Do you ever take an extra second to break down the logo and imagery on that Monster Energy drink can you’re sucking back in the studio? Melbourne-based painter Michael Georgetti is pulling through to illuminate the sometimes visual tactics and hidden meanings behind the brands, logos and mass-produced commodities we get assaulted with on a daily basis. Georgetti also raises some questions about the art worlds place within consumer culture and the post Internet world. Fresh off his PhD Georgetti packs research and intention into every one of his freestanding abstract paintings. Are simple marketing tactics all it takes to transform a product or painting into a different cultural or economic realm? In the following exchange with Georgetti, he generously shares his mixed feelings about working within an art environment while parsing out its intrinsic failures and shortcomings. Among the many points of discussion, we get into Georgetti's frameworks he chooses to contextualize his paintings, he talks about his interests with the relationships between value and language, the gallery as a warehouse, and how the mass-produced commodity holds colonial histories that continue to determine the social class and status that we find ourselves tangled within.
Contemporary art is totally marinated in consumer culture and has been for years, it is not situated outside of capitalism or immune to its effects. It is very much a part of all the ‘dirty stuff’ that it often intends to critique and criticise. This is the paradox that I am really interested in: how does contemporary art criticise its awkward relationship within consumer culture?
You are currently working on or just finished your Ph.D. in art at RMIT. Can I ask why you decided to pursue a Ph.D. and what kind of research/work you were doing?
I think I have often thought of ‘visual’ art or the construction of images in relation to writing and critical theory. For me, I find theory, philosophy and critical discussion really exciting and interesting. I love working in an academic environment, which provides access to a community of people who share similar interests or areas of research. My Ph.D. was mostly focused on branding within consumer culture and the role of brands as semiotic forms or cultural signs.
I was interested in the idea of consumer icons and logos in terms of how they could be read as representations of status, class or social categories that divide and connect groups of people and aspects of culture. My research was primarily focused on the language of merchandise and modular design, which have been built upon support structures or display devices. I am interested in the iconography of ‘merchandise’ and how the support structures surrounding it can determine the social and economic values that it points towards.
In another way, the research was about the ways in which icons, brands, and images are ‘read’ differently from written symbols and shapes that were used in previous times. How have we, as a globalised society, transitioned from the ‘say-able’ to the ‘see-able’ (from the phonetic to the visual) through the proliferation of emojis, icons, brands, and logos, which make up most of the modes of representation we see today?
And how does this influence the way in which we interpret, internalise and re-cognise the visual languages we use on a day-to-day basis? I get the sense that language is no longer about de-coding but more about ‘experiencing’, about being felt. It’s hard to put that one into words or to pin down what it is exactly that differentiates the way we read and the way we see.
You mentioned your paintings are often comprised of gestures resembling a “written” language, and they also often incorporate collaged elements. Do you pre-plan your compositions or do you heavily rely on error or happy accidents?
Yes, I lay down a kind of ‘map’, a quick linear sketch that will be a rough guideline for making the image. It can often steer away from that but usually, I try to keep to a formula or system. It has become more methodical or structured than how I have previously worked, which use to be more instinctual and un-calculated. I often try to draw a blueprint onto the canvas, sketch out a formal composition and then I apply strips of canvas (collage) and spray painted gestures or various fabrics, which follow the layout I originally sketched, to begin with. As I mentioned previously, I often use the shape and form of alphabetic symbols or shapes as the guideline or map that I follow to make the image so that the composition is, in a literal sense, a construction of written language. I like the idea of paintings that correspond with writing because I think we don’t really ‘read’ paintings. It’s more like we just experience them with a sense of immediacy and on a level of primacy without looking at what the signifiers point to. There is nothing to decode or decipher, unlike written symbols. This is not always the case but it is often a feeling I get when constructing images. In this sense, I find the gap between speaking and writing is one of primacy, recognition and the absence of interpretation, which is something that can be felt or communicated through various modes of painting.
Do you use elevation and the implied importance of the elevated painting to only mimic/mock the design gimmicks used within consumer culture, or do you intentionally use them as visual gimmicks yourself?
