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Identity In The Metamodern Age
How Influential Movements of The Past Propel New Modes of Self-Expression in The 21st Century
Throughout college, the biggest question I have had to ask myself is, “what am I?” As a multimedia* artist, I have found myself trying to navigate within the confines of metaphorical boxes that never quite told the full story of my artistic undertakings, often resulting in confusion, disconnect, and a lack of passion that I find so vital to the creative journey. With this thesis comes a reclaiming of the passion that brought me here in the first place. Represented visually is the exploration of concealment of identity juxtaposed with expression of identity, in relation to the role that plays in the transformative nature of special effects makeup. I touch on concepts such as performance art, anonymity, immortalization, breaking boundaries and bringing the inner world into the physical. With this lens in mind, I make connections to other artists and movements that have been inspirational to me and my craft. Highly conceptual in nature, these works oscillate between different interests of mine and show the importance of an idea to produce complexities within them. It is through these paintings and subsequent photographs, combining mediums, that I express my authentic self. In many ways, these compositions try to capture the viewer’s eye, engage them in a narrative, and in turn, hopefully transfer some of the awe that is experienced in the making process to them. This is JTP.
Throughout human history, creators of all kinds have utilized their skills and the materials at hand to interpret the world around them - expressing their vision on their own terms. For example, the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt using makeup as ritual, graffiti artists branding their designs on buildings, and the ever-expanding Internet providing a platform for individuals to convey the things that resonate with them. Each form of expression is vast and unique, breaking down what it means for art to be art. This feature is evident in the cataloguing of art history, where an era was defined by individuals tapping into universal feelings in an oftentimes visual and artistic manner. Every movement within the arts has distinct characteristics, but it is undeniable that individual works are a conglomerate of all of them. Many of these artists also utilize unconventional means, such as multimedia and shock value, to get their work in front of the general public. In the era that is unfolding, this crossover of influence and craft in flux has resulted in what can sometimes be described as Post-postmodernism, or Metamodernism. Bearing that lens in mind, what this thesis aims to convey is the exploration of concealment of identity juxtaposed with expression of identity, in relation to the role that plays in the transformative nature of special effects makeup. It is with this concept being at the forefront of discussion that important connections can be made chronologically in the history of art, as well as by way of the individual to the population at large.
To start the ever-expanding conversation, it is important to have a grasp on basic definitions and tenets of the Metamodern “movement”. Though the concept as is known today dates back to the 1970’s, for simplicity’s sake, as it is to be understood in this thesis, the term “Metamodernism” and subsequent themes will originate from the works of Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin Van Den Akker. These scholars and critics are best known for their extensive research and publication of Notes on Metamodernism (2010). There will also be reference to the thoughts of Luke Turner, author of The Metamodernist Manifesto. In their composed findings, Vermeulen and Van Den Akker supposed that Metamodernism was, in an open-ended sort of way, a structure of feeling that,
“oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the Modern and the Postmodern” (Vermeulen, Timotheus, Taylor & Francis, 2017).
Furthermore, it is important to mention that the Metamodern is a way of interpreting cultural shifts of the 2000’s- encompassing various arts including film, music, and visual (Fine) arts, ranging from the comical to the grotesque. In addition, this structure of feeling, echoed by the likes of Plato, exists in tandem with previous distinctive movements throughout art history, namely the Avant-Garde, Dadaism, and Abstract Expressionism, among others. It also happens to be a perfect umbrella term to describe works of art that combine a set of visual ideas spanning various media and that create a dialogue about broader subjects facing humanity today. In subsequent sections, there will be an attempt to explain the connections to be made across visual and performance art as well as the Internet and how Metamodern ideals are employed through them. As Metamodernism is the basis for inspiration, the result is a cohesive body of visual work that centers around identity, boundary breaking, anonymity, and the immortalization of multimedia images.
