Everything Old is New Again
We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.
Charles Mackay (1841)
See that little boy sitting at the bottom right-hand corner of Everything Old is New Again? (2011). Possibly the most unassuming character in this enormous painting, he is immersed in his own world. He isn’t daydreaming: he’s texting. Just up from him, a skeletal girl talks on her cell phone. Across the picture plane, a group of shady characters hunch around a table. They too have their phones out in anticipation of the next text or Facebook alert. Not far from them, a woman in a fur coat looks up from her laptop, startled by our gaze. These characters are disconnected from each other but tuned into a world outside the painting; a world many of us live in today through our constant use of search engines and social media. Cell phones and laptops are some of the most pervasive objects of our time, signifying a second chance to present ourselves within the constructed environment of the world wide web. They feed a delusion—that through the internet we might find the feelings of belonging and connection we crave.
The exhibition White Noise charts a significant shift in Séraphine Pick’s practice. Over the past five years, she has become more focused on process, concentrating on style, composition and colour. To address these formal concerns she began trawling the internet for second-hand life models, figures already posed in the way she wanted them. Instead of mining imagery from her private world, many of these new works have grown out of images supplied by search engines. Once painted, they become a pastiche of personalities borrowed from contemporary life. The process of painting has become Pick’s driving concern, and what the works might mean surfaces later.
As someone who doesn’t engage with social media Pick is fascinated by the way we present ourselves in a virtual world. On a personal level, her engagement with the internet emphasises her role as an observer who sits between her son’s generation (born in the early 2000s) and the ideals and values her parents taught her in the 1960s and 70s. The towering pastel couple in the Easy Living paintings seem worlds apart from the small, curled up bodies in the Wankered series, yet experiencing these works together encourages us to consider them within a wider context. What are the connections between festival goers at Woodstock and today’s teenagers who operate in a world of social media? Are they searching for the same things?
Painting is a problem to solve
Over the last year Pick and I have met in her studio to talk through the works that would go on to make up White Noise. Paintings in various stages of completion lined the walls, subtly transforming with each visit. On her couch, surrounded by books, watercolour sketches and print-outs from the internet, we began to unpack these changes. We talked for hours about spirituality, churches, communes, mindfulness, crowds, riots, protesting, music festivals, rock stars, celebrities, film, Surrealism, Impressionism, Romanticism, Goya, Gauguin, horses, drinking, drugs, veggie gardens, recycling, landscape and tramping. These conversations were punctuated by Pick’s explanations of process. Moving in a new direction meant she wasn’t thinking about what the outcome would be: she was thinking about how she would get there. One afternoon she reflected:
Painting is a problem to solve. I look at where we’ve come from in painting: I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel. You create your own path within this history. My background is an obvious influence for me, but it’s not that I am doing it on purpose. The reason I’m interested or attracted to something is because it’s been part of my life since I was young. Whatever it is becomes a part of my wiring. My intuition, my influences, the images I choose, the way I’m thinking or feeling that day all contribute to what I do. Looking and observing is a big part of that. When you have one element then put another in a painting, it changes the whole way you read that first element. What my subject choice means is initially unconscious, but becomes conscious because people are always asking me what it’s about.
While Pick’s concern is the act of constructing a painting and placing her work within the context of the history of the medium, her audience’s concern is meaning. As her canvases developed, our discussions became more focused. I noticed that Pick’s son was finding his way into our conversations. Looking for my own path through the overload of information from Pick’s lifetime of looking, I found myself returning to the way she used the internet. I grew up in a time somewhere between Pick and her son. A child of the 80s, I don’t remember life without computers. In the 90s I transitioned from handwritten to digitally generated essays and when I was seventeen, I got my first email address. In the late 2000s, I discovered Facebook. Over the last eight years this has become an important way for me to keep in touch with family and friends, as well as a useful tool to keep up with social and professional happenings. With the advent of smart phones, I cannot remember my last internet-free day. Talking with Pick, I wondered about the role this technology was playing in our lives, and how painting could help us understand this.
The age of the selfie
I’ve been starting to source images from the internet like everyone else. It throws up so much information you’re not looking for, there’s a sense of going on a journey. You can get quite distracted. This is why people get addicted to it. It’s our human nature to be curious. It’s so easy and intuitive in that sense, you just follow it. It’s scary and dangerous on another level. I’m not a social networker; I didn’t really know how vast it was.
Séraphine Pick (2015)
As a painting student, Pick was one of my feminist role models. In my third year— while pregnant with her son—she spent a month lecturing for the painting department at the Otago School of Art. Somewhere in my storage is a bag of paintings from this time, featuring recreations of photos of my childhood mashed-up with images of dance parties that were prevalent in mainstream media at the time. I have continued to follow her career avidly and feel strongly about her unfailing commitment to the painted image. I came to know her visual language, her way of composing pictures, and her idiosyncratic characters. Seeing the Wankered series for the first time in 2013 was a jolt in my understanding of Pick’s work: shocking, but invigorating. I suspect this is the case for others too.