I try not to be too mocking or ‘judgy’ towards these aspects of corporate culture or capitalism. Although I don’t really see them as gimmicks. I think they are ‘sincere’ structures in some ways. The internal contradiction for me is that I often feel that these design features and elevated platforms are beautiful things and at the same time I am intending to critique them in my work. I am attracted to them. So, it’s more a matter of questioning or trying to understand the role of display and how it influences our pre-conceived notions of value and status which operates through the merchandise display or presentation of the art object.
Do you mind sharing a bit about your titling process? Some of them give off utopian, or high culture vibes, but others seem abstract. A lot of them also end in parentheses, are those afterthoughts or explanations?
I spend a long time thinking of titles. Usually, I will try to find a title that speaks to an underlying subtext in the work or the conceptual intentions of the work. It also helps if I can think of a humorous title. I find humour can provide a way into the work, which provides the viewer with some direction as to how to read it. I also like titles that speak to a kind of capitalist or corporate aesthetic from which a lot of my practice operates within. The parentheses are used in the title of the work when I feel that there are two different discussions going on that need to be named: a surface level idea and a sub-level enquiry happening in the work.
For example, for one sculpture, I titled the work ‘Colonial Spirit’ and in brackets, I named it “Map Maker”.
The idea I was attempting to convey was that the mass-produced commodity and its brand ‘represents’ the colonial history of enslavement and order from which our economic system has evolved. An ordering principle that governs the social and economic divides we see expressed in a kind of map, a way of circumscribing of the masses into economic models.
In this sense, the ‘merchandise’ on display creates a colonial map of social class structures, boundaries, and divisions as it evolved from the arrival of the first ‘settlers’ in a foreign land. I felt that an image of Napoleon’s Canon conveyed this feeling somehow.
The term ‘Mapmaker’ is a footnote to this comment on the evolution of colonialized states of enslavement. In this sense, I was trying to communicate the idea that the mass-produced commodity is, within itself, a map that shows us our history of institutional and governing structures of control and oppression.
So, a long story, but this is why I used two titles.
Even outside of their artwork artists often obsess over the ideas they are working on. How conscious, or careful are you about branding within your everyday life? Do you curate your fashion or product choices around branding or how you want to represent yourself in public?
I’m not as conscious of fashion styles or brands in terms of what I would like to wear personally. In my artwork, I often try to find brands or products that I can unpack what appears as a kind of subtext or hidden ideology.
It might be a certain psychological undercurrent or value that surrounds ideas of hyper-masculinity, sexual desire, the infancy complex, the ego, fear of death, etc. I think many brands; have within their typography, font, iconography and graphics, a certain kind of hidden ideology or agenda. I try to bring that agenda to the surface and distort it in some way so that it could be read or understood in a new context.
You questioned the cultural relevance of painting within a post-internet world, how creating and sharing images is instantaneous and abundant. You use instagram to share pictures of your pieces. What kind of impact do you think it has on your work? Did you have any hesitations about using Instagram, or does it fit nicely within your conceptual intentions?
The online presentation of work has a big effect on the role of the artwork as a stationary object in a space. The Internet mobilises the art object, distributes it through various platforms, which in some way feels like the work is somehow being de-valued in its virtual movement and activity.
I think I have to be, (and many artists have to be) very careful about how our work is presented online. It seems that we are in a time in which an art practice or exhibition can be reduced to a single jpeg. People seem more inclined to ‘like’ it on Facebook and not turn up to the exhibition. Most of the work I post on Instagram is used to support or give more insight into an upcoming show that I am exhibiting in 'real' life. I think there is a real danger in artist ‘over exposing’ themselves online in order to gain the attention of galleries and curators and it is often a poor substitute for face-to-face dialogue and discussion. I think, as artists, we all struggle with this a bit; well at least I think I do.
You mentioned the mass-produced commodity and the baggage that it comes with. What are your thoughts on bootlegging? Be it clothing, or art in any format. Do you think that taking something precious, copying it, and making it more accessible can be a good thing for the original artist or brand?
