“Pictures as transportation” is how artist Dan Gunn defines icons in his short text that appears in the elaborate handout for “New Icon.”  The reality of icons is that, like brand identities, they become autonomous from their authors. The iconographer is an anonymous artisan toiling away in a monastery or marketing firm, making an image they did not envision and an image whose quality is judged by its ability to stand seamlessly along side other representations of that image. Who came up with the image of Jesus on the cross? Who decided he had a beard? That image, that icon, is the product of countless authors and representations accumulated to the point of existing in the collective conscious. It is like the Platonic idea of a chair, we all know it though our conceptions might vary, but we all know the form well. Likewise, we do not attribute the invention of the chair form to an individual.
So what would a “new icon” look like? Would it be merely the latest iteration of an image seen countless times before? Would it be a new image added to the spectacle of images? That happens everyday. Or would it be an icon that shifts the structure of image production, distribution and consumption? If such a fundamental change does occur, it won't be announced, it will suddenly become apparent that it has already occurred. Like asking the question, “What did we do before Google?” In the same way that icons are produced, whether Che Guevara or Madonna and Child, this new icon will be the product of several individuals adding to, shifting, adjusting and representing a concept until it reaches the universal image embedded with its’ own meaning and is endlessly transferable.
Diana Guerrero Macia. Devoured by Symbols. 2008. 66" x 56". Hand sewn wool, vinyl, and cotton on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
This, to me, is not what art does. Art seems diametrically opposed to this process. Art is the thing that gives us context; the language and the zone to challenge such processes, whether it is the way images are used to spread organized religion or to indoctrinate social mores and economic systems. Art is flexible-- it is versatile and plastic. By its very nature, the icon must be strict and immovable. The icon may vary slightly, it may be modified to fit more comfortably into the circumstances it finds itself in, but it must remain simple, straightforward and to the point.
Boris Groys, in his essay “The Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights” seems pertinent here: “But in reality, the diversity of images circulating in the media is highly limited. Indeed, in order to be effectively propagated and exploited in the commercial mass media, images need to be easily recognizable for the broad target audience, rendering mass media nearly tautological.” This sounds like the present day icon to me. Groys continues, “The variety of images circulating in the mass media is much more limited than the range of images preserved, for example, in museums or produced by contemporary art.” 
Pamela Fraser. If I Knew Then What I Know Now…So What?. 2010. Acrylic gouache and gesso on canvas. 16” x 16”. Imge courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery.
An icon, according to Webster's definition, is “an object of unquestioning devotion.” Whereas, art is an object devoted to questioning. On the level above “New Icon” is “Gilded Glory: European Treasures from the Martin D'Arcy Collection,” a wealth of historic icons, artifacts and religious artworks. In comparing the two selections of works, as “New Icon” curator Britton Bertan encourages, the fundamental differences between iconography and contemporary art become apparent. The objects of religious devotion in the D'Arcy Collection are primarily concerned with the episodes of Christianity they depict, even their exquisite craftsmanship is secondary to their spiritual content. They are not open to interpretation, they are visual sermons meant to be read a specific way. And they are certainly not about their makers.
The work in “New Icon,” like all contemporary art, is unique and represents the interests and individuality of the artist. The label of “icon” on these artworks does stand, but in a negative way. Seen as icons, the artworks become one of many, images that hold the place of a seeming multitude of like images. For instance, Sze Lin Pang's video the Place where there is no center and hence no Longing (2010) as an icon operates not as an artistic expression but as an instantiation of all the videos that appropriate historical footage (her video appropriates Martin Luther King's “I Have A Dream” speech) and alter it (dubbing over the audio with a translation of non-existent language) in order to inject content.
Carrie Gundersdorf. Aurora Borealis. 2008. Found images on paper. 20 1/2" x 30 1/2". Image courtesy of the artist.
This is not to say “New Icon” presents subpar work, or that the grouping of artists is not cohesive. Carrie Gundersdorf's simple yet effective collages cataloging stellar phenomenon speak directly to the proliferation of celestial aesthetic moments. In Aurora Borealis (2009, seen at top) Gundersdorf has collected found images of the Northern Lights and pasted them onto a black support in a loose grid reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's Atlas, or of any artist's archive of source material for that matter. These along with collections of nebulae, coronas and suns dismantle majestic icons of the universe by presenting them as non-aesthetic groupings closer to the data of astronomers than the inspirational posters they end up on.
The most prominent interrogation of the icon comes in Dan Gunn’s Object of Interaction (2009) Gunn presents us with a large metallic blue painting, standing on rickety stilts. It is the modern icon of the color field, the large abstraction, the monochrome. And, as if to reach as high a Modernism as possible, the painting is perched on these little feet, standing on tippy toes. Object of Interaction provides a visceral viewing experience, consisting of a deep electric blue that, with its’ metallic finish and shiny surface, simultaneously is infinitely deep and completely flat, reflecting an altered vision of the viewer. Staring into it is hypnotic, and is as close an experience of gazing into an icon that a work of contemporary art can provide I imagine.
Upstairs in the D'Arcy Collection is a group of tiny icons, combining tooled metal over painted panel, depicting Jesus or the Mother and Child. One in particular leapt out: cut through the elaborate metal covering were sections to see Christ's face and hands, which were delicately painted on a panel beneath, which was deeply recessed, perhaps due to aging. The expression painted on Jesus' face is melancholic. In that moment I saw the object as a literalization of how a picture becomes an icon and how dominant institutions impose authorship: take a man with a simple, straightforward doctrine, add to, embellish, alter and construct a garish elaborate structure on top until the original image is almost completely obscured.
 Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that Dan Gunn is a former writer for ArtSlant: Chicago.
 Boris Groys. “The Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights.” Art Power. 2008: MIT Press.
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