UBC | Digital Visions
Digital Visions
Olivia Plender
Writer: Andrew Johann Salgado
The Masterpiece

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 Appropriation
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…may all 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.

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