Chanel, Nike, Louis Vuitton—using the insignia of popular brands in artwork has been trending for the past few years. This is a significant shift since the late 90’s and early 2000’s when the subject of branding was a hot topic for social activists who spoke critically against the predatory and manipulative practice by which advertisers pandered to the public’s insecurities in order to sell marked-up items.
Is the the growing contemporary trend of using luxury brand names and logos in fine art further indoctrination of branding at worst, or ironic consciousness of the artist’s own consumption at best? The tradition of appropriation and parody of popular culture has a lineage in art making, for instance, conceptual artist Barbara Kruger’s appropriation of the graphic aesthetic and textual conventions typically associated with advertisements to examine and criticize consumerism among other things.
Today, Mitch Dixon and Christopher Benjamin Speck are two Toronto-based emerging artists whose practices investigate and utilize the symbolism of global brands. The importance then, of exploring the contemporary state of branding in a post-internet world becomes apparent and crucial. We sat down to discuss this element of their work, and its meaning for art.
Mitch Dixon began, “I think that irony played out a lot when I was younger. You’re still working your practice out and you don’t have a style so you do stuff ironically because if it fails you can just say, ‘The joke’s on you. I didn’t mean it anyway.'”
Before art, I was studying sociology and anthropology. Then I studied marketing. When I make work I’m thinking, what’s our contemporary situation? It’s not necessarily a criticism. It’s not ironic. I think it’s a curiosity. You can put on a type of shirt and it’s going to align you with certain ideas and certain people. You can play with that. I’m interested in mythology and how we use symbols in our culture.”
Through brand loyalty we not only find an easily communicable way to associate themselves with certain lifestyles, beliefs even faith; it’s a one-stop shop to identity.
“You’re also dealing with a class thing,” Dixon said.
The easiest way to make a brand exclusive is to make it financially inaccessible to the mass population.
“If I can’t get that Tiffany’s bracelet, I’ll just make it myself,” Dixon said. “You’re devaluing the brand by parodying it.”
“We are at this point now where everything is so bootlegged,” Chris Benjamin Speck said.
“I think it’s an internet thing, a generational thing,” Dixon said. “The lines aren’t set as much, everyone is remixing and reusing culture.”
Athletic brands like Nike and Adidas have successfully surpassed the health conscious market as sport aesthetic has been subsumed into popular culture by way of hip-hop, and more recently, the internet-born “health-goth” and “norm-core” trends, ensuring that jerseys, baseball caps and sneakers are consumed en masse.
Speck also reflects on the growing brand presence in our culture. “I’m really interested in creating a consumer product or a consumer good, and I really love making jewelry but I’m pussyfooting around my own qualms with it. Once you find something that starts selling,” he said, “you keep making them but it becomes so laborious and boring” and so, the act of using brand culture as inspiration for art becomes art as brand.
While Speck’s art pieces are wearable, consumable goods, his work retains fine art status through analogue production. His works are hand-made, individual and non-reproducible. This is in direct opposition to the anonymous, mass-production of major consumable brands.
The artist’s hand engages with the lineage of art history, whether it is painting, or etching or a digital drawing. “It took me a longtime to get the confidence and to get the strength to step away,” Speck said.
I’m doing it with precious metals. It’s actually a fairly expensive project to take on. It’s another level to the conversation. I’m enjoying that jankiness and that play with bootleg culture. I’m bootlegging the bootleg. The ones I end up liking the most are the ones that are really off.”
Dixon said, “I don’t really care that much for painting specifically, and definitely not more than anything else. I’m interested in creating coherent spaces. I paint out of a necessity. There’s a value in that hand-drawn line that really gets the point across. I guess it came out of provisional painting.”
Beyond crudely painted and etched symbols of New Balance and Gucci, Dixon and Speck apply the symbolism and mythology in branding art history through direct references to canonized artists like Duchamp and Picasso.
Dixon elaborates on his tendency to scrawl the name of mega-famous artist Picasso amongst many of his works. “That’s our modern day mythology. Once the artist is dead, that’s it, there’s no more. They become a myth of a person. Their descendants have their estates, so they make all this official merchandise and print endless monograms that end up mass produced, hanging in dorm rooms.”
Speck’s reproductions of early 20th century artworks brings the brand supremacy dialogue into direct confrontation with the art world’s own brand industry and class system, summed up by the institutionally defined canon of “great” Western, art full of exorbitantly priced works.
Ultimately, brand parody in art provides a necessary reflection to our society and to our increasingly branded art world. The de-valuing of the brand through bootleg culture is an integral aspect to the practice of artists whose work seeks to use the trademarks of brand culture to further examine and critique it.
The cult of buying has replaced most organized religion in a secular society whose mythology is now found in the logos and titles of brands. The main preoccupation is now cultivation of the self through consumption.
Yet, rather than making a direct attack on the capitalism, artists such as Dixon and Speck prefer to play with the innate qualities of branding—stripping it of a falsified dignity through persistent bastardized versions, crudely drawn imitations and relentless repetition.