To first prove the point of Metamodern ideas being present in a plethora of art movements of the past, it is worth noting the work of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. In section III of Metamodernism: Historicity, Affect, and Depth After Postmodernism, Timotheus Vermeulen, a great contributor to the current Metamodern discourse, states in tandem with other contributors, that Van Gogh’s painting A Pair of Boots, “intimates a lived context outside of the painting – the artists state of mind” (Notes on Metamodernism, p.147). It is painted in such a way that tells a story and yet is straightforward to wavering eyes. There is an element of self-reflection at play, and an urgency for the audience to look beneath the surface of the image. It is oscillating between hope and melancholy- a facet of Metamodernism. Fredric Jameson, another contributor to the Metamodern discourse, follows that (the painting), “expressed both, through its “hallucinatory” use of color, the artist’s “realm of the senses” and, through its use of “raw materials,” a world “of agricultural misery, of stark rural poverty” (Jameson, Vermeulen, The New Depthiness, 2015). Even though Metamodern influence can be traced back pretty far, what is of great interest is how it has conceptually shaped Modern and Postmodern history of the arts and in turn inspired the content from which this thesis originates.
THE AVANT-GARDE, DADAISM, AND MARCEL DUCHAMP
The origins of the term Avant-Garde come from the French, meaning ‘“advanced guard,” originally used to denote the vanguard of an army” (Museum of Modern Art, 2021) but to bring it into relevant context,
To quote an excerpt from Tate Modern, (the Avant-Garde),
“Was originally applied to innovative approaches to art making in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is applicable to all art that pushes the boundaries of ideas and creativity and is still used today to describe art that is radical or reflects originality of vision…” it continues, “The notion of the avant-garde enshrines the idea that art should be judged primarily on the quality and originality of the artist’s vision and ideas” (Tate, 2021).
It is with this definition that the Avant-Garde movement can be understood as a moving away from the status quo in art, potentially because of sociopolitical happenings at the turn of the century. This definition also stresses concept as being paramount to the works it encompasses. Though on the surface the Avant-Garde, and particularly the Dadaist movement appears to lack intention, it makes up for it in visual engagement and a surprising undertone to the work. A key proponent of the Avant-Garde (and subsequent Dadaist movement) is controversial figure, and artist, Marcel Duchamp. While it brings no joy in bringing up his influence, it is nonetheless essential in furthering the discussion of boundary-breaking and meta-ideals within the arts. Duchamp, born in France in 1887, was no stranger to the unconventional and thereby controversial side of art. Arguably his most notable piece, a work titled Fountain on which he inscribed “R Mutt, 1917” on a readymade urinal, comes to mind. Ultimately, the piece was met with harsh criticism (as it still is today) and rejections from prominent art institutions at the time. Despite all of this, the reason bringing up Marcel Duchamp is so important is because of his view of Fountain and the ways in which it employed early forms of the Metamodern. An article suggests, “Duchamp described his purpose with the piece as shifting the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation” (Fountain, Weebly 2021).
He put more thought into the work than is apparent at first glance. On the surface, it is an object. Below the surface, a glaring statement about what makes art, art. Through his interpretation, a connection can be made between Avant-Garde ambitions and the Metamodern ideals that have permeated through culture and influence many artists aiming to think outside of the boxes preordained for them in society. In Duchamp’s apparent apathy towards the institution of Art, a sense of empathy is revealed towards those who choose to read between the lines. Duchamp uses ironic means to convey deeper truths and thus propels the Metamodern concept forward to influence the next wave of controversial artists.
At the intersection of self-expression and a sense of rebellion is where inspiration can be found in the likes of visual artist, Damien Hirst. One of the most successful contemporary artists, his work explores deep concepts like death, religion, ethics and not the least bit irrelevant, identity in unconventional ways. He is known for taking risks, portraying himself authentically through his work despite any public reaction and has been known to want a “wow” factor in his art like those that came before him. This is a quality that can be utilized by artists wanting to transcend media and traditional expectations in their work. A great example of Hirst following his artistic calling and inherently Metamodern frame of reference would be his Vitrine works. In one such example, there are seemingly random items placed within the confines of a glass box. On the one hand, it appears to be lacking in depth, but on the other it expresses the inner world of the artist in a meaningful way. From the words of Phillip’s auctioneer Matt Carey-Williams, “Figures in A Landscape is provocative satire” (Phillips 2016). In addition, it confronts notions of identity and artificial “success” in an honest way, all while presenting a quite different visual story. Between naïveté and knowingness, as the structure of feelings states.