I often have mixed feelings about this. Usually, if an artwork appropriates and includes a brand, product or commodity in its visual outcome, it often seems to be done in a way that undermines the brand or product it is using - a kind of negative or satirical jab at consumer culture and the products that circulate within it.
I think this can be a problem in people’s practice because it often implies that Contemporary Art, within its critical capacity, is ‘above’ consumer culture, as though there is an invisible divide between Contemporary Art and the rest of the globalised world and capitalism. I think these two polarities are actually, more often than not, the same thing.
Contemporary Art is totally marinated in consumer culture and has been for years, it is not situated outside of capitalism or immune to its effects. It is very much a part of all the ‘dirty stuff’ that it often intends to critique and criticise. This is the paradox that I am really interested in: how does contemporary art criticise its awkward relationship within consumer culture? In the best cases, ‘good art’ ends up doing something more interesting than setting out to point fingers and blame the obvious culprits within -it critiques itself.
Contemporary Art is a brand. It holds within it a whole series of franchise-style galleries and corporate institutions that provide high-end commodities to a wealthy and elitist minority of people.
These institutions have the same hierarchical class structures within their display of products (art) as Ikea, Channel, Nike or any other multi-national company.
So when I see an artwork that overtly undermines a brand or product with the deliberate intention to suggest that it is ‘beneath’ or lower than the artwork that is attempting to criticise it, I kind of think of this as being a bit out-dated or lacking in complexity and scope.
Contemporary Art is given so much immunity and allowance to criticise all or any aspect of corporate/ consumer culture without receiving the same level of criticism that it dishes out. I try to be mindful of this in my own work. I use a lot brands in my work and I try to be very careful with how I implement them and what I am trying to achieve by using them.
Having said this, there is an element of satire and parody in my work. I often use these approaches in an attempt to convey some understanding of linguistic symbols and how they determine our perception of value and constructed understandings of what a cultural sign is.
I think it is also possible to appropriate a cultural sign or brand in a way that gives it more credibility or cultural validity, through bootlegging, as you mentioned, although a lot less of the time this seems to be the outcome. Perhaps in music or literature this could be the case. Visual art seems to denigrate the brands and commodities they use. Thomas Hirschhorn, Isa Genzken, John Bock, Jason Rhoades, Guy Benfield, maybe even Jeff Koons. Most of the artists I can think of have a subversive agenda in their appropriation or re-use of brands, logos or commodities.
You said you find the aspects of corporate culture to be sincere and not gimmicky. That said, do you think gimmicks have a place in art? (Ex. Brad Troemel’s patreon draws) Or do you think if the intention is clear that there is no such thing as a gimmick in art?
I don’t think the people who make these ‘gimmicky’ things actually think they are gimmicks. I think the people who made these designed objects or products sincerely believe these things are beautiful.
The opulence or ‘blingy’ features of the gold and brass entrance to a franchise shopping store or gold and marble perfume stand in a duty-free section of an airport (for example) is the materialisation of somebody expressing what they think looks beautiful.
A gimmick, by definition, is something that uses tricks or a device, which is intended to attract attention, publicity or trade. Ironically, that is exactly what art does. Art is a gimmick.
Regardless of what ever sentimental or ‘sincere’ intentions willed it into existence, the artwork we see today functions in a very similar methodology to an advertisement of the latest i-phone, Rolex wrist watch or Audi car: designed and presented to a public to be desired and consumed.
This might be a bit of a simplification in some ways, but I think it’s interesting that there are these overlapping and contradicting behaviours and cultural values that art and consumer brands have in common. At least it is something I try to keep in mind within the making of my work.
You are quite academically established, and are represented by a gallery. Have you ever been critical about the place of art in an institutional, or gallery setting?
In interviews, yes! [laughs], but maybe my artwork does not reflect that criticism as much. Most of my work tries to create a kind of dislocated experience between a contemporary art context and consumer culture, entertainment or spectatorship. I think it is a valid point that the art gallery is also a place of spectatorship and I also think it is necessary to question the role of the art gallery in relation to entertainment or an Ikea warehouse. A place of display and presentation of ‘goods’. A lot of art galleries today seem to mimic these massive chains of franchises: a café, a gift shop, a child play centre. Galleries seem to have the same corporate establishment feel about them as these multi-national conglomerates. I think this is an interesting area to dive into and see how these contradictions could be put into the artwork.
