Human

Can Instagram‘s Algorithm Curate an Exhibition Better Than a Human? A London Show Aims to Find Out


What happens when an algorithm curates an exhibition? It’s a question that Laura Herman, a doctoral researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, is unpacking in “The Algorithmic Pedestal,” a show she has spearheaded at J/M Gallery in London. 

She has invited two curators, one human and one machine, to bring together works for display by drawing from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access collection.

The living curator is London-based artist Fabienne Hess, who has picked artworks related to the theme of loss, calling upon such universal human experiences as patience and curiosity. Her array of works are part of “Dataset of Loss,” a collection of images (including some of her own) that she has built over three years to counter algorithm-powered perceptions. 

One of the pieces selected by Fabienne Hess for “The Algorithmic Pedestal.” André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, Louis Revoil (1865–75). Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005.

The exhibition’s other curator is, well, Instagram. Since November 2022, organizers have uploaded images from the Met’s collection of public domain works to the @thealgorithmicpedestal account on Instagram. Whichever posts the platform’s algorithm opted to display in other users’ Home feeds are what made it into the show. 

For Herman, the exhibition, which also serves as her doctoral project, is not the only example of curation exercised by algorithmic calculation. In her view, Instagram’s “‘black box’ algorithm” is already influencing its “users’ experience of visual culture.”

“Many of these algorithmic platforms,” she said, “were not created with the intention of artistic display. They have very different goals: enabling connection between friends, selling ads, gaining attention, serving as a marketplace, and so on. This means that the underlying formulas according to which they operate are not tuned to artistic considerations of aesthetics, beauty, novelty, or even creativity.”

A preview of works picked by Instagram. Photo: @thealgorithmicpedestal on Instagram

In effect, she added, “We are outsourcing decisions about our visual culture to an inanimate machine with very different ways of seeing.”

Such a view into a social media platform’s “perceptual mechanisms” is all the more pressing, in Herman’s view, as A.I. generators, fast gaining in popularity, are bound to generate a bounty of content in need of sorting or curating. Artists, too, might feel compelled to create work preferred by algorithms.

Thus the exhibition’s interactive elements, including QR codes which visitors can scan to receive prompts about the exhibition, and submit their reflections on the differences between Hess’s and Instagram’s curation, and how these different views shape what and how they see. This audience impact will inform Oxford Internet Institute’s ongoing research into the capabilities and biases of recommendation algorithms—an “urgent” issue, added Herman, as visual culture becomes ever-more intertwined with machine intelligence.

“The ever-expanding sea of content will be impossible to traverse without the ability to consume thousands, if not millions, images in a nanosecond,” she said. “Of course, no human has this ability, leading us to become completely reliant on the discernment and decision-making of algorithmic platforms.”

“The Algorithmic Pedestal” is on view at J/M Gallery, 230 Portobello Road, London, January 11–17, 2023. The exhibition is free to attend.

 

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On the National Mall, The Largest Participatory Art Project in a Quarter Century Makes Tangible the Human Toll of COVID-19


Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg has planted 695,000 white flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—one for each person in the U.S. who has died of COVID-19.

The massive installation, titled In America: Remember, is a reminder of the human cost of the still-ongoing pandemic, even as thousands of Americans refuse to get the vaccination that could keep them from becoming part of the death toll.

Underneath the shadow of the Washington Monument, it took a team of 150 landscapers, their time donated by Ruppert Landscape, three complete days to install the sea of white flags, spaced 10 inches across in 60-foot grids. It helps make tangible the sheer scale of loss that is otherwise unfathomable.

It’s the second year Firstenberg, a longtime hospice volunteer, has staged an artwork of this nature in the nation’s capitol. Last year, she put up 219,000 flags at the D.C. Armory for In America: How Could This Happen…. The five-week project concluded with a total of 267,000 flags when she ran out of space to continue adding to the display. A selection of flags from that original piece are now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, <em>In America: How Could This Happen...</em> flags on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Photo National Museum of American History.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: How Could This Happen… flags on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Photo National Museum of American History.

The sequel opened on September 17, with 670,032 flags. It remains on view through the end of this weekend, and still continues to grow. In fact, In America is the largest public participatory art installation on the National Mall since the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was last shown in full there in 1996.

