Plender's work operates, at least explicitly, on a
surface level, within the same framework as that of
the polysemic novel, where an interrelation of self-contained
parts combines to the work's final understanding. This
polysemic reading can be interpreted as a semiotics
of content, in which each distinct part of the work
contains its own meaning, intrinsic to and apart from
the overall meaning. Paul Maltby states that the new
modes of writing, such as the comic, "attack, undermine,
parody, or otherwise call into question certain assumptions
of modernist fiction" (521). Plender's work deconstructs
conventions of writing and fiction both explicitly and
implicitly; implicitly, by circumventing expected notions
of content, (including narrative tradition and character
appearance,) and explicitly, through form, (utilizing
not only a 'comic' format but a disjointed, 'collage'
aesthetic). According to theorist Linda Hutcheon, through
their subversion of content and form, the 'new modes'
of art and writing use "irony and parody [to] operate
on two levels - a primary, surface, or foreground; and
a second, implied, or backgrounded one" (34). The Masterpiece operates successfully in precisely this
manner. On an explicit level, its overt themes and immediate
messages are generally accepted by the reader/viewer
without awareness of the social, cultural, or historical
implications that Plender is referencing or contrasting.
According to Hutcheon, the implied level is where the
work generates its most significant meaning: "the
[implied level] derives its meaning from the context
in which it is found" (34).
"Acknowledged Borrowing": Meaning through
However, Plender is most interested in seeking out the
multiplicities of meaning that appear in the selected
sources, avoiding the tired high/low art binary to focus
instead on contrast and newness of interpretation. In
her criticism of modern tropes of art and art production,
Plender actively disconnects herself from its restrictions.
With The Masterpiece, Plender takes on the role of artist
and omniscient, critical of all that takes place in
the art-world, simultaneously criticizing and romanticizing.
The images Plender has chosen for the The Masterpiece
appear with self-awareness and dissociation, so that
their humor and referential qualities become evident.
Hutcheon states that the compulsive dis- and re-organization
that Plender undertakes is unlike imitation or allusion,
going beyond simplistic and one-dimensional reference,
requiring what she refers to as critical ironic distance.
"It is true that, if the decoder does not notice,
or cannot identify, an intended allusion or quotation,
he or she will merely naturalize it, adapting it to
the context of the work as a whole" (34). The work
must permit an informed reader the space to recognize
the appropriated images at play, both as deriving from
their old context, but more importantly, their relation
in the new context.
It is Plender's responsibility to take a pre-existent
form out of its original context, and through re-contextualization,
sever it from its previous context while and imbue it
with newness, while maintaining its original message.
Film theorist André Bazin explains that this
is because images, regardless of their context, retain
traces of their 'previous lives' (195-199). Plender's
drawings, although breathtakingly detailed, are 'stolen'
from 'dead' sources and hereby literally reincarnated
into a new context. The images Plender appropriates
retain traces of their former 'lives' as novellas and
adverts, and when purposely constructed, their new and
original meanings contrast to create complex references
and connotations, whether intentional or arbitrary.
However, this is not a criticism of Plender as much
as an admirable undertaking in postmodern art. A quote
by theorist Ihab Hassan relates to Plender's decidedly
'postmodern' practices: he states that after the 1960s
creative individuals "had it in mind to challenge
the elitism of the high modernist tradition in the name
of popular culture... Pop and silence, or mass culture
and deconstruction, or Superman and Godot
be aspects of the postmodern universe" (275).
Appropriation differs from plagiarism in its acknowledgement
and criticality of the texts it appropriates/reconstructs,
what Hutcheon calls the "acknowledged borrowing"
necessary for the creation of new modes of art and writing
(38). Hutcheon explains that there is no "desire
to conceal," in this type of work (39). The Masterpiece
engages in its decoding and interpretation of its background
texts. Plender's appropriation is an exciting exploration
of existing forms to produce newness; her willingness
to reuse whatever cultural forms she does shows a fondness
of retro and historicism, as well as a pragmatic sensibility
about art and its discourse. In The Masterpiece, nothing
is direct; everything can be read against itself or
the other texts as they appear in Plender's work, offering
an extraordinary sophistication of meaning and entendre,
what Hutcheon refers to as hypertexuality, or intertext
(30). The multiplicity of meaning is twofold - either
a didactic understanding of these intertexts as they
appear in The Masterpiece, or a more in depth awareness
of the cultural forms herein at play. Thus, new meaning
is generated against the initial meaning, becoming an
opposition or contrast between texts as they (re)appear
in Plender's appropriation (Hutcheon 32). Granted, Plender's
references are rarely high-cultural forms, and when
they are, are presented in earnest, not intended to
be romanticized admirations.
The Tortured Genius and The Masterpiece
Ironically, in Zola's textual The Masterpiece,
for instance, the fictional genius Lantier dies "penniless
and unknown while lesser artists find success by plagiarizing
his unique style" (Pender). How appropriate, then,
that Plender bases her entire artistic reputation on
mimicking and reiterating this fictional, yet archetypal
'artist-travesty'. Plender's version of The Masterpiece
takes off where Zola's poorly received novel left off,
referencing and parodying itself and its constituents
through its very existence.