British artist Joe Black creates large-scale wall sculptures out of thousands of identical miniature objects, from cows and plastic flowers to toy soldiers and legos. The miniatures become pixels that reveal a larger, often appropriated portrait. With their densely sculptural surfaces, these works are richly kinesthetic; like an Agnes Martin painting, they reward the viewer who walks closer to examine their forms and then zooms out to watch those forms change and cohere. As many contemporary artworks do (read: Jeff Koons), they also playfully walk the line between kitsch and critique. What you see isn’t really what you get, and it often takes a minute to get what you see. These meticulously crafted yet ceaselessly repetitive mosaics imbue tchotchkes with great conceptual impact. Thousands of elements, in their rampant sameness, can create something quite complex.
It’s easy to categorize Black’s assemblages alongside Chuck Close’s monumental pixelated portraits or Devorah Sperber’s large-scale recreations of famous artworks, which are made of hundreds of spools of thread. But Black’s work departs from these examples in that his are metonymic portraits, meaning that each component—the 7,600 spray-painted chess pieces in Deep Blue (Marcel Duchamp) (2014), for example—can stand in to represent the whole. The whole, in this case, is the iconic artist Marcel Duchamp’s historical legacy. Duchamp as a strategic player of the art world; his abandonment of art to pursue chess full time; his groundbreaking contribution to 20th-century Modernism with the readymade; and the victory of artificial intelligence over humanity (the IBM computer known as Deep Blue defeated the reigning chess world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997).
Black’s work is often analyzed as a critique of consumption, though his stance is ambiguous. In Playing with Corbusier (2014), nearly 15,000 spray-painted Lego bricks reconstitute a photographic portrait of the famous modern architect, forefather of the austere, blocky architecture that became known as International Style. This style, however, was attacked by some for flattening human difference under the oppressive force of mass-produced materials employed in an all-too-systematic designs. We might then wonder if Black’s approach is a critique of consumption, or whether it enacts the very operations of consumption itself.