Visitors are invited to inscribe a flag with handwritten dedications to the deceased from their loved ones. You can walk through the installation on nearly four miles of grassy paths, stopping to sit and reflect on benches placed throughout.

We spoke with Firstenberg about what inspired her to respond to the pandemic through art.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

Why did you want to bring the project back for a second year and how have your feelings about the pandemic changed since you last staged the work?

I did not expect when I closed the art installation in November 2020 that this would happen again. But people from the Trust for the National Mall and from the National Park Service saw that art and worked with me to bring it back.

The National Mall is the greatest stage, and to have the opportunity to call attention to such a tragedy was something I felt I had to do. Words aren’t working any longer. Words are falling on unlistening ears. It really is incumbent on visual artists to help translate and reflect back to society what is happening in the hope that things will improve, because art can effect positive change.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, <em>In America: Remember</em> (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

What kind of reaction have you gotten to the piece from visitors this year?

I did not expect how much solace and comfort this art would provide people families whose loved ones died from COVID-19. I knew that they would bring their grief, their outrage, their anger. What I didn’t know was what the flags would give back.

Some people said they didn’t have a funeral, and this is the only public memorial they had. “We’ve gathered family around our dad’s flag,” they said.

Another woman said “I have been so isolated in my grief in my dad’s death. But coming here and seeing all these flags, I realize I have had a lot of company—I have not been mourning alone.’

It’s been so gratifying to let my art do this for people.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

Have you had any negative reactions?

We haven’t had any damage to the flags or any efforts to disrupt the piece. We did have one woman who said, “My mother didn’t die of COVID. She had COVID and she died of a heart attack. I need to take her flag out of here.”

I said to her, “this is not about taking the flag out. This is about your grief for your mother.” We talked for awhile, and she thanked me and she left. What she was really saying was, “I’m in pain.”

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view with a dedication on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view with a dedication on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by courtesy of the artist.

Do you think art can help people comprehend the scale of loss that we are dealing with here?

The beauty of this art installation is that even seeing so many flags, it’s still so hard to comprehend. But 11,000 flags have been personalized. If a person walks through any pathway, they’ll see a flag that’s been personalized for a loved one who died. That helps them understand the magnitude of the tragedy. It goes from understanding the number to understanding the amount of grief this art represents.

The number represents that America is in pain. This art represents the pain that we all are suffering.

Do you hope these flags help remind people who are complaining about ongoing health restrictions or mask and vaccine mandates what is really happening here, and how without precautions this number will continue to grow?

I don’t think they will be compelled by fear to change their behavior. They are demonstrating such antisocial selfish behavior by not protecting other people by getting immunized and wearing masks.

We need more art to help them find their own dignity in all of this. I hope this art touches them to get vaccinated and to wear masks and stop fighting mandates. But we need more art to help people flip their cameras, stop with the selfie mentality, and start focusing on others.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, In America: Remember (2021), installation view on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo by Bruce Guthrie, courtesy of the artist.

It seems as if COVID-19 is becoming an endemic disease. Does that change the way that you think about this project and do you plan to continue it or restage it in the future?

It can’t be extended because the permit for use of this space is limited. We just hosted a congressional delegation, many of whom asked that we bring the project to their community. I’m going to encourage people to replicate this art in their own community.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the project and what it represents, and its potential to be ongoing for the foreseeable future?

As an artist, this project has been overwhelming not only in its physical scope, but in its emotional scope.

I’m not trying to document what is happening with COVID. My goal was to reclaim the dignity of each person who had become a number but to also give our nation a moment of pause. I wanted to create a moment of reflection so we could say “Oh my god. We cannot let this happen again. What do we need to do to find our better selves?

“In America: Remember” is on view on the National Mall, north of the Washington Monument, between 15th and 17th Streets, Washington, D.C., September 17–October 3, 2021. 

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The Oldest Human Footprints in North America Could Redefine Prehistory as We Know It—and It’s All Thanks to These Tiny Seeds


New data on prehistoric footprints suggest they are the earliest ever found in North America, dating to 23,000 years ago—thousands of years before humans were previously believed to have made their way to the continent.

