Ants marching across Davis Art Center façade bug some people
The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center has ants. They issue from the rooftop sculpture garden, but rather than march in a line to the Art Center’s front doors, they scurry about on the entablature, columns and the rest of the façade. It’s as if some giant with a stick disturbed their mound.
It’s part of an exhibition by Fort Myers artist Bradford Hermann called Antibodies that has everyone talking. But not all of the reviews are favorable.
Local artist and art lecturer Berry van Boekel finds the exhibition problematic.
“I didn’t go to the opening of the exhibition …. I saw it like a day later and I was intrigued by it. So I wanted to find like more about it and pretty quickly, I came to the realization that this was not an original piece of work, that this was copied from a very important artist from Columbia.”
That artist is Rafael Gomez Barros. In 2010, he covered the National Congress building in Bogota with one thousand polyester cast ants in an exhibition he titled Casa Tomada.
The studied eye of an art critic will discern differences between Gomez Barros’s Casa Tomada and Bradford Hermann’s Antibodies. But to the casual observer, they look the same.
In both, ants cover the façade of a columned, neoclassical building. The ants are even arranged on the buildings in similar patterns.
“It is clear as the day that it’s the very same artwork basically …It’s a copy. Period. It’s plagiarized.”
Bradford Hermann bristles at this contention. He says he never heard of Gomez Barros or his installation of ants on building facades until van Boekel and others mentioned them on Facebook. His use of ants was meant solely to draw attention to his solo show inside the Art Center.
“The name of the show is Antibodies. So these ant bodies leading people visually it’s captivating … leading the people into the show into the Berne, which a lot of people don’t even come inside the building. I guess they’re intimidated by it. I don’t know. But I’ve heard from numerous people we didn’t even know that we could go in here. We thought that just was a private place, and so this now leads the people into my show.”
Hermann adds that on a broader scale, the ants symbolize the resilience of the people of Fort Myers and the barrier islands as they strive, like worker ants, to recover from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Ian – although this characterization is conspicuously absent from both Hermann’s Artist Statement and the Davis Art Center’s advertising for the show.
But to the mind of Jim Griffith, the Davis Art Center’s founder and executive director, that makes all the difference.
Gomez Barros’ ants were employed to make a political statement about, and to draw attention to, the plight of millions of displaced people who crisscross the planet like army ants on the march in an effort to find new homes.
By comparison, Hermann’s ants advertise his show and express solidarity with those displaced by Hurricane Ian.
Unlike Hermann, Griffith was familiar with Gomez Barros and Casa Tomada. In fact, he tried to contact the artist in 2010 to see if he would do a similar installation here in Fort Myers on the Davis Art Center. And Griffith freely admits that he suggested the exterior installation to Hermann, who originally installed ants in the rooftop sculpture garden a couple of years ago to compliment Mariapia Malerba’s larger than life rooftop flowers. But he shrugs off van Boekel’s claim of plagiarism.
Griffith points out that there have been dozens of exhibitions of ants on buildings over the years, adding that no one artist has the sole and exclusive right to use ants in their artwork – any more than Leoma Lovegrove could claim the sole right to hearts or Marcus Jansen to old car tires just because they’ve employed those objects as metaphors in the paintings they’ve rendered over the years.
And this gets to the heart of the matter.
Van Boekel and the show’s other detractors object that Hermann and Griffith appropriated the objects and patterns that Rafael Gomez Barros used in his installations. Griffith counters that as long as Hermann did not appropriate the creative and imaginative impulses of the artist, the objects and patterns he used are fair game.
Back in 2014, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited a show titled Double Trouble. It consisted of dozens of paintings that the artist known as Sturdevant had copied from some of the most famous artists of the last century, like Warhol, Lichtenstein and Haring. She even replicated the techniques they used to create their master works.
But those blatant copies were not deemed plagiarism because in making them, Sturdevant altered the original with new expression, meaning and message. She was questioning authority, authorship, circulