Why Nic Rad Matters

Nic Rad’s PeopleMatter project is essentially a portrait project in which the artist paints media personalities, tech-industry giants, literary and entertainment figures. He shows the portraits on his website and offers his paintings to anyone who can give a good enough reason why they should have them. (Some portraits have a paywall; meaning these works must be purchased.)

Reading the interview Lara Cory had with Nic sparked my thinking in the direction of contemporary art as a predominately social vehicle. Because the PeopleMatter project has leveraged the potential of the web to spread word about a single artist’s work, I see this experiment as noteworthy and perhaps suggestive of how art is increasingly becoming a social object.

One could argue that art has always been a social object—a topic of conversation, a locus of interaction with others in a museum or gallery—but I believe the acceleration of the web is serving to emphasize the social aspects of art. And if it continues, I believe we will be seeing more projects like Nic Rad’s, which enroll the public to participate in the process of the art-making, exhibition, and sale.

There is a Warholian overtone to the PeopleMatter project. Like Warhol’s silkscreen prints, Rad is making a statement about celebrities through his portraits of them. He sees these portraits as “avatars” and “graphic symbols” of members of the media, inspired by how we are represented to each other online. Furthermore, his method of aiming for imperfect works, perfectly resonates with Warhol. Rad says,

This kind of painting requires a certain speed and stops looking and feeling like art. It starts to look like fan fiction or signage or candy wrappers; it looks like everything but nice furniture . . . which is why I believe I’m doing something right.

What has changed since Warhol is our notion of celebrity, and Rad seems to pick up on this and play off of it in his portraits. He purposely intermingles actual celebrities with self-anointed ones, and blurs the distinction between the new media and the old. With Warhol, we have the mass-produced image of Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley, but with Rad, the mass-produced image is no longer meaningful as a critique.

Today we are deeply entrenched in mass-produced images and so what titillates the viewer is its opposite: the one of a kind and the possibility that it could be you. The democratic process by which a person can obtain a portrait of herself from Rad, simply petitioning for one on his website, appears straightforward:

If you feel that you’re a member of the media and are on some inexplicable trajectory and that I should consider painting you instead of one of my current subjects—tell me why. There’s a decent chance I’ll agree with you and make a replacement.

The democratic process, however, is not without its irony. Rad is offering to memorialize you as a cultural figure (read on his website: Become Immortal). And he’s also capitalizing on our particular historical moment, with major industries, and social hierarchies, in transition; this project could not be achieved at any other period in history. The categories for fame these days are fluid and loosely-defined as new technology catapults regular people into the sphere of celebrity over night.

The genius of the project is how the website generates interest in the portraits. First, with the possibility to be painted, and second, with the possibility to receive a painting for free, Rad has created a mini-ecosystem of “celebritization,” a word that Rad used in his interview.

The whole experiment could quickly be dismissed as a promotional gimmick, and Rad knows something about public relations and marketing for having worked in the field for six months; but I believe Rad is holding up a mirror instead.

His PeopleMatter project shows how we make each other known and important in this new cultural landscape; and how the individual is made into a media icon. It also shows how we use “graphic symbols” to represent ourselves in the Internet era; and how the public projects meaning onto these short-hand representations through floating bits of information on Twitter streams, articles, video clips, and web searches.

It is not by coincidence that many of the portraits resemble caricatures, some more than others. This representation of the celebrity is meant to be a visual reference point which may only capture a single quality of a person’s character or beliefs, but serves to place them on the map of cultural dialogue. It is also important to remember that the portraits are set against the background of the entire body of paintings. Unlike Warhol’s prints, these icons are taken together, as a cultural whole.

Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, following the tradition of Warhol, put as much work into marketing their art as they did creating it. The PeopleMatter project is contradictory and wonderful for its ability to make art social while at the same time critiquing the social consequences of such art.

Rad does not attack the cultural apparatus, but instead feeds it to each of us. We are one among many; no single portrait deserves ultimate scorn or praise. None is set higher or lower. These portraits are a tapestry of dreams, however imperfect or fragile our dreams may be.

Visit Nic Rad’s PeopleMatter Project

lethebashar-4I’m the editor of Escape into Life, online arts journal. I’m also involved in working with an illustrator from Argentina on a graphic novel. Besides that I frequently keep up my essay-blog, The Blog of Innocence, which covers topics in the arts, social technology, and a general philosophy of life.

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