Again and again Pick has returned to the conventions of traditional portraiture through small canvases that focus on a central figure. In the late 1990s she blended her own image with others in the series Looking Like Someone Else (1997). A decade later she re-imagined historical celebrities and carnie freaks in a similar format. But with Wankered, the atmosphere smells like teen spirit. These images become a social comment on the present simply by being paintings. Initially on the lookout for a specific pose, Pick searched for ‘people lying down’ on Google. She was surprised and captivated by the hundreds of images of drunken teens she encountered. The works she made in response are a melding of youthful faces and limbs in peaceful slumber. However, these bodies are left behind in cars or on the street and feel forgotten or out of place. The images of males could prompt a lol or ‘like’ on Facebook. Where females are concerned, the atmosphere is tinged with risk.
Having been both hailed and criticised for these paintings, Pick is interested in the ease, or even urgency, with which people tell her what they think of them. Men have expressed discomfort looking at the images of young women, while an older generation has suggested she is being voyeuristic. The rights of the subjects have come into question. A group of teenagers at an opening approached her with wide-eyed wonder, impressed that she had captured a truth from their world. Some thought the paintings quite humorous. Pick used Google as a way to find figures to paint—this is her subject matter. It is the first and second-hand experience of her viewers that becomes the stories behind these paintings. She says:
These images make people angry but also focus on what’s actually going on in the world at the moment. These are contemporary issues, but they have been around a long time. Painting history brings out human reaction, and that’s okay. It’s a powerful thing that painted images can still have such relevancy.
Pick is not criticising or judging the behaviour of her subjects: she is noticing it. Like many people, she went to drunken parties as a teenager. The difference now is that these moments are posted online like pages in a private diary made public. Facebook in particular has changed the way the internet operates, encouraging us away from the pseudonyms of chat rooms. In a step of social media evolution, a new generation of early teens of which Pick’s son is a member shies away from Facebook. They prefer Instagram—because their parents and teachers are all over the former. They now almost entirely portray their online personalities through images.
Her son’s cell phone has become a gateway to the world he shares with his peers. Pick respects his privacy and knows going through his phone would be a betrayal of trust, despite the fact that its visual content may end up online. Paradoxically, these are the same kind of openly shared images Pick turns into paintings. Her use of the internet highlights our changing values around privacy as we make strategic (or naïve) judgments about what to share of ourselves online. Social media pages bear images and musings of millions of teenagers and adults alike, who use these platforms as an extension of themselves. Such is the age of the selfie: the ability to curate your life and present what you think others will admire. All this, to get that buzz when people you know (or sometimes don’t) hit ‘like’.
Google ‘hippies’ and see what comes up
Even the individual self, so long trapped in the human body, would finally free up and step outside of its fleshy confines, explore its authentic interests, and find others with whom it might achieve communion. Ubiquitous networked computing had arrived, and in its shiny array of interlined devices, pundits, scholars, and investors alike saw the image of an ideal society: decentralized, egalitarian, harmonious and free.
Fred Turner (2006)
Pick remains emphatic about not having a Facebook or Instagram account. She has however used Google to connect with a different kind of belonging she knew as a teenager: observing her parents’ generation strive for environmental sustainability and equal rights. Searching for tag words she associated with this period such as hippies, protests, and ‘people with their hands up’, led her to images that inspired paintings such as Pocket Full of Rainbows (2010), Freaks (2015) and Easy Living (2015). The long hair and bare chests recreated in soft tones evoke 1960s and 70s America, when counterculture entered the mainstream and urged a more peaceful way of living. Alongside Pick’s newest crowd scenes such as Superstar (2015), Guru (2015) and Everything is Beautiful (2015) these associations become blurred. Protests turned into riots while music festivals, free love and drugs proved a hedonistic overload. Hippies worshipped music idols like Roky Erickson (the pioneering figure in psychedelic rock and subject of Pick’s 2010 work White Noise), mimicking his behavior in search of euphoria and belonging realised through synthetic highs.
These works invite us to consider what true happiness looks like, and how, or even if, this has changed over time. Reflecting on the sunset-pink siren and her grass-green beau in the Easy Living paintings, Pick acknowledges that ‘even though these paintings appear sweet and nostalgic they are also about looking for a collective sense of happiness, but trying to achieve this individually.’ Their blissful appearance is complicated by the wider social context of this period, and the roil of change brought about by the civil and gay rights movements, women’s liberation and the Vietnam War. As with the Wankered series, the hippie paintings reveal Pick’s interest in the potential for a painted image to evoke conflicting ideas. They are created with a trace of irony, and she is very aware that ideals she first encountered as a teenager are perpetuated both negatively and positively in the 21st century through the internet.
