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

Plender's re-treading of this territory is never misled; the issues she tackles are done so with a pragmatic, often sardonic tone. As a result, she becomes a critic, not a subject, of the artificiality and (sur)reality she attempts to deconstruct. She is quick to point out the fallacy and absurdity rooted in Zola's literary counterpart, The Masterpiece, stating that "when [the novel] was first published, the impressionists were worried that the novel would be used to attack the new [avant-garde] style of painting. But to the contemporary eye the hackneyed suffering of the book's genius seemed ridiculous". Throughout her visual reconstruction of the same world Zola created in text, Plender is never disillusioned by the romanticized realm into which she submerges her characters. Even in conversation, her references are diverse, bordering between nostalgic, postmodern sentimentality, and poignant cultural ethos: "I am simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by […] the idea of the 'Byronic' Romantic hero. [An idea] lived out by everyone from Lord Byron to James Dean, Jackson Pollock to rock stars. It is exclusively male and generally does not take into account the fact that a masterpiece is rarely the work of a lone genius but generally evolves out of a social milieu or scene. [Nick] is a satire on this idea of the 'lone genius' ".

Nick, the artist [of the Masterpiece,] represents a cultural stereotype in the mythology surrounding the idea of the genius figure….Even though [he is a] disgusting character [he] perhaps represents […many individuals] involved with the art world. One of the reasons behind making this kind of comment within a fictional narrative is that there is an ambiguity about who I am criticizing. (Plender)

In conversation, Plender discusses with joking reflexivity an upcoming episode of The Masterpiece, which borrows as much from the mythologies of real artists as it serves to create Nick with a mythology all of his own. The unfinished work (presumably episode four) sees Nick confronted with a discussion about the nature of art and the role of the artist. His response is to throw a chair, rather than respond with a reasoned argument". I am inclined to presume that this is precisely the way she likes her artists to behave.

Like Greenberg's account of his meeting with Pollock, Plender's vision of the romantic artist is mythologized, becoming a part of the artist's created personage and history, regardless of its accuracy and truthfulness (or lack thereof). Plender's artist, while modeled after an amalgam of artists and others, is in fact materialized by Russell, whose career was shattered after a series of questionable films (in discussion, Plender referenced the documentary Delius and Pop Goes the Easel as well as the controversial The Devils). "I used text from an interview with him that I found in a film magazine from the 1970s, as the basis for Norman the art dealer's monologue that starts off episode three" she states. Following this statement with a quip characteristic of Plender - both non-committal and candidly humorous - "[the monologue is] ridiculously romantic and bombastic". From my discourse with Plender, such a response is not surprising; for an artist doing a piece on a struggling artist she is refreshingly frank and knowledgeable, never misinterpreting the role of art and the position of the artist. While her work seeks to challenge these conventions, it does so with a dissociated self-reflexivity never compromised with her own apocalyptic or romanticized sentimentality.

With The Masterpiece, Plender has found a method to confront and deconstruct notions of storytelling and art-production through content, style, and format. Influenced by the works and concepts of Fahlström, Plender's fine art sensibilities challenge the comic's reception in the art realm and its conventions of narrative, style, content, and form. Her source material, appropriated from pulp novellas, adverts, film stills, magazines, and texts, dialogues, theoretical accounts, and speeches - is dissociated from its origin, and provide Plender with virtually endlessly possibilities to rework and create new meaning. The work borrows as much from art archetypes as it does from film semiology, postmodern literature, and polysemic fiction. Plender incorporates all of this, through painstakingly detailed and comprehensive imagery and storytelling, into a (for lack of a better word) 'comic'. As a result, The Masterpiece is at once straightforward and complex, candid and humorous, didactic and ironic. Regardless of whether the interrelation of images appears seamless or unstable, new meaning results from the appropriated imagery within its new context. Although Plender states she is "criticizing these art world structures," her use of these elements is informed, never aloof, and operates as a means to challenge and critique the constituents of the contemporary art society, successfully dismantling the system by reusing its own forgotten forms.

Lastly, Plender discusses Greenberg's anecdote about a 'growling Pollock', stating that "somewhere within all that, Greenberg mythologized Pollock as the animalistic [yet] all-American painter while simultaneously robbing him of his voice". Plender's awareness of postmodern techniques and intertextual resources allows The Masterpiece to successfully critique the mythologies created that transcend artists into geniuses and their work into 'masterpieces'. Just as Greenberg mythologized Pollock, Plender creates a stereotype of the tortured, Byronic artist-genius through her character, Nick, in order to use him as a metonym for the art world and the society, art practices, and tropes she wishes to critique. "I am extremely critical of [the cultural mythology of the artist]", she states, "The Masterpiece [challenges] the classic association [that art exists] between brilliance and insanity, exacerbated by the loneliness of a god-like task and the daily torment of being all too human". By reconstituting 'dead' histories, tropes, and mythologies, Plender plays both these roles, human and omniscient, simultaneously deconstructing the world that she creates.


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