One of the more niche artists of the contemporary era, is U.K. based illustrator, David Shrigley. His trademark work is immediately recognizable due to its simplicity, surprising imagery and ironic captions that go along with the drawings. For instance, a juvenile sketch that depicts a bee with the caption “I hate human beings” written underneath. The work is admirable in that it does not imply a sense of ignorance by the viewer. In fact, it elicits an emotional reaction that goes far beyond what is presented in plain sight. Social issues are pondered and what is important to the artist and society as a whole is highlighted. The work is a great example of the oscillation effect of Metamodernism taking place because of the irony at play. In statements like those of the “Bee” drawing, Shrigley can convey the Metamodern ideal of oscillating between the ironic and the serious in an effective manner. His work is captivating in that sense and sets him apart from other visual artists currently making work.
PERFORMANCE ART AND IDENTITY – MARINA ABRAMOVIC
Perhaps one of the more experimental and distinct forms of art is performance art. Much like the aforementioned visual artists, many actors and non-actors alike have used some form of performance in their lives to convey deeper truths and comment on societal issues. None seem as poignant and relevant to this discussion as the work of Marina Abramovic. In her staged performances, she pushes the boundaries of what art is and directly brings forth the idea of creator to viewer conflict- sometimes in a risky fashion. In one show, for example, she allowed the use of a loaded gun to be a prop and in-turn risked her life for her art. Conversely, the exchanges she has with people are usually rather tame, and yet, transcendentally profound. A lot of her staged performances entailed sitting across from a stranger in silence for an extended period of time. While these are extremes, the ways in which she uses performance as an art is a whirlwind to comprehend as an outsider looking in. At the heart of her performances is the desire to connect to her audience on a deeper level by showing vulnerability. In turn, this experience allows for self-reflexivity to take place and for questions of relativism and truth to be at the forefront of her artistry. All these factors make Abramovic an interesting character perfectly equipped to express Metamodern ideals through her work. Ultimately, this leads to her gathering a following engaged in creative dialogue that is awe-inspiring.
ACTING AND THE DISASTER ARTIST
Crossing over into the realm of film and maintaining the Metamodern structure of thinking is no easy task unless one comes across a film like “The Disaster Artist.” The film follows two aspiring filmmakers and their journey of ups and downs creating the film “The Room.” This just so happens to be an actual film with a cult-like following – despite its horrible reviews and low budget* downfalls. In The Disaster Artist, James Franco plays creator of “The Room”, Tommy Wiseau, of which little is known. His partner in crime, Greg Sestero is played by Franco’s younger brother, Dave. The ways in which “The Disaster Artist” can be classified as Metamodern is pretty obvious upon first inspection. The film is self-referential in nature, a film about making a film. It mirrors a lot of the scenes in the original, and plays on the ideas of sincerity and irony, as well as undertaking serious topics while maintaining a sense of comedic relief. Overall, it is a great example of the Metamodern exiting the bounds of traditional media, expressing unique aspects of the “movement”, and making its way onto the big screen.
I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE – SHIA LABEOUF
Instrumental in creating the discourse relating to the Metamodern concept is actor and artist, Shia LaBeouf. In what can only be described as a surreal experience, LaBeouf gained prominence in the art world from the aptly named “Shia LaBeouf” Youtube video created by Rob Cantor. In it, a narrative takes place in which the viewer and this fictionalized narration of Shia interact. In a series of events, the viewer is alerted to the fact that Shia is chasing them, with intent to cannibalize. The video is filled with theatrics and is yet another example of Performance Art that follows the Metamodern ideas. The aspect that makes it so magnetic is in the end, where we see the camera pan to the empty chairs in the audience, except one is full. It’s Shia, and he is giving a standing ovation to the performance he has just watched. It is self-reflexive in nature and presents serious topics in an ironic manner to the viewer. The production is so obviously Metamodern because of that. His artistic career and involvement with the Metamodern have also transcended to Red Carpet events. On one such occasion, LaBeouf showed up to a movie premiere with a paper bag over his head with the text “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” painted on the front. In yet another example of Metamodern ideas playing out in real time, LaBeouf reconciles irony and serious undertones to make a point. This more recent example of Metamodernism being evoked is best characterized by the rise of the Internet and how the media portrays those in the spotlight. The Metamodern approach does its best not to ignore the hardships that come with a life in Hollywood, but also makes light of the fact that they are in a position of power and the advantages that come with that. Empathy and apathy.
