The sincerest form of flattery

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After the reopening of Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art last month, I dropped in on the student-run Passage Gallery, where much of the work was concerned with storytelling, and found myself drawn into a conversation on copyright issues. It’s a big concern for today’s students, who, after all, grew up with the Internet for the most part and think nothing of “appropriating” material from a variety of online sources to incorporate into their works. Artists have, of course, been borrowing from one another since the cave paintings. As the Romanian director Liviu Ciulea once told me – while staging “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Purchase College – “All originality is lack of information.” Quite.

Still, imitation isn’t always the sincerest form of flattery. Sometimes it’s the sincerest form of larceny. There’s a good deal of difference between cheating on tests, passing off another’s work as your own and hacking into for-pay websites in the name of “intellectual freedom” on the one hand and drawing inspiration from another’s work to create something entirely different on the other hand. And in a number of recent high-profiled cases, the American judicial system has made that distinction.

I was reminded of our age of appropriation recently while paging through the catalog for “Revised & Restored: The Art of Kathleen Gilje,” a new exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich that I’d really like to see. What Gilje does is to recreate some of the world’s most famous artworks with a provocative twist that makes you think differently about age, race, gender, sexual violence and other searing issues of the day. Sometimes the difference between the original and the Gilje re-creation is so subtle that you have to look for a while, which calls into question how we see. In “La Donna Velata, Restored” (1995), Gilje takes Raphael’s circa 1516 painting of his beloved mistress and gives it and her a black eye. Raphael was known as a lover of beauty and beautiful women. He himself was handsome. His works are so iconic, they’ve become a kind of art historical wallpaper. So when you finally stop and encounter the black eye, it’s as if you’ve been slapped in the face yourself.

Sometimes Gilje’s works are merely witty, as when she adds nail polish to one of Vermeer’s girls with pearl earrings. And sometimes they merely underscore the disconnect between our sleek modernism and the voluptuous line of bygone eras. But when they work best, her paintings capture the rage that lurks beneath female vulnerability. In “Susanna and the Elders, Restored” (1998), Gilje reimagines a 1610 painting by Artemisia Gentileschi that is layered with sexual violence, potential and actual. It’s not only about those disgusting Elders spying on Susanna in the bath and attempting to blackmail her into having sex with them. It’s also a work that was painted by a woman who we know was raped by her artist-father’s apprentice, the man who had been entrusted with teaching her art but instead taught her brutality. The way it worked in Renaissance Italy is that the authorities tortured the victim to ensure the truth of her claim of rape. So Gentileschi was brutalized twice, first by the rapist and then by the system. Some things never change.

How does Gilje reinvent this painting? As a series of X-rays mounted on Plexiglas, in which an avenging spirit emerges from the fragile, naked Susanna – her mouth open in a howl, her neck muscles exposed and in her taut left arm a knife.

Gilje offers some valuable lessons for today’s students. You want to borrow from others? Try borrowing from the distant past. There are less copyright issues.

And make sure that what you create is at least as good as what inspired you in the first place.

The exhibit runs through Sept. 8. There are two related upcoming lectures. On May 30, Peter C. Sutton, the Susan E. Lynch executive director and CEO of the Bruce, offers “Dialogues With the Past.” Then on June 6, there’s a conversation with Gilje and Francis Naumann, owner of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art.

The 7:30 p.m. lectures will be preceded by a dessert reception beginning at 6:30 pm, at which time the galleries of the museum will be open for lecture attendees to view the Gilje works and other exhibitions. Each lecture is $5 for members and $10 for nonmembers. Reservations with advance payment are required and may be made by visiting the Bruce website at brucemuseum.org, selecting Calendar from the drop-down menu and clicking on the lecture date.

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