James Howard’s ‘Untitled 2007’, and the legacy of the poor image

A potentially brain-melting selection of the self-described “schizo-core”(1) work of London-based artist James Howard is currently on display at the Saatchi Gallery as part of the group exhibition Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire.

Howard’s contribution to the show (Untitled, 2007) comprises a series of 46 prints spanning from floor to ceiling and feels as humorously familiar as it does unnerving. The digitally manipulated imagery, which includes amongst its subjects smiling models and dreamy landscapes, as well as gruesome anatomical closeups- and overlaid with barely comprehensible text- evokes the pop-up adverts littering the internet and email scams that find their way covertly into your ‘junk’ folder.

Inspired by both the imagery and intent behind online hoaxes, Howard explores the ways in which facts and common sense can be thrust aside in favour of the right combination of text and image: a thread of investigation that seems as pertinent now as ever in US president Trump’s era of fake news and alternative facts. Relying on tugging at emotions to garner a reaction from the public by any means possible, this concept can also be seen utilised in viral posts spread on social networking sites by right-wing groups to garner outrage amongst supporters (with the image often later being found to have been completely taken out of context or falsified). These phenomena relate to the concepts laid out by Hito Steyerl in her essay In Defense of the Poor Image, in which she states that “the poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility”. She continues: They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification. Poor images show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable—that is, if we can still manage to decipher it.”(2)

Howard’s use of Internet aesthetics prophetically form a bridge between the less stringently regulated online world of the late 2000s, to today’s ironic and surreal memes (a meme being an image, concept, catchphrase or byword that spreads from person to person(3)), which have become a recent but legitimate fixture in the fine art world. Meme art accounts on Instagram such as Gangster Popeye and Djinn Kazama post low quality, often bizarre imagery and accompanying text which echoes the lowbrow visuals of the earlier internet, and can be purely nonsensical- or include biting social satire. Other content creators such as Gothshakira have pioneered longform, confessional-style memes rooted in feminism. These artists participate in IRL (in real life) shows in brick and mortar spaces (such as ‘whatdoyoumeme?’ at Holdrons Arcade & Copeland Gallery, Peckham, London) lending further legitimacy to the movement. The creators offer new  perspectives on the world in a similar way to how Howard, in his own words, “[manipulates] digital material to open up new ways of thinking”. The artist states that when disparate media is juxtaposed it can serve to “expose all the energy of what it means to be living right now in the universe.”

Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire is on at the Saatchi Gallery until 13th January 2019.

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(1) James Howard. 2018. Saatchi Gallery. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/james_howard.htm. [Accessed 14 October 2018].

(2) Hito Steyerl. 2009. In Defence of the Poor Image. [ONLINE] Available at https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/. [Accessed 15 October 2018]

(3) Karen Schubert. 2003. USA Today. [ONLINE] Available at https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/news/2003-07-28-ebay-weirdness_x.htm. [Accessed 14 October 2018]