MICHAEL FULLERTON Meaning, Inc.by Alexander Shulan
Greene Naftali Gallery | January 9 – February 8, 2014
On New Year’s 2011, Kim Dotcom, the online entrepreneur, hacker, and Internet pirate, sat in his private helicopter watching a half million dollar firework display that he gave to New Zealand as a thank-you for granting him citizenship. One year later, Dotcom’s assets had been seized thanks to his ownership of the website megaupload.com, which flouted copyright law by allowing anyone to upload anything, and he faced imminent jail-time.
Needless to say, Kim Dotcom is an odd subject for a Thomas Gainsborough style portrait. Yet, as I walked into Michael Fullerton’s exhibition Meaning, Inc., “The Ultramarine (Kim Dotcom)” (2013), an oil painting rendered in muted strokes of brown and green, immediately caught my attention. It shows Dotcom standing with a Norman Rockwell-like smile on his face, adopting a pose that would not be out of place at London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Meaning, Inc. gathers together a series of oil paintings of men and women who wield great cultural influence: web entrepreneurs, movie producers, actors, and actresses. These are joined by paintings and silkscreened photographs of iconic characters from the golden era of Hollywood—the MGM trademark and Snow White, for example—as well as representations of the space-race and its participants, all given a similar treatment. Fullerton is a skilled painter, and he plays with the tradition of classical portraiture—a style of painting that characteristically flatters members of a ruling class—using the form as a means to weave alternative narratives about the creation and distribution of powerful symbols. Many of the paintings are accompanied by texts about the person portrayed, creating an interlocking storyline that runs throughout the exhibition.
One painting, “Beauty (Walt Disney Corp)” (2013), shows Snow White asleep and waiting for Prince Charming. Fullerton utilizes a delicate pastel palette for the work. This is paired with a massive silkscreened photograph of Bert Lahr, the actor best known for his role as the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. A painting of the President of Lockheed Martin titled “The Mistress” (2014) shows Marillyn Hewson, who notably serves on President Obama’s advisory committee on international trade, smiling in a burgundy double-breasted suit, a picture that looks very similar to any idealized portrait of a politician. This is paired with a painting of Samuel Goldwyn’s second wife, “The Mistress” (2013), done in a style akin to that of a vanity portrait from the 1930s. Taken together, these four paintings make a clear comment on the relationship between power and American cultural influence.
In a back room behind the wall text that introduces the exhibition are two large silkscreened images of lions. Similar to Jack Goldstein’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975), a film which showed the MGM lion roaring for two minutes, Fullerton’s “Trade-Mark” (2013) and the literally titled “This is not Symbolic, This is Real (Lion from Majete Wildlife Reserve)” (2013) depict a lion spotlit from the side in a movie studio, and a lion in the wild. A sculpture, “Working Maquette for a Sculpture Entitled ‘Formalism—Sucking Corporate Cock Since 1968’” (2013), a cube of police strobe-lights flashes red, white, and blue, casting a shadow over the entire back room, invariably commenting on the MGM trademark’s status as an American export.
In the main room, across from a portrait of Samuel Goldwyn titled “The Producer”(2013), hangs a portrait of computer scientist Peter Gutmann, “Peter Gutmann, Auckland”(2013). In 1995, Gutmann famously developed the computer security toolkit cryptlib, a program that allows for the easy encryption of software. In the context of the exhibition, the juxtaposition of Samuel Goldwyn with Gutmann suggests that they are opposites—Goldwyn facilitated the export of Hollywood’s images to the whole world, while Gutmann developed a technology that inhibits the easy flow of information.
Of course, it is figures like Kim Dotcom who ultimately enable the widespread piracy of American movies, and who pose the real threat to movie producers like Samuel Goldwyn. In fact, this January, after the exhibition opened, Kim Dotcom (who has been released in New Zealand and is fighting extradition to the U.S.) tweeted, “Scottish portraitist Michael Fullerton painted Steve Jobs and now me … #Humbled.” Meaning, Inc. deftly demonstrates the political irony of Dotcom’s tweet.
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