Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, U.S.A.
January 26 - February 23, 2019
Curated by Gretta Louw
From medieval religious painting and the iconography of the Church, through to the power of design that was harnessed by the Nazi regime in the 20th Century, and on through to the development of a pictorial, visual language of digital icons that stand in for the supposedly abstract aspects of contemporary digital technologies, it is clear that the cultural, social, and political power of icons is enormous. Looking back at pre-Renaissance religious painting, it is hard to overlook the stylistic similarities to what we would now consider to be a kind of graphic design. There are incessant repetitions of instantly recognisable visual devices, from the representation of haloes to angel wings; the depictions of the Madonna and child; and a clearly delineated spectrum of hand signals, or positions, to each of which is attached a specific and readily-understood meaning. All of these symbols—rendered in the flat, linear, ‘graphic’ style that preceded the invention of chiaroscuro—would have been ‘readable’ to the populace of the time, regardless of widespread illiteracy. The missionary power of gold-leaf scenes of paradise in early religious painting is unmistakable. Indeed, most if not all significant changes in the socio-political order are accompanied by a powerful and comprehensive visual identity; we see this in historical documentation of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Third Reich, the religious imperialism of the Church, and in various monarchies around the world.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the extreme social, political, and cultural upheaval of the digital revolution has also been accompanied by an aesthetic identity that is unrivalled in recent times. The now ubiquitous use of the word ‘icon’, with its origins in religious iconography, is telling. The technological elite of the last two to three decades continue to evangelise for the messianic power of technological developments to save us / the world / the environment / you-name-it from all that ails us. From the early 2000s through to the Arab Spring there was a palpable element of religious fervour to the pursuit of an astoundingly wide range of differing goals through technology; from the cyberpunk art movements that sought limitless freedom of expression and increased equality through the internet to the techno-utopians of various futurist endeavours with all of their extremely problematic ableism, racism, and sexism. The visual language, the iconography, of the internet and digital technologies that is so entrenched today grew up out of this zeal, liberally spiced, I would argue, with conscious and cynical efforts on the part of commercial interests in the tech industry, to form a visual language that supports an unquestioning acceptance of certain narratives about technology and a subversion of others. The very nature of graphic design—the essential project of creating an icon—is the deletion of certain elements, complexities, irregularities in favour of creating an archetypal, essentialised, cohesive visual; it is about turning a messy reality into a unified and unifying ideal. The influence that a successful visual identity campaign can have, something we have seen again recently with the rise of #MAGA, Pepe, and the Alt-right, is chronically under-estimated.
The exhibition Iconicity presents the work of contemporary artists who are exploring and deconstructing the nature of icons as well as fabulating speculative iconographies, including Carla Gannis, Tabita Rezaire, Jan Robert Leegte, Keiichi Matsuda, Alicia Ross, the Warnayaka Aboriginal Art Centre, American Artist, and Gretta Louw. These artists—working across sculpture, textile, print, video, and digital mediums—unravel, subvert, and reimagine the very substance of icons, highlighting the parallels between contemporary icons and their origins in art history, as well as going further toward illuminating and dismantling the power structures and deeply political agendas that underpin iconicity.