Pick’s musings led me to the term ‘slacktivism’, a blending of slacker and activism. Social media has made supporting a cause so easy its outcome becomes obscured. With a click of a button you can show support for environmental organisations, charities and political parties. But if this is the extent of your action, what does it achieve besides releasing endorphins that make you feel like a better person, taking part in something greater than yourself? There is a shift from communal benefit to personal gain. And yet the recent Euromaidan movement— described as “the largest ever pro-European rally in history”—successfully used social media to force a corrupt Ukrainian government to listen to their citizens, who wanted to become a part of the European Union. The term ‘Euromaidan’ began as a Twitter hashtag, and the movement succeeded because it rallied international physical support for protest and resources.
The relationship between the democratic ideals of counterculture and the internet is encapsulated by the story of American writer Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Network. In the late 1960s Brand and his colleagues created the Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine aimed at the tens of thousands of young people who were moving out of cities to form communes and live off the land. This catalogue brought together lists of tradespeople, instructions and skills that users could rate (sounds like a familiar online auction), to learn to make everything from axes and hoes to slide projectors, amplifiers and LSD. These hippies cared less about political protest and more about utilising technology to help them live sustainable and independent lives. This was the predecessor to the WELL, or the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, which Brand helped develop in the late 1980s. The WELL was one of the first virtual communities, made for and by ‘new communalists’ as a public space for sharing, and precursor to the world wide web as we know it today.
These stories and ideas are not taken directly from Pick’s work, but sit along her practice. They reflect how her paintings—while a traditional art form—are created in a contemporary way, and tap into themes that continue to occur in society.
A Million Likes
Raise your arms! Feel who you are without technology, without governments … feel your freedom!
Patti Smith (2015)
These works are not about the internet, but could not exist without it. The exhibition White Noise reflects on the overload of information channelled through the internet that has come to influence how we find meaning. An endless stream of digital images becomes a quick and easy way for us to decode our past, present and future. Fascinated by the way we process information, Pick translates these images with the slow, history burdened media of paint and beckons us to look more carefully at what surrounds us.
The world that Pick’s son operates in and the world she grew up in come face to face in A Million Likes (2013). Here three bare-breasted young women bathed in hues of pink, lime green and baby blue are carried on the shoulders of the ubiquitous festival crowd, laughing and carefree. This image seems symbolic of the 1960s and 70s free love zeitgeist, but could just as easily be 21st century Glastonbury. Today similar sights are captured on smart phones and sweep the world through Facebook and Instagram, achieving the kind of mass approbation A Million Likes suggests. Iconic images that come to stand for our shared experiences, once produced by photojournalists and media corporations, can now come from anyone, anywhere.
People have responded to the latest hippie works with mixed reactions. Some describe feelings of positivity in the face of Pick’s uplifting colours and impressionistic brushwork. Others express a sense of cringe as they are reminded of try-hard friends who attempt to re-live the 1960s and 70s through misdirected nostalgia. The power in these works is that Pick has painted them to be open-ended, intuitively balancing formal painting techniques with images that represent social experience. Figurative painting trumps the instant image because it gives us time, and asks us what we think. It satisfies a basic human desire to continue to search for meaning in life, and find our own sense of connection and belonging within this.
This essay was written for the exhibition and catalogue Séraphine Pick:White Noise at The Dowse Art Museum in 2015 - 16.
 Charles Mackay, Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds and Joseph de la Vega, Confusion de confusiones in Wiley Investment Classics, Martin S Fridson Ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc, 1996) p, 6.
 Séraphine Pick in conversation with Sian van Dyk, 19 May 2015
 These ideas are explored further by Shayla Thiel-Stern, From Dancehall to Facebook: Teen girls, Mass Media and Moral Panic in the United States, 1905-2010, (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), and Jose Marichal, Facebook Democracy: The Architecture of Disclosure and the Threat to Public Life, (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2012)
 Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p.1
 Séraphine Pick, op. cit.
 Orysia Lutsevych, ‘Ukraine offers European Growth and More’, New York Times, 11 February 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/12/12/does-europe-need-ukraine/ukraine-offers-europe-economic-growth-and-more. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
 Pablo Barberá and Megan Metzger, ‘Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests’, Huffington Post, 21 February 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pablo-barbera/tweeting-the-revolution-s_b_4831104.html. Retrieved 8 July 2015.
 Turner, op. cit., p. 1.
 Patti Smith quoted in Mark Beaumont, ‘Patti Smith at Glastonbury 2015 review – feeling her rage’, The Guardian, 28 June 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/28/patti-smith-at-glastonbury-2015-review-punk-rage-dalai-lama. Retrieved 30 June 2015.