David Bustos, an archaeologist and resource program manager at New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, found the tracks at the park in 2009 on the shore of a lake that has long since become a desert. The impressions ancient humans left behind in the mud on what is now known as Alkali Flat have fossilized over the centuries, becoming rock.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey conducted radiocarbon dating on large quantities of seeds from Ruppia cirrhosa, an aquatic ditch grass, which were stuck in the footprints. They determined that the marks were made between 22,800 and 21,130 years ago. The new analysis was published Friday in the journal Science.

“This is a bombshell,” Ruth Gruhn, a University of Alberta archaeologist not involved in the study, told the New York Times. “On the face of it, it’s very hard to disprove.”

Researchers excavating prehistoric footprints in the bottom of a trench at White Sands National Park, New Mexico. Photo by Dan Odess, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Researchers excavating prehistoric footprints in the bottom of a trench at White Sands National Park, New Mexico. Photo: Dan Odess. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

It’s unlikely, but possible, that the seeds could have absorbed old carbon leached into the water by nearby rocks in a “reservoir effect.” But the scientists dated hundreds of seeds and found that the ages were consistent across the board, with older seeds on the bottom and younger ones at the surface.

Assuming the dating is correct, that means that prehistoric humans settled in North America either before or during the last Ice Age, rather than after it, fundamentally changing the timeline of our species and our world.

“This new study provides the first unequivocal evidence of a sustained human presence in the Americas thousands of years earlier than most archaeologists thought was likely,” Thomas Urban, a research scientist with the Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory, said in a statement.

Radiocarbon dating on ancient ditch grass seeds found in the footprints determined that they were made up to 23,000 years ago. Photo by David Bustos, courtesy of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Radiocarbon dating on ancient ditch grass seeds found in the footprints determined that they were made up to 23,000 years ago. Photo by David Bustos, courtesy of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Since the 1930s, when the archaeologist Edgar B. Howard discovered an ancient spear tip near Clovis, New Mexico, the prevailing theory has been that the first prehistoric humans in North America were the Clovis people. They had made their way across a now-submerged land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska around 13,500 to 13,000 years ago and spread throughout the continent.

But the “Clovis First” theory has been challenged in recent years by other archaeological finds, leading to divisions within the field.

“The peopling of the Americas is one of those things that has been for many years very contentious, and a lot of archaeologists hold views with almost religious zeal,” the paper’s lead author, Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University in the U.K., told CNN.

Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

Footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico providing the earliest evidence of human activity in the Americas. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

In 1979, Canadian archaeologist Knut Fladmark hypothesized that the first humans to reach North America did so via small boats. His theory seemed unlikely given that the continent’s coast would have been blocked by giant glaciers.

But it gained traction in 1997 with the discovery of Monte Verde, an archaeological site in coastal Chile, that was found to be 14,500 years old—a millennium older than the earliest Clovis site.

Other finds have followed, including an Oregon cave 200 miles inland with 14,300-year-old human feces, traces of a 15,000-year-old campfire in Idaho, and the 15,000-year-old Buttermilk Creek Complex in Texas. Perhaps oldest of all is the Chiquihuite Cave in Zacatecas in central Mexico, where experts have dated stone tools to 30,000 years ago.

Some Clovis researchers question the dating of those sites, but the reliable dating of the footprints makes it more likely that at least some other pre-Clovis finds are also accurate, and that the first migrations to the Americas began before the Ice Age.

Researchers testing seeds found embedded in the footprints. Photo courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

Researchers testing seeds found embedded in the footprints. Photo courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

“Our work has shown that the ice sheets were probably controlling entry into North America, but that we had made it in one glacial cycle earlier,” Sally Reynolds, a mammalian paleontology professor at Bournemouth University and study co-author, told Vice. “Working back from that, we think that at around 30,000 years ago, humans would have traveled from Siberia over the Bering land bridge.”

Other experts contend there were ice-free, settler-friendly zones in pockets up and down the coast of North America that could have allowed humans to move inland before the ice sheets melted. (The Atlantic recently published an article about the search for pre-Clovis sites on California’s Channel Islands, where archaeologists are focusing their efforts on submerged areas that would have been above sea level in prehistoric times.)