CONCEALMENT OF IDENTITY – WIRROW, CHILDISH GAMBINO, BANKSY, AND CORPSE HUSBAND
The most overt and transformative facet of the Metamodernist approach can be found in the employment of aliases in the arts and how, in turn, that juxtaposition allows for an authentic expression in the given medium. An oscillation between naivety and knowingness. Various examples of concealing identity in the art world come to mind – Wirrow, Banksy, Childish Gambino, and Corpse Husband, to name a few.
To hide one’s identity as a means of expression of said identity is appealing for several reasons. First, the person in question does not have to face a personal scrutiny that comes with the public knowing who they are. A layer of mystery is applied, and the artist can proceed in a “normal” fashion. Second, self-expression through the chosen medium is not hindered by preconceived notions of who they are. In some cases, instances of revealing this could prove far more consequential and it is in the best interest of the artist to maintain a sense of anonymity.
The first example that comes to mind is the multimedia artist known to the world as Wirrow. He is a visual artist based out of the U.K. and became popular in the mid 2010’s for posting various drawings, as well as visually stimulating videos that have a poetic undertone to them, to the internet. Public response to this newer artist is generally positive since their anonymous identity makes them stand out from the crowd and the work is broad. Thus, it appears that this Metamodern mode of self-expression allows him to reach many people through his art in an effective manner on his terms.
Another example similar to this would be musician and actor, Childish Gambino. His focus on expression of self and Metamodernist music videos like 2018’s “This Is America” speak to a deeper message than most current popular culture. In it, the rapper is seen dancing around various locations in a goofy manner. To balance this, Gambino and director Hiro Murai arranged realistic depictions of mass shootings that mirror the reality of the time it is set in. “This Is America” shows the oscillation between Modern enthusiasm and Postmodern irony. When considering the artist’s stage name, he uses his alter-ego to express himself in an authentic way that transcends media and any other factor that could pose as a barrier from artist to consumer. In a proactive manner, he can create his work and engage with the audience by being a “larger than life” character that, despite his status, understands society’s concerns and refuses to ignore them. Childish Gambino’s identity thus becomes a medium through which paradoxical authenticity and social activism can take place.
This concept also spans to visual artists like Banksy- another anonymous artist from the United Kingdom. While there have been some guesses as to who the artist is, efforts to unmask him have been futile. His work is riskier than others in the sense that he does public art in various locations. Graffiti and the likes are outlawed in most places without government provisions, and so when Banksy creates, he is exhibiting a sense of rebellion and self-expression. Due to his unconventional ways and Metamodern mode of operating, Banksy is one of the most popular artists of today, selling works for millions of dollars at auction.
Finally, a multimedia artist that has surpassed all expectations and maintained a Metamodern sense of identity thus far is Corpse Husband. Though his true name is unknown, Corpse Husband has amassed a large fanbase that are enamored by his deep voice, funny character, passionately inspired music, and commentary on horror and video games through the online platform, YouTube. The artist regularly engages with his viewers online and continues to climb the various charts, inciting chaos in the best way possible. To be faceless in front of the world provides a sense of control in the narrative and freedom to explore trades. Furthermore, considering statements from him, it is clear that without this particular mode of self-expression, he would not be able to connect as fully and authentically to his audience as he does. In an interview with Youtuber Anthony Padilla, he explains, “I feel like I would be happier in a world where I could be myself openly and not worry about hiding from everybody, but I do think it is the best decision for me” (Padilla, Anthony, March 2021). Social media has allowed for the artist, also known as CORPSE, to push the boundaries of what it means to be an influencer and how one can connect to the world using a name that is created by themselves. To summarize, he is the prime example of how concealing your identity can serve the purpose of getting art into the public sphere and impact society in a revolutionary way. The Metamodernist way.
