"A successful meme is by definition reproducible, shareable, and recognizable," Lauren Kaelin says on her website.
The Brooklyn-based artist has become quite the expert on the topic of meme-ology, most recently as the founder and content compiler behind the Tumblr, Benjameme. In it, she transforms viral trends into painterly works of art. Grumpy Cat, the Prancercise lady, Texts from Hillary... you name it, Kaelin paints it, reproducing low-brow fodder as high (or at least higher)-brow visual feasts.
The project was inspired by the ideas of German theorist Walter Benjamin, a man who earned a reputation in the 20th century for his landmark essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In the essay, Benjamin argued an artwork loses its "aura," or true value, when it is reproduced.
Suffice it to say Kaelin turns Benjamin's concepts on their head, giving a whole new "aura" to her chosen subject matter, be it a screaming goat that's been shared millions of times on YouTube or a dance move mimicked by fans across the globe. Her obsession with pop culture and her affinity for art history (she cites Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville as some of her favorite artists) were enough to woo us into total submission, but make the judgment for yourself via the paintings below. (Scroll down for our interview.)
What inspired the series? We imagine there's a great story behind this, like a playful dare you took very seriously.
I pride myself on being pretty up to date on internet oddities, but for some reason Ikea Monkey flew under my radar for days. I don't know why, it literally combines all of my favorite things: animal internet sensations, miniature clothing, miniature clothing on animals, IKEA, shearling jackets. One night I was absentmindedly scrolling through Buzzfeed. "What's Ikea Monkey?" I asked my girlfriend, Jen. She replied incredulously, "You haven't heard of Ikea Monkey? Google it."
I'm probably exaggerating how dismissive she was, but I was pissed. I couldn't believe she had known about this creature for 48 hours without bringing it to my attention. I still hold a bit of a grudge about it. At the time, I was doing a lot of paintings of animals. I painted a diptych of Martha Stewart's Chow Chow and study of Jen's pet tortoise-- the Ikea Monkey seemed like a natural next subject. I posted the painting to Facebook, and have never got such an immediate response of glee. Originally I thought it was specific to Ikea Monkey, but I think people really enjoy seeing a subject that's so familiar elevated in this way. I was looking for an excuse to paint consistently. Jen said, "You love the internet. Why don't you just paint the internet?" So I dusted off my art theory books from college and Benjamemes was born.
Where did you begin searching for memes? Did you have a cache of favorites you knew you wanted to paint?
The first three memes I painted -- Ikea Monkey, Otters Holding Hands, and Jessica's Daily Affirmation -- are my favorite memes. When I cemented the idea -- paintings of the internet-- I knew those had to be there. The rest of them happened pretty organically. Sometimes I feel compelled to paint something because of how popular it is, as was the case with "Gangnam Style" and Grumpy Cat. A catalog of memes wouldn't seem complete without them.
Since graduating from Smith College, and leaving structured academia, I have found self-motivating pretty difficult. It's hard to paint without a deadline or an assignment. Benjamemes is an answer to that -- there is a treasure trove of past material and new memes emerging all the time. If you're feeling a creative lull, you'll wake up on Friday morning and Joanna Rohrback will be prancing all over the internet.
You've hit on an intersection of pop culture and fine art that people seem to really love. Why do you think this is, exactly?
I think Benjamemes is delightfully High-Low. "Virality" is this mysterious factor on the internet -- everyone wants it, but no one knows exactly how to get it. It's amazing what becomes a viral sensation, what memes rise to the top of the internet pile, and on to your mini feed. Everyone sees them, but Benjamemes encourages people to recontextualize these commonplace images and elevates them to art object. I don't know why Grumpy Cat, "I Like Turtles," and the Dramatic Chipmunk are internet stars, but painting them asks the question.