoffs, concentrating on work that twists easily recognizable images in fresh ways.

Not that all the work hits the top of the charts in the art world equivalent of Billboard. While Valley artist Larry Willis's La Italianas (2011), featuring Sophia Loren holding a Mona Lisa mask, tiny silk-screened, Andy Warhol Mona Lisa images and a large Ferrari logo, makes a statement about the contemporary meaning of Italian "imports," his Birth of Marilyn (2011) -- Botticelli's Venus on the half-shell swapped out for Marilyn Monroe in her classic pose from The Seven Year Itch -- is more of a one-note samba. Mona Citrus (2005) by Randy Slack is barely saved from being a mere cover rendition of the Mona Lisa by the insertion of citrus trees, trunks mysteriously painted white as they usually are in Phoenix, and a noticeable shiner on Mona, raising speculation that her enigmatic smile might actually be a grimace of discomfort. The poses of two young black men against a floral backdrop in Kehinde Wiley's massive canvas, Marechal Floriano Peixoto (2009), supposedly patterned after figures in a monument to Brazil's second president, are less heroic in stance and more, ahem, akin to kids messing around. Wiley's reference to this obscure Brazilian sculpture gets completely lost in translation.

And L.A. artist Mike Reynolds must be betting on future generations holding Justin Bieber up as a cultural icon, since his painting is patterned after a 16th noblewoman and child in which he swaps Bieber's face for not only the mother and child's, but renders it in candle smoke as well.

More successful work seems to be that which either completely undermines the intent of the original work after which it's patterned, or rearranges bits and pieces of old work -- or a master's signature style -- to cobble together wholly disparate work. Last Supper (2012) by Christopher Ulrich supplants Leonardo's apostles with a motley crew of saints, demons, and mythological deities from different religions, whip-stitched together with threads of astrological and religious symbols, while Siri Devi Khandavilli from Bangalore, India, switches out the head of an ancient, reclining Hindu goddess cast in bronze with the head of a pampered poodle in Shayana Sundari (2012), a potent statement on post-modern obsession with physical appearance. Japanese sculptor Tomokazu Matsuyama, who now works in New York City, appropriates sacred sculpture of a 13th century Buddhist temple guardian and contemplative monk from Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, and turns them on their metaphorical heads. Matsuyama carves an "I Love NY" heart through the chest of his polyurethane version of the fierce temple guardian, armed for battle -- clearly an homage to his new home. His latter-day monk, cast from glittery resin and surrounded by plastic beer bottles and cigarette butts, can only be the evil twin of the original spiritual master depicted.

My ultimate favorite in MCA's "Messin' with the Masters" relies heavily on the unmistakable style of the four seasons portraits of 16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Cancerealism (2011) by New Yorker Christian Rex Van Minnen turns Arcimboldo's charming images, composed completely from fruits and vegetables, into a horrifying mass of writhing, disintegrating cancerous flesh, a declaration not only about the physical ravages of that timeless enemy, but with the subtext that modern man has laced his bounty with poisons that will kill the hapless consumer.

"Messin' with the Masters" at Mesa Contemporary Arts is on display until January 26, 2014.

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Kathleen Vanesian