Born Detroit, 1980 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
In the early 2010s, the social media platform Tumblr became known for its dynamic and diverse community of users who shared a wide range of content. The appropriation of photos and images re-emerged as a trend during this time, particularly among young artists who used Tumblr as a platform to gather reference materials. Among these artists was Nolan Simon.
Simon was drawn to the idea of taking existing images and representing them as paintings. He was considering the contemporary proliferation of screen-based images, while working in direct lineage with Modernism’s reckoning with flatness. Works like Terra Tahiti (2016, which combines a Gauguin landscape and title, and a Google Maps view of the actual site) and Flood (2019) pointed to how images circulate, who circulates them, and why, an online sociological deep-dive of references. As an artist working in NYC galleries during the Occupy Wall Street era, his use of appropriation could also be seen as an oblique way to critique and subvert the capitalist systems that govern the art world and to challenge traditional notions of ownership and copyright. In Simon’s earlier works using postcard landscape motifs, the act of appropriation and repurposing images was a way to reclaim and redefine “conservative” art, giving it new meaning and context. In this sense, the use of images found online could be seen as another form of resistance against the dominant narratives and systems that shape our society.
Still, as an artist responding to an online social culture of image sharing, he had to factor in a discourse that increasingly frowned on the use of other people’s images without permission. Images were no longer just “free” intangibles, floating in ether to be grabbed at will. They were now content, the lifeblood of social media, and content creators got paid (or at the very least, got credited). Ignoring these conditions could be interpreted as a violation of consent. To continue his increasingly visible work, Simon had to confront the legal and ethical ramifications of appropriation. Understanding that his use of images needed to expand, he embarked on the journey of original content creation.
What has emerged in more recent works by Simon is a realist painting practice that begins with staging his own studio photography before continuing his exploration of still life, landscape, and portraiture–a traditional triumvirate that steadfastly encompasses what is possible with representational forms. But the conceptual underpinning has shifted. The concern is no longer with how images circulate independently from their creators. Now, Simon offers us slices of the universe he is thoughtfully creating. The careful picture cropping and casual sexuality remain, but having to generate original content has integrated the tableaus and visages that previously existed outside the boundaries of the artwork. Notably, Simon has for many years been a member of the artist collective Cave. This involvement reflects his political belief in collective actions and is visually represented in the images he selects to paint. While the paint application and compositional stylings of works like La Côte Basque, 1965 / Nude (2022) and Virginia (2022) may call back to the 19th century, the models are often fellow artists situated in their contemporary milieu (though this too references artists historically painting those near to them, reminding us of the inescapable past).
His still lifes also acknowledge the romantic conceit of referencing the past. A cabinet of curiosities is a recurring theme, the Tumblr blog made analog, dotted with highly detailed objects from the artist’s life. Body Cabinet (2022) includes Polaroid photographs, which in their one-off uniqueness are a sign of the unduplicated. The arrangement in Pots and Pants (2021) conflates fetish gear with kitchenware, alluding to a hedonistic lifestyle as it would be innocuously depicted on Instagram or Pinterest. Sex positive images are edited to titillate but not trigger either prudish cancellation or algorithmic censorship. IYKYK has become a physical object through Simon’s work.
Translating an idea from staged photograph to oil paint is arguably an unnecessarily long process in the context of our diminishing attention spans. Like the increasing interest in slower, so-called “obsolete” technologies (especially among people too young to have used them the first time around), it speaks to an ambivalent feeling about our increasingly monitored and digitally connected lives. Perhaps we are seeing in Simon’s work the vanguard of new images that will emerge from this form of resistance, situated within painting’s eternal return to relevance.