The great Greek philosopher, Socrates, once said, “to know thyself is the beginning of all wisdom” (Goodreads Quotes, 2021). In my opinion, in that sentiment he covered a lot of key ideas that are central to being a well-rounded, successful (i.e., happy) individual. He stressed the awareness of social “masks” – of being other people for the sake of societal acceptance or praise. He stressed authenticity and being able to look in the mirror, asking yourself who you are- so that what is presented is a true version of the person staring back. For me, personally, I see possibility. I see a blank canvas ready to be painted endlessly. I see a creativity that goes beyond the bounds of the conventional media. From a conceptual standpoint, the work created for this thesis is introspective - focused on inspiration, and meaningful connection to the human experience. To make the temporal, permanent through documentation. This art bridges the gap between two passions of mine, painting, and special effects makeup. The aim was to express myself in a conceptual and visual manner using compositions that speak to my passions within the arts and potentially highlight a universal experience in both artist and non-artist alike.
In a practical sense, the use of the face and body as canvas presents itself with several challenges, but an even infinite amount of opportunity for expression to unfold in time. In my personal manifesto assignment, I stated “I create to inspire. I create to dream. I create to make a positive impact on this spinning world. I create as an extension of myself and pour passion into my work. I want it to exist in reality. If I did not create, I would not be me. I create because I must. There is no other way.” In this statement, the goal was to convey a list of inspirations and reasons as to why I make the work that I do. I explore several different media and enjoy the experience of that, emphasizing process over product. What I have realized through research and reflection is that I enjoy the process of making the paintings (and face paintings) due to the “turning off” of my inner critic while making artistic decisions. I have a need to express myself in unique ways and when using the medium of face paint and I want to capture the process by way of crossing boundaries into photography and editing. The intersection of mediums is crucial to keep me engaged in a meaningful way and allows for more freedom of expression. It is through this expression that I consider this work to be somewhat performative.
This all sprung forth from Arcadia University’s online “8x8” exhibition presented by the Judith Taylor Gallery at the University. The focus at the time was to be color relationships, creating movement in the viewer’s eye, and capturing atmosphere that make the pieces magnetic to look at. All of this to ignite the viewer in some way, the same way in which I have been. I began with a basic idea of making abstracted portrait paintings and eventually it evolved into photographing face paint, and then creating paintings based on the previous face paint, and vice versa. The use of collage as a preparatory work for the series served the purpose of organization and a focus on composition before making any lasting decisions on the canvas. I have realized just how conceptual the work is, for example, the overarching reason why I make this work is to control a narrative in which I elicit shock value. The former analysis of different artists spanning various media and movements explains how their distinct approach to their craft has impacted my own work and process in profound ways. To conceptualize my interests in a cohesive manner, I did a lot of research on the ideas that speak to me and stumbled upon the term “Metamodernism.” This concept has been magnetically drawing to me for a while, though unnamed to me at the time. Using the term “Metamodernism” as a means of explaining the influence and intent of my visual work seems to fit well.
