The Nostalgic Formalities of a New contemporary Art
Artists in the digital age have been part of a generation whose world around them has moved faster and changed more dramatically than any other generation before. As Torey Akers wrote; “This is the end of the future, after all, the moment in which the Anthropocene begins un-lacing itself from the promise of progress. We thirst for some simulacrum of stability, the performance of an old normal.” We see this thirst for a ‘simpler time’ present itself in many areas of society, but its starting to rear its head more prominently in the art world. Now more than ever we see artists like Claudia Kogachi, Laura Owens, Charlotte Alldis, and Jeff Koons, presenting a new old aesthetic, whose formalities hark back to what feels like a 1990s childhood daydream.
Google Dictionary defines ‘Nostalgia’ as “a sentimental longing or wishful affection for a period in the past” which in itself uses quite emotionally charged language, it is no wonder that such a theme would leak itself into the art world. Nostalgia is a commonly explored theme in art, but not quite like this before. “In terms of Modern Art, the word "nostalgia" has come to be considered something of a "dirty word" right up there with "sentimental," "sweet," "cute," "nice," and "lovely." Often used in Portrait and Landscape paintings to invoke warm feelings of old times, traditional Nostalgia in painting as a subject matter was used to sell work but is often associated with a certain ‘tackiness’ as the art world moved forward. This traditional nostalgia is for the older generations, to reminisce about their childhood in the 1950s and to lean on the laurels of artists like Edward Hopper who immortalised the american experience.
This new Nostalgic Art was brewed in the melting pot of an art world obsessed with the ‘new’ and a widely acknowledged death of originality. A cynical space where young creatives are told famously that “Nothing is original” and that their attempts to create this ‘newness’ the art world lusts for is futile. Combine this on top of a generation of artists working their way into art and critical spaces, a generation renowned for their nostalgic nature and known for their ability to adapt to change, you have a recipe for the contemporary artist, whose work feels like a memory and reads like ‘new’.
It is not without note to mention the growing trend of Digital Nostalgia in the gaming industry and the wider art and design world. As Kyle Chayka wrote for Hyperallergic “cultural producers are starting to appropriate the old digital vanguard as a new form of nostalgia, a fetishizing of a past version of high-tech. From adopting the fuzzy visual quality of early monitor displays to copying the faults of static-ridden computer speakers, these digital semiotic tropes have become a new vocabulary for cultural producers.” The aesthetic of the future in the Tech sector has moved so far toward minimalism that the artistry of the 8-bit is now longed for and sought after. Chayka brings up how reliant nostalgia in any field is directly dependent on both the source material it comes from, and the audience's ability to recognize and remember the subject matter too. “As another generation of artists and creators comes to prominence, more and more we will see mainstream art making use of digital nostalgia as a potent wellspring of artistic vocabulary.”
Kogachi’s large scale paintings and rugs, for example, are constructed with flat colour and bold black outline, and a wobbly disregard for human proportion that creates imagery that is reminiscent of the popular 90s Microsoft Paint program. Her work talks a lot about family and memory, in 2018 she did a series of paintings called “mom, are we friends?’[Plate 1] that talked about her relationship with her mother at home. Her most recent works are woven rugs that depict the clothes her grandpa left behind after he died, that maintain the visual style with flat colours and bold black outlines. [Plate 2] In the exhibition description for her 2020 show “Everyone Has a Horse Phase” at Sanderson Gallery her work is described as having “a nostalgic 90’s Saddle Club appeal” These works have been described as having “her signature flat naive style” Millennials especially have been described as being an extremely nostalgic generation, and Kogachi have proved particularly so.
Laura Owen’s paintings are abstract, unlike Kogachi’s depictions of her family, but still reflect that “90s throwback” feel. Owens is inspired by 90s graphic design, which shows particularly strongly in her work “Untitled” (2012, Mixed media on stretched Linen.)[Plate 3] Her works have a synthetic feel to them - almost as if you can smell the cheap plastic of 90s toys and children's cosmetics. She layers colour and pattern in a way that looks digitally rendered in a similar way that Kogachi echoes Microsoft Paint. Her grid pattern and collaged newspaper looks mechanical, very technically correct, but then she gives a drop-shadow to her gestural foreground and makes her shapes look as though they have been erased. Whilst this isn't related to her intention, any person who was in primary school or intermediate in New Zealand in the early 2000s would recognise a strong connection between Owen’s painting and the digital art program Kid Pix that we were allowed to use during computer time at school. It reflects a very 90s aesthetic of 3D brush strokes and patterns that are reminiscent of a bus seat fabric.
