Channeling Midcentury Modernism, A Danish Artist Offers a Contemporary Take on the Old Avant-Garde
As a child growing up in the Danish middle class in the 1980s, Mikkel Carl was preoccupied with brands. He had his mother sew fake Lacoste crocodiles from Thailand onto a homemade sweater. He plastered his bedroom walls with Nike Air Jordan advertisements that he crafted himself. He sprayed lemon juice onto the soles of his Timberland boots, walked across a piece of paper, heated it from below until the logo appeared, and then traced it so that he could use it to fabricate other garments. By Carl’s own admission, he was never very good at freehand drawing—nevertheless, he was a natural artist.
That is to say, Carl intuited the concept of creative appropriation from a young age. In college, he gained an erudite understanding of the avant-garde and its repetitive techniques. Although the current of appropriation has been running through art history since before antiquity, the contemporary brand of this style of art-making famously began in the mid-20th century with Marcel Duchamp, who challenged the terms of art by making an ordinary, “readymade” object (a urinal) extraordinary by recontextualizing and signing it. Appropriation became a core tenet of modern and contemporary art, from the political collages of Dada to the soup cans of pop to the magazine-style images of the Pictures Generation.
Carl appropriates everyday objects and avant-garde ideas. In his “Calculated Optimism” series, he anodizes the titanium cases of Apple laptops, yielding colorful and organic abstract paintings over and around the Mac logo. Carl also anodizes sheets of titanium to create metallic color fields. He punctuates many of these works with industrial markings, such as numbers and brand-style stamps; in doing so, he invokes Duchamp, who signed Fountain as “R. Mutt,” sometimes thought to be an homage to the Mott iron factory where he got his materials.
Carl’s work CECI N’EST PAS (2012) is a neon sign featuring the same words, written in the same font as the one used in René Magritte’s seminal surrealist work The Treachery of Images (1929) (in which he makes the fundamental modernist argument that a painting of a pipe is not a pipe). Carl’s Ceci, in turn, shows that an idea is never quite the same as the one to which it alludes. His works fall into what he has described as “a peculiar mixture of linear and cyclic time,” and he sums it up best, explaining that “as an artist you can keep creating new meaning even though everything has already been done several times over.”