Yo Mama Pieta by Renee Cox will be featured in Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People premiering at the Gene Siskel Theater tonight.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, one would think. So I was intrigued when I read about the photographer Sharon Core who had a show Thiebauds at the Bellewether Gallery in Brooklyn, NY in 2004. Many of you are probably familiar with Wayne Thiebaud’s work. He painted thick, swirly paintings of bakery cases full of cakes, trays of lollipops and hot dogs.

Ms. Core is clearly fascinated with his work and painstakingly made the food and baked cakes in order to re create Theibaud’s cake paintings in life size 3D. She then photographed them and printed them in the size of the original paintings. They look eerily like his work. One would think Theibaud would be flattered that an artist has recreated every brushstroke on his paintings in cake and icing. Reports say that he was neither flattered nor amused.

I totally get Ms. Core’s compulsion. I’ve spent a bit of time appropriating other artist’s work to make something else. I created table-top Museum People, which were a combo appropriation of George Segal’s plaster bandage, life-size sculptures and famous paintings. I placed the sculptures in front of mini famous paintings, all set in a sliver of a museum. Each “character” had a bio that came with it. I sold these at the New York Gift Show in the early 90s. I received a cease and desist letter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It gave me a bit of a scare but I still find myself appropriating things here and there.

Is this okay to do? Sure. Is it real art? Yes. Artists have been doing it for forever. Art appropriation is the practice of taking the image of a painting, sculpture, photo or other art, created by another artist and recontextualizing it into something else. The image is usually recognizable.

I based my entire BFA project, Seldon Navy, not on a traditional work of art but a Better Homes and Gardens magazine cover. I’m sure Better Homes and Gardens considered that photo a work of art, which is why it made it on the cover. Why did I do this? I love interiors and I needed a starting point. I essentially took a photo of an actual room, and made a “stage set” of the room with mostly all hand-made components. I wove the rug and made an end table out of cardboard. I veered off from the photo when I made all of the art in the “room” to be miniatures of the room. I painted “the room” on a ceramic plate. I created a little shadow box room as well as a 3D painting of the room. I placed myself in the room wearing an apron made of the same fabric as the sofa, eating a cookie that I decorated in the same color scheme as “the room.” And so on. Why? I’m not entirely sure why. I suppose I was hoping my viewers would enjoy looking at it, hopefully closely.

If you want to see a really impressive room installation, head to Massachusetts to see Darren Waterston‘s piece Filthy Lucre in the show, Uncertain Beauty on display at Mass MoCA until January 2015. It is his redo and commentary of James McNeill Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room, which also is it’s own commentary on the relationship between the artist and his patron.

As the story goes, British Shipping magnate, Frederick Richards Leyland was having some renovations done to his home. British Architect Thomas Jeckyll was doing the work. The room in question was the dining room. The focal point of the room was James McNeill Whistler’s Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain. Mr. Jekyll became ill before completing the nearly finished room. Whistler volunteered to finish it up. Once he started, he was concerned that some of the red accents on the walls clashed with his painting, so he changed the color, with Leyland’s permission. Leyland went out of town, Whistler got carried away and redid the entire room, and when Leland came home he was shocked at the change. The two fought bitterly and Leyland fired Whistler. Whistler snuck back in and painted two fighting peacocks, which he entitled Art and Money: or, The Story of the Room.

Waterson’s Filthy Lucre title comes from his additional appropriation of Whistler’s painting The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor) that Whistler created portraying Leland as a peacock sitting on Whistler’s house while playing the piano. So while this installation is making a comment on the art world there are others who are making comments on race relations and religion by appropriating some very famous and recognizable images.

I was reading a film review in The New York Times about Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People directed by Thomas Allen Harris. It premiers in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Theater tonight. It is in the review that I discovered the work of photographer, Renee Cox.

Renee Cox is the creator of the Yo Mama photographs, most notably Yo Mama’s Last Supper and Yo Mama Pieta. Both are appropriations of the Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo works of art. Both images are very recognizable in her art. Why would she photograph herself as Mary in the Pieta? Perhaps because the Pieta may not be so much about Mary and Jesus as it is about the love and grief any mother would have if she lost her child. But it’s also about inclusion and seeing that no matter what your race or religion, we are all the same. As Ms. Cox says on her site “…Christianity is big in the African-American community, but there are no representations of us,” she said. “I took it upon myself to include people of color in these classic scenarios.” These images are very powerful, direct and easy to understand.

Does appropriating another’s art work, degrade the original work? I don’t think so. I believe it challenges its viewers to think about things differently. Appropriated images bring attention and may reignite interest in the original work. These pieces are an homage or nod to the original creator.

If I were to venture a guess, I think Michelangelo, DaVinci and Whistler would have been intrigued that another artist found their work relevant enough to use in their own art today. Maybe Wayne Thiebaud will come around in a few hundred years.

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and sometime appropriator. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...