Whilst Owens didn’t grow up in the 90s like Kogachi, her work still draws form this time as her muse. As Akers’ put it, “in an industry that’s all but allergic to sentiment, these layered signifiers and endless references feel more symptomatic of a cynical postmodern hangover than anything else.” Both Kogachi and Owen’s work reflects the wider cultural trend of looking particularly at the 90s as a “simpler time”. Sadie Dingfelder from the Washington post justifies this cultural trend in her article by writing; “[A] factor that may be driving ’90s madness is our current dumpster fire of a century, which ignited on Sept. 11, 2001, blazed on with the Great Recession and continues to cough up fresh nightmares on an almost daily basis.” She also attributes the new mass culture of the internet to the downfall of cultural connectedness, as wider access to resources creates smaller niche’s and therefore much smaller groups of collective consciousness you need for mass nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a coping mechanism for the collective horrors of a generation. This Digital age and the “iGeneration” are growing up with the wounds of the world readily available, and forcefully present in everyone’s lives - Young people are far more politically charged and informed than any other generation before them - and as a byproduct of this comes a generational trauma like none before. Whilst many generations have felt the trauma of a war in their lifetime, this generation feels the widespread pain of each other in real time.
Though the 90s aesthetic is a growing trend in the nostalgia sector, another place we find artists going back to is a childhood place of play and exploration. Jeff Koons, for example, reimagined his son’s mound of Play-Doh as a 3m cubed polychromed aluminium sculpture [Plate 4]. It took him 14 years of minor adjustments and experimentation, but the eventual end product is a giant hyper realistic mound of Play-Doh (in which the work is named after.) When you cut through the art chat of ‘human experience’ and ‘a growing organic form’ you can decode all of this to realise that what Koons’ is really talking about is the very essential human need to play. Koons also features certain balloon animals like a dog and a snake in his body of work, that are high gloss finish - I can imagine that standing in front of it would surely reflect back to you not only a reflection of yourself, but a reflection of your own inevitable childhood experience at a birthday party with a mildly horrific middle aged man dressed as a clown, trying to entertain you with helium filled optimism. Koons often repeats forms, like the Balloon Dog, as if he is trying to pinpoint a certain memory through physical exploration, trying every situation until the deija vu of a form is realised and the memory emerges. There is certainly a repetitiveness to nostalgia.
Charlotte Alldis especially is no stranger to repetitive play. With a background in psychology education and crisis therapy, she uses her art to regain a sense of childlike fun and optimistic energy, whilst being gestural enough to physically release negative energies and get things out of your system. Alldis approaches nostalgia as a community effort. ‘I’m asking you for you to join me, to play with me, to laugh with me, to feel a little bit silly.’ She also said in the same interview that she often feels there are a group of people in the room with her as she paints. Much like what Dingfelder said about the state of our world in connection to the rise of nostalgia, many artists are using it to heal. Currently studying art therapy, Alldis’ practice revolves around bringing healing and a renewed sense of joy to her audience and her community. Just likes Koons, she repeats simplistic flower forms and reductive human forms that do reflect the drawings of young children [Plate 5]. This youthfulness in her imagery combined with her affinity for bright colour is what creates the joy and emotion of an Alldis painting. However, I think the nostalgia in her work truly lies in how you feel when you see it.
Nostalgia is a space in art where, when used right, it can connect a seemingly disparate and widely divided world. Morphed from the age of Post World War 2 cynicism and often read as a Millenial allergic reaction to the modern world, a retreat into the plastic pink of 1995, it has become the new visual language of a traumatized generation. Nostalgic art holds its weight in the world by pushing new ideas of community and connecting through the understandable language of a past time. The comfort of the old, and the confronting of the new. Whilst a Rothko may take a lifetime to create the work, Nostalgic art takes the lifetimes of a generation, a continuously growing collective memory to change the face of art as it stands today.
“Mom Are We Friends?” Claudia Kogachi, 2018, Acrylic and House Paint on Board. Meanwhile Gallery, Wellington.
Image Source: https://claudiakogachi.com/
“Uncle Gagi” Claudia Kogachi, 2020, Woven Rug. Playstation Space, Auckland.
Image Soruce: http://playstationspace.com/uncle-gagi-claudia-kogachi
“Untitled” Laura Owens, 2012, Mixed Media on Stretched Linen. Tate Gallery, London
“Play Doh” Jeff Koons, 1994-2014, Polychromed Aluminum. (Version 1 out of 5)
Image Source: http://www.jeffkoons.com/artwork/celebration/play-doh-0
“Untitled” Charlotte Alldis, Unknown Year. Oil on Stretched Linen.
Image Source: https://www.charlottealldis.com/
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Kogachi, Claudia. ‘Mom, are we friends”, Meanwhile Gallery, Wellington, 2018
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