Do you mind sharing some examples of brands or logos that have hidden or underlying messages? How were you able to unearth these findings? What was your research process?
Yes of course. There are many brands that embody a number of ‘mythologies’ or atmospheric values through a distortion of font and typography in the logo. Often a word can allude away from its actual meaning by way of text distortion. Brands often use phallic or sexual forms in a subliminal way to increase its attraction and profitability. This also involves word structuring that is engineered to unconsciously target the political or social ideals and values of a niche market (affluence, status, freedom, security, control, self-expression, identity, etc.)
For example, Lynx, uses a distortion and obscuration of written language to create a kind of ‘atmospheric value’ by turning the text into an image. The image component of the logo alludes away from what the word actually means. It turns the word into an icon, meaning it changes the way it functions as a linguistic sign. Through figurative curvature and a warping effect of the letters, the logo aims to create a desirable appearance of the product rather than preserving the signification of the word in an analytical sense. The brand here, removes the word as a sign and replaces it with an imaginative experience of an icon, rather than allowing us to decipher the letters, as we naturally do when we read sentences on a page. This is kind of a weaving together of the ‘read-able’ into the ‘see-able’ so that we can’t differentiate the two apart. Image/word integration.
This is intended to generate ‘abstract values’. These are empty signifiers, which can ‘allude’ and connote all sorts of social and psychological values. In this sense, the brand by skewing the text conveys animalistic symbols or unconscious notions of eroticism and sexuality, which I would argue imply an underlying ideology of patriarchal control and power. One might argue that this is all hearsay, but there is a long history of existing research into the subliminal and psychoanalytical strategies used within marketing and advertising. These strategies are used to construct unconscious urges towards products and commodities that make them more desirable and profitable. An example of this is Edward Bernays’ who wrote a book called Propaganda in the 1920s, which discusses the use of psychoanalysis and how it can be implemented into the American consumer market to persuade the masses to buy more.
Adam Curtis’ documentary Century of the Self, Jean Baudrillard’s ‘A System of Objects’, Roland Barthes Mythologies, Allan Mcluhan’s ‘The Medium is the Massage’. Even Jacque Derrida’s study of Grammatology which traces a long history of speech and writing and how this history shapes our constructed perception of self and how we relate to the globalised world we live in.
I think it is plausible to say that there are many examples, which identify these visual tactics that generate unconscious significations of sexualisation and desire within branding and advertising. The aim for me, is how to generate these discussions in the making of my work, how to bring these issues to the surface through the construction of installations, large-scale environments or paintings.
Who are you looking at these days for inspiration or interest? It can be painters, writers, musicians, etc. Whose works are you really excited about these days?
In terms of influences or artist's that I am very excited about, I think Ida Ekblad is making some incredible work at the moment. She uses so many different methods and applications in creating these painting/installation dialogues. And Simon Denny. Also, Dan Arps who is a Melbourne based artist - I was and have been for a long time really inspired by his work. Jess Fuller, who incorporates collage into her large-scale abstract paintings. And definitely Dona Nelson who, in a similar fashion, creates these free-standing painting assemblages. There are so many more but these are some of the most recent artists that have had a big influence on my work.
What do you have planned for the next year? Do you see your work following a similar trajectory for the next while? Have any shows you’re working towards?
I have a solo show in Australia that is yet to be announced but I will have more information about that soon. I am also in the final stages of completing my Ph.D., which will be coming to a close in the next few months.
In terms of the future developments of my practice, I would like to continue in the direction I'm heading in. There is a lot to further explore and refine. Particularly surrounding the display structures that I make as a means to contextualise painting. There are a lot of new discussions arising all the time and I try to choose which ones are most important to run with and which ones have the potential to expand into a more in-depth area of practice and research.