Artists In Trouble

Sam Durant, Dana Schutz, Contemporary Art, ICA Boston, Walker Art Center, Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Ali Avci
Images courtesy the artists
(Left) Richard Prince. Untitled (portrait). 2014. Inkjet on canvas; (Right) Screenshot of Kim Gordon's Instagram page.
In June, Sam Durant’s sculpture was labelled a “monument to genocide” at the Walker Art Centre – here are three artists, Dana Schutz, Richard Prince and Ali Avci, who have sparked controversy this month with their artworks

Dana Schutz, USA
American contemporary artist Schutz and the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) are facing backlash from artists, activists and community members in Boston over a newly opened survey exhibition. By indirectly featuring Open Casket (2016), a painting based on a photograph of Emmett Till at his funeral, ICA is stoking the outrage expressed following the work’s appearance at the Whitney Biennial this past spring. It prompted a six-page open letter to ICA chief curator Eva Respini calling ICA out for not addressing previous reception of the work, nor the repercussions on the African American community.

During the Whitney Biennial, requests rose for the work to be removed and destroyed, with artist Hanna Black publically writing: “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black’s suffering into profit and fun.” Using an image of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955, the painting directly draws from Till’s mother’s insistence on an open casket to reveal the brutality of the lynching and American racism. Some critics lauded Schutz’s gestural, painterly technique for its ability to literally depict the horrifying cuts and lacerations of Till’s face in the original photograph, but the majority deemed it exploitative. “Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material,” Black wrote.

Despite calls for cancellation of the exhibition – and that Schutz be banned from the city – ICA may have opted to not show the work directly, displaying a text explaining the work’s significance as part of a larger display of Schutz’s works over the last decade – it remains. “Even though the painting will not be shown, even in its absence, backing its artist without accountability nor transparency about proceeds from the exhibition, the institution will be participating in condoning the co-opting of Black pain and showing the art world and beyond that people can co-opt sacred imagery rooted in oppression and face little consequence, contributing to and perpetuating centuries-old racist iconography that ultimately justifies state and socially sanctioned violence on Black people,” reads an excerpt from the letter. 

ICA director Jill Medvedow issued a statement on the institute’s website: “Art often exposes the fault lines in our culture, and Open Casket raised difficult questions about cultural appropriation, race, and representation. Though Open Casket is not in the ICA exhibition, we welcome the opportunity for debate and reflection on the issues of representation and responsibility, sympathy and empathy, art, and social justice. Complex, challenging, sensitive, and urgent, these are issues deserving of thoughtful discourse, and museums are one of the few places where the artist’s voice is central to the conversation.” ICA will host a talk on 14 September between Respini and Boston’s poet laureate Danielle Legros-Georges about “organising a show amid artist controversy”.

Richard Prince, USA
American artist Prince’s photographic works have been based on appropriation since 1975 – when he photographed Sam Abell’s photograph Untitled (Cowboy) – and as a result, is no stranger to copyright infringement lawsuits, despite the technique rising to popularity in the New York art scene in the late 1970s and early 80s. Prince’s latest, filed initially in late 2016 by photographer Donald Graham, accused the artist of using the photograph Rastafarian Smoking a Joint (1996) without consent for an Instagram series for his 2015 New Portraits exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York. It has since prompted several other artists whose works Prince utilised for the same series to speak up and take legal action, including Eric McNatt and Ashley Salazar.

Making a career by sourcing images from mass media, advertising and entertainment, Prince’s practice is based on redefining notions of artistic authorship and ownership, in turn, making the artworks his own by the sheer act of appropriating, or rephotographing. For this case, Prince’s lawyers, Joshua Schiller, of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, argued that Prince’s usage altered the original image by cropping and adding text, and therefore didn’t fall under fair use. While Judge Sidney Stein acknowledged the transformations, he also concluded that “the primary image in both works is the photograph itself. Prince has not materially altered the composition, presentation, scale, color palette, and media originally used by Graham.” Due to the inability to determine whether the work had been sufficiently altered to add new meaning, Larry Gagosian, Gagosian Gallery and Prince’s motion to request to dismiss the lawsuit was rejected on 18 July. His lawyers remain optimistic about proving the usage is fair.

Previous lawsuits include Richard Prince vs. Patrick Cariou in 2008 when Prince photographed works from a series of Rastafarians produced by Cariou. While Cariou won in 2011, the decision was overturned in 2013 in favour of Prince as the court re-evaluated the parametres of “fair use”. The years-long affair was finally settled privately in 2014. Eric McNatt then filed in 2016 following the disregard of McNatt’s copyrighting of an image of Kim Gordon taken years prior. Prince’s rephotographing and addition of text was published on Instagram and promoted in an artist book by Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe. While Prince closed the social media account, the notoriety worked heavily in his favour. Gordon posted a photo on Instagram holding a signed copy of Prince’s version of the portrait under which she wrote, “So thrilled thank you @richardprince4.” Prince went on to state in an interview that the court had become an extension of his artistic expression and overall had a positive impact on his body of work.


Ali Avci, Turkey
Filmmaker Ali Avci was detained on 13 July by authorities in Turkey for directing a film depicting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held under gunpoint during a coup d’état. The film, Uyanis (“Awakening”), remains unreleased, the publicly circulated trailer is what sparked the arrest – it portrays the murder of Erdogan’s family at their house in Kisikli.

It falls within Avci’s penchant for politically driven narratives; Avci previously produced Reis (“The Chief”) which was thematically the polar opposite – the biopic outlined Erdogan’s early political life and was released prior to an April referendum in order to positively promote his campaign. As of 19 July, Avci was formally arrested over “managing an armed terror organisation” and has since been accused of collaborating with the group that unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Erdogan last year.

More on the original Sam Durant Scaffold controversy here.


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Sam Durant, Dana Schutz, Contemporary Art, ICA Boston, Walker Art Center, Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Ali Avci
Images courtesy the artists
(Left) Richard Prince. Untitled (portrait). 2014. Inkjet on canvas; (Right) Screenshot of Kim Gordon's Instagram page.