Regardless of the medium, the goal of being authentic and expressing identity in a visual manner stays the same. In addition, I believe that being authentic to the work, at least in my case, requires a strong conceptual background and structure that keeps the project afloat. An aspect of the work that is impossible to ignore is the concept of concealing identity. In this case, the paintings depict various sections of special effects makeup looks completed over the course of a year. Getting into character sets the stage for concealment of identity, but at the same time the freedom of identity to shine through the work. Authentic transformation is fun for me. Each section is unique and expressed on canvas after going through the process of creating, capturing, and reimagining. In a similar vein, the moldable nature of makeup speaks to my need for exploration in a world of possibilities. Collages, sketches, and makeup cross boundaries and represent duality of the self. Collage and prep work is an extension of self and show the organization required to stick to a series. I like that it is planned out like that. Tape overlaps the composition and allows for detail. The work is portraiture but so much more than that because the face offers the ability to start over and explore all possibilities. I enjoy being able to start over when needed, and to have a blank canvas for the next time inspiration strikes. Inspiration begets inspiration in that case. At the heart of it all, is the desire to authentically translate the ideas on the inside to the outside and to immortalize a temporary medium, special effects makeup. The work is for me, but others could potentially relate to overarching themes and images. The artistic practice reflects me but also represents the creativity that all people possess. Each piece and section tell their own story, but the common thread is the special effects makeup that inspired them – combining previous work. It is a reimagining of what already exists, a Metamodern reflection. The art is fluid and cohesive and silly but ~not~, in a Metamodern sort of way. Aware of itself, authentic in its irony. The oscillation effect takes place when removing the makeup. It is “just makeup” but more than that. Overall, it is a feedback loop of self. The characters are not serious, but the inspiration and process are very serious. I do not lose myself; I gain myself through this expression.
THIS IS JTP
To me, it is important to capture the process in a tangible, structured way, incorporating photography and video to immortalize the process and final product before removing it forever. It also is a vessel for forms of expression that are not bound to one persona – an alias or getting into character for the sake of performance to express oneself comes to mind. “JTP” is an acronym of my initials but so much more than that. I embody the character and aim to be something else to express my desire to elicit awe and test the viewer’s idea of what art can be. To work under the stage name provides a renewed sense of confidence and drive, as does the actual art itself. The theme of immortalization stirs up something within the viewer and the visual influence serves as a means of recalling popular culture and making a connection that way. My work is saying that shock value created from gory inspiration can be good if used to create awe in the artist and viewer. I am engaged during the process and want the viewer to be visually engaged as well. I want you to feel something looking at my work, interpret it on your own. I want the viewer to ask, “how did you do that?” and “is it a painting or makeup?” The answer is both, and I care for the media a lot. To some this might sound selfish, but it is essential to my work that I care about it. Passiveness is the enemy to art. I wholly reject Chuck Close’s idea that “inspiration is for amateurs.” In fact, I would argue that inspiration is the one thing that keeps art going. I find inspiration where I find inspiration, in many ways it is an intuitive “knowingness” and authentic venture. While there are no set things I look for as inspiration, what I have noticed is I gravitate towards intention, busyness, a sense of rebellion, social commentary and breaking down barriers in society. It is my belief that to fully allow for the ideas of current would-be artists to flourish, modes of expression need to be challenged to make them a reality. In my work, I strive to make visually engaging pieces that speak to people on a non-surface level. Due to this, what I have in common with the influential artists mentioned above is creating something inspiring that is an extension of who I am, but outside of me. I enjoy color and mark-making but also a sense of atmosphere that transports you to another place while viewing it. I enjoy referencing my inspirations and reimagining things that have already existed. What fuels my work are these ideas of intention, engagement, and responding to larger ideas that many artists have been able to do in unorthodox ways.
From a visual standpoint, it is worth mentioning, that Keith Haring, known for his simplistic and repetitive designs, was of great influence on me while creating the face paintings. His work speaks to me in its simplicity, as well as his use of linework and expressive marks that offer a lot of contrast. It is visually engaging to the viewer and keeps the mind busy while looking at it. He is not passive. He puts intention into every mark he makes and that is something I really respect. Through my work I can understand the complexities of the self and relate that to other people. There are unique color relationships, and it creates movement in the eye. The work is paradoxical and Metamodern because of the conceptual depth and yet seemingly ironic visual expression. It takes shape in different mediums but is wholly me.
In my multimedia* work, I tackle notions of authentic identity, concealment, expression, immortalization, the inner world to the physical, and breaking boundaries - all while using visual and practical techniques that are satisfying to me in a deep way – thus hopefully transferring some of that awe to the viewer as well.
*swap out the word multimedia for mixed media and visual artist
*EDIT: The Disaster Artist has an allegedly high budget, fully paid for by creator Tommy Wiseau.
*It should be noted that mentions of particular artists in this thesis are not an endorsement of said artists, but an understanding of their place within the Metamodern art movement.
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