If there were indeed human beings in the Americas before the Clovis people, their populations appear to have died out, perhaps during the ensuing Ice Age. Genetic testing of contemporary Indigenous people shows that the Native American line diverged from Asia some 16,000 years ago.

Children and teenagers left most of the prehistoric footprints. Photo courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

Children and teenagers left most of the prehistoric footprints. Photo courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

Based on the new radiocarbon dating results, experts believe that the former lake in White Sands was continually occupied by humans for around 2,000 years—and that the lake shrank over time as temperatures rose.

“When that warming occurred,” Jeff Pigati, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the paper’s coauthors, told Gizmodo, “the lake level dropped and exposed this big flat area for people to walk across. That’s what allowed the tracks to be there in the first place. This entire story is driven by climate change.”

Tens of thousands of years later, the footprints are fragile formations of clay and silt. Judging by their size, experts believe they mostly belonged to children and teenagers with flat feet, thanks to being constantly barefoot.

These footprints are North America's oldest sign of human settlement. Photo by David Bustos, courtesy of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

These footprints are North America’s oldest sign of human settlement.
Photo: David Bustos. Courtesy of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

“The footprints left at White Sands give a picture of what was taking place, teenagers interacting with younger children and adults,” Bennett said in a statement. “We can think of our ancestors as quite functional, hunting and surviving, but what we see here is also activity of play, and of different ages coming together. A true insight into these early people.”

But more importantly, the find could permanently alter the conversation about when humans first laid eyes on North America.

“One of the reasons there is so much debate is that there is a real lack of very firm, unequivocal data points,” Bennett told the BBC. “That’s what we think we probably have. Footprints aren’t like stone tools. A footprint is a footprint, and it can’t move up and down [in the soil layers].”

An illustration of the region that is now White Sands National Park in New Mexico, between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago. Image by Karen Carr, courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

An illustration of the region that is now White Sands National Park in New Mexico, between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago. Image by Karen Carr, courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

The footprints were, however, filled in with sediment over the ages, and it is only recent erosion that has made these “ghost tracks” visible to 21st-century eyes. Some are so faint that they can only be seen with ground-penetrating radar. To date, thousands of human prints have been found at White Sands in 61 distinct trackways over an area of 80,000 acres, as well as prints left by mammoths, dire wolves, camels, and even a giant sloth, among other animals.

“All of the trackways we’ve found there show an interaction of humans in the landscape alongside extinct animals,” Reynolds said in a statement. “We can see the coexistence between humans and animals on the site as a whole.”

Scientists are now working as quickly as they can to document these traces of human activity while they still can, before further erosion erases them from the sands of time.

“The only way we can save them,” Bustos told the Associated Press, “is to record them—to take a lot of photos and make 3-D models.”

See more photos of the footprints below.

Ancient footprints in White Stands National Park, New Mexico, have been dated to 23,000 years ago. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

Ancient footprints in White Stands National Park, New Mexico, have been dated to 23,000 years ago. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands. Photo by David Bustos, courtesy of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Thomas Urban conducts magnetometer survey of mammoth footprints at White Sands. Photo: David Bustos, courtesy of White Sands National Park, New Mexico.

Researchers testing seeds found embedded in the footprints. Photo courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

Researchers testing seeds found embedded in the footprints. Photo courtesy of Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America's oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

North America’s oldest human footprints, found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/U.S. Geological Survey/Bournemouth University, U.K.

 

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The Lockdown Made Collectors Even Hungrier for Paintings of the Human Form. Is Figuration Fatigue Coming Next?


The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Midnight Publishing Group News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.

 

Reflecting on the contemporary art market’s voracious appetite for portraiture today, an art dealer recently told me over coffee: Imagine all these collectors waking up one morning, looking around their homes, and asking themselves, “Who are all these people?”

It was a joke, of course. But it got me thinking: Is there figuration fatigue on the horizon? 

