I was looking at some newer photos of the painters of Dafen and it’s always fascinated me how even though our knowledge of these painting-sweatshops was obscure (it’s only until recently that these painting villages have become a sort of popular attraction to the western public), the paintings produced there were, unbeknownst to us, part of our everyday life.  These massively produced paintings are just that, paint on canvas. But I was wondering, how different is this exercise of commerce dictating art, of a life devoted to endlessly copying another’s painting, to that of a “real” painter who produces works with artistic merit, like lets say (for the sake of argument) Neo Rauch or Botero, both of whom have ended up copying themselves. 

I guess this is seemingly an unfair argument. Sounds ridiculous to compare Rauch, who is in every contemporary painting book out there, to an unknown Chinese painter, one of thousands, who paints hundreds if not thousands of areas of paintings in a day that will be later sold to WalMart. It should be accepted that an artist, one who we consider to be a “true” artist that is, has the right to decide to devote his or her whole life to exploring the way in which he or she interprets painting; even if that means painting the same painting (not literally, but figuratively) time and again. It is after all, a valid possibility in an artist’s creative process.

I am also aware that many times, it’s desirable for an artist to have a recognizable manner of, in this case, solving a painting. But, and lets be completely honest, many times this desire goes hand in hand with sales. If a type of painting becomes commercially successful, then it is wise for the painter and for the gallery to produce more of the type of painting that is in demand. It’s a simple equation that almost inevitably affects creative processes.

So what’s the difference between copying others work for commercial purposes, and copying ones own work for commercial purposes? In both cases, the original images that spawned the need to copy, had at some point, artistic worth. After that, one painting gets literally copied while the other gets elegantly copied.

If a painter reading this suddenly feels offended, think of this… people will travel thousands of miles to Xi’an to view the terracotta warriors. They consider this one of the greatest objects in history to be unearthed… and yet being aware of thousands of people painting the same painting every day is nothing but a sweatshop in our eyes. One that today we westerners are willing to visit as if it were Disneyworld, but a sweatshop nonetheless.

I very often wonder, perhaps too much, about honesty in painting. I always try and understand where this frank but bizarre impulse resides and how it affects a work of art in an indelible way. And finally, I wonder where is it that this sincere act stops being genuine. 

Because in my eyes, I think there’s not that much of a difference between Rauch, or a Chinese Dafen painter that makes a couple of thousand dollars a year, or me for that matter. In the end we are all painters, affected by the same things. The Dafen painter tries to paint like Repin, Rauch tries to paint like a successful Rauch, and I try to make it no so obvious that I look at Phil Hale.

My point in all of this, and I’m not sure I’m trying to make a point but instead question a bunch of things that stem from this act of curiosity, is to ask myself what is it that makes an image more powerful than the others, what is it that makes it a catalyzer, an image that observers throughout history deem as indisputably authentic. Where does that original originality subsist, what intentions made it materialize and why does it appear to fade so quickly, making it hard, almost impossible for a painter to use it frequently. How is the same painter who was at one point aware of the force of honesty quickly willing to succumb to his or her own iteration.

To me it would be fascinating if I could talk to Rauch, but since we’re being honest, I would be far more inclined to talk to a Chinese painter that has painted the same paintings thousands of times for 20 years. I would love to know what he thinks about the "honorable" act of painting. I wonder if he is in awe when he walks into a museum and sees the Mona Lisa through bullet proof glass. I wonder how he feels about the value of creating something unique. 


In the end, when you think about it, if Dafen was managed by an artist, it would be seen as an act of massive appropriation fit for any contemporary biennial. We used to be shocked by Dafen, thousands of starving artists working at gunpoint,  but now they have dafen.coms and tens of other webpages with paypal transactions, and I’m sure it won’t be long until we see a “real” artist use their services to show something at Basel or Venice.


On Permanence

When you reflect upon the manner in which a traditional painting is developed, you realize that every decision the painter makes is based upon one thing – permanence.  We chose linen because we have more than 500 years of history letting us know the way in which this particular material has behaved. We chose mediums that with time will not alter the original colors, we chose paints that will not fade with exposure to light, we chose boards that are acid free and will not yellow.  We work in a particular order so paint doesn’t peel or crack. We make conscious choices to inject our paintings with decisions that are based on stability, hoping that the paintings will be durable, but also and perhaps more importantly, faithful to the original state in which the were produced.

Ever stop and wonder why we do this? Is the answer because we want future generations to look at our paintings as if they were unaltered by the passage of time?

Let the next generation make their own pictures” Rockwell famously stated. 

Rockwell’s statement is selfish at its core. Could you imagine if Rembrandt or Velazquez had been as carefree as Rockwell? We wouldn’t have today their paintings as objects of reference. But when you think about it a bit more, would it matter? Would it matter if we wouldn’t even know what we were missing? Wouldn’t it be like thinking about the hanging gardens of Babylon? We never saw them, but we can imagine they were beautiful because history, stories or myths told us they were beautiful. Would attempting to paint without ever seeing a Rembrandt make us lesser painters? Would it impede us from making solid, moving works of art?

I am obviously not lessening the impact a work of art can have in future generations. Las Meninas has been the object of countless interpretations through different mediums including sculpture, video, installation and of course painting. Appropriation in art is a fascinating endeavor and if the context of an original image was lost, the act of re-contextualization would be simply impossible.

A much simpler answer would have to do with the market of art. If somebody pays X amount of money for a painting, it is understandable that they wouldn’t want their investment to depreciate.  But I don’t want to get into this aspect, because it shouldn’t be an issue in the creative process.

What if we just accept that paintings, like ourselves, die. We as makers may even have a say in how long it takes them – they can die quicker or slower than we do. What if we were absolutely conscious of the fact the every single material that makes up a painting degrades through time – sadly we do not paint with McDonald’s burgers on top of Styrofoam.  We use materials that transform, that are brittle, that are sensitive; in many ways we use materials that are alive. So if we paint with “living materials” why do we want fixed, unalterable images?

I refuse to accept the argument of longevity. It is horribly pretentious. It’s akin to wanting your last name to never disappear; to thinking that the impact that a work of art may have will be relevant long after we are dead. I refuse to believe that we may think so highly of ourselves, especially when traditional painting is one of the most humbling acts I know of.

So what if instead of defying time, we embrace the fact that paintings are fragile and fleeting. What if we, working from our traditional roots, accept the delicateness of instability? What if we let the next generations decide what is relevant, what is important, and take out of the equation the idea of presuming we foresee the future significance of what we do?

How would painting be taught if we had no references? Would you paint on linen stretched on bars just because someone told you to do so?  I am aware these are impossible questions to answer, but they make me think about the why. Why do we work in the manner in which we do? Are we listening to ourselves or are we overly aware of what has been done before?

If we knew nothing, perhaps our senses would be sharper, our relations with the nature of our materials would be more intimate, and our intentions would be simpler. Perhaps.