There’s a glut of figurative art out there: on social media, in galleries, auction salesrooms, and museums. Building up prior to the pandemic, the desire for figurative paintings, and portraiture in particular, has only accelerated over the past 16 months. Recently, Asian collectors have been driving up prices for works by Dana Schutz and Amy Sherald, Amoako Boafo and Emily Mae-Smith.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie's.

Amoako Boafo, Baba Diop (2019). Image courtesy Christie’s.

Human figures appeared in all but three of the top 30 contemporary and ultra-contemporary artworks sold at auction in the first half of 2021, according to Midnight Publishing Group Analytics (two of the three exceptions depict plants and trees). 

“It’s hard to get away from portraiture,” said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, whose family museum will display new figurative works by three artists in December. “It remains powerful. Every generation has its own version.”

Artists have been depicting the human figure for millennia, starting with cave paintings. But the current obsession has been fueled by a number of factors. As museums and private collectors alike work to fill gaps in their holdings by artists of color, and particularly Black artists, whose work has been undervalued for decades, portraiture has emerged as an important genre. 

Some, however, wonder if the single-minded focus of profit-motivated collectors may keep them from engaging with the true breadth of cultural production. “People want to check these boxes and say they participate in the moment,” said art consultant Rachael Barrett. “They want something recognizable, something people can easily spot on a wall. I think there’s going to be fatigue of that. I do hope that the range of artistic practice of the artists of color becomes more appreciated.”

Installation view, "Hugh Hayden: Huey" © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Installation view, “Hugh Hayden: Huey” © Hugh Hayden. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

There are signs this is already starting to happen. At Lisson gallery in Chelsea, Hugh Hayden has created three chapel-like spaces filled with meticulously sculpted, sawed, and woven objects such as reclaimed church pews, basketball hoops, and school desks.

Nearby, Gagosian mounted “Social Works,” an exhibition that focuses on community engagement in Black art practice, with monumental sculpture, video installations, and even a functional farm. Theaster Gates contributed a display of 5,000 records amassed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, who was influential in Black queer circles in the 1980s. House music fills the gallery and a DJ on site is busy digitizing the archive for the duration of the show. 

Works of this scale and complexity would be hard to appreciate, or even grasp, on Instagram, the social media platform that contributed to the saturation of figurative art during the pandemic. Portraits were much easier to digest and acquire because people knew what they were looking at.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

Social Works, installation view, 2021. Artworks © artists. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.

“Even sculptures, in lockdown, it’s hard for people to take this leap of faith and buy something digitally,” said art advisor Ed Tang. “Unless you are standing in front of it, looking at it from various angles, it’s difficult to commit to it.”

In a moment of social isolation, figurative imagery was comforting. “There was a desire to see ourselves in some way or another, to see the context around the human figure, socially, historically, or just on a physical level,” said gallery owner Franklin Parrasch. “The drive for figuration is part of the replacement of the socialization process.”

As physical interactions with art resume at museums, art fairs, and biennials, audiences may swing toward something more challenging.

“The way people are looking at art will change,” Tang said. “Can you imagine going to Venice and seeing figurative painting in every pavilion?”

While it’s hard to say what the next big trend will be, the pendulum seems to regularly swing between abstraction and figuration. And while some artists make work that responds to prevailing ideas and taste, many do what they do independently of them. Sometimes, it takes decades to understand the significance of a particular work or artist. A recent rehang of New York’s Museum of Modern Art radically paired Faith Ringgold’s 1967 American People Series #20: Die with Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

“We didn’t have the same versatility of context in the ‘60s when this work was being made,” said art advisor Allan Schwartzman. “Figuration was seen as dated.”

Installation view, "A Thought Sublime." Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

Installation view, “A Thought Sublime.” Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery.

While pure abstraction remains somewhat out of fashion these days, the landscape, which hasn’t been a hot genre in decades, is making an appearance in several shows, including “A Thought Sublime” at Marianne Boesky and “Ridiculous Sublime,” organized by advisor Lisa Schiff.

“It’s something of a relief from all this figuration,” said art advisor Wendy Cromwell. “It may be a bridge back to abstraction for some artists and collectors.”

Some artists are fusing the figure and the landscape. Matthew Marks gallery sold out its current show by 31-year-old Julien Nguyen, who makes haunting portraits and jewel-like allegorical scenes inspired by the Bible, Renaissance painting, and anime. (The waiting list for his work is growing.) Prices ranged from $30,000 to $50,000.

A block north, at Cheim and Read gallery, the late Matthew Wong’s ink drawings depict his signature lone figures in exquisitely rendered mystical spaces. Several sold, with prices ranging from $275,000 to $450,000.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Julien Nguyen, Ave Maria (2019). © Julien Nguyen, courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.

Many see figuration fatigue as linked to the pure volume of material, some of which is bound to be of lower quality. “Bad figurative painting is everywhere,” critic Dean Kissick wrote last year in an essay on a wave of painting he called Zombie Figuration. “It crawls into every room, from museums to galleries, to cool young project spaces, to the world at large.” 

Others simply long for a more sophisticated and critical level of discourse than a social media post that says: “Hey I just got this artwork. I bought it online. What do you think?”

“And there are 400 likes or kisses,” Parrasch said. “It’s never anything deep enough to create an argument. What we have is clicks and underdeveloped thoughts.” 

But weaning off the figure will not happen overnight, said Ron Segev, the co-founder of Thierry Goldberg gallery on the Lower East Side.

“Collectors who are coming to me want figurative work,” he said. “I can’t convince people to buy abstract paintings right now. But you can see that there are some artists out there who are working against the trend. One of these artists will start a new one.”  

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The Art Collective That Nike Sued for Pouring Human Blood on Its Sneakers Has Agreed to Recall the Shoes


The battle between Nike and the art and design collective MSCHF has finally been settled.

Last month, the collective teamed up with rapper Lil Nas X to release “Satan Shoes,” a series of modified Nike Air Max 97s sneakers with drops of human blood mainlined into the soles. Priced at $1,018 per pair and produced in an edition of 666, the shoes sold out in less than a minute.

But not everyone was a fan—especially not Nike, which sued MSCHF for trademark infringement and was subsequently granted a temporary restraining order against the studio by a U.S. District Court judge. 

Now, as part of an out-of-court settlement with the clothing company, MSCHF will offer to purchase back the sneakers from each buyer at the original price, according to a statement Nike provided to Midnight Publishing Group News. The collective will also offer refunds to those who bought “Jesus Shoes,” a 2019 series of altered Nike Air Max sneakers with holy water from the River Jordan injected into the soles.

Whether or not customers will actually return the shoes is another question. The refund will likely provide little incentive, given the robust resale market. Numerous pairs of Satan Shoes are available on eBay now with price tags ranging from to $3,800 to $6,666.

Further details about the deal were not disclosed, but it effectively ends the lawsuit between the company and the art collective. 

“The parties are pleased to put this dispute behind them,” Nike said in a statement. MSCHF’s lawyer, David H. Bernstein, similarly said his clients were “pleased” with the agreement.

“With these Satan Shoes, MSCHF intended to comment on the absurdity of the collaboration culture practiced by some brands, and about the perniciousness of intolerance,” he said. “Having already achieved its artistic purpose, MSCHF recognized that settlement was the best way to allow it to put this lawsuit behind it so that it could dedicate its time to new artistic and expressive projects.”

Calling the shoes “works of art that [that] represent the ideals of equality and inclusion,” Bernstein added that the lawsuit “brought extraordinary publicity” to MSCHF and its artistic message.

Bernstein’s firm similarly declined to share any further details about the settlement.

MSCHF’s Satan Shoes were released on Friday, March 26—the eve of Holy Week—and coincided with the release of Nas X’s music video for his song Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” in which the rapper reimagines biblical scenes through a queer lens.

In one scene, he descends into hell on a stripper pole before giving the devil a lewd lap dance. The video has since been viewed over 100 million times on Youtube, while the song has posted similar numbers on Spotify. 

On MSCHF’s website, a link to the Satan Shoes project now leads to the collective’s statement on the dispute with Nike.

“Satan Shoes started a conversation, while also living natively in its space,” the statement says. “It is art created for people to observe, speculate on, purchase, and own. Heresy only exists in relation to doctrine: who is Nike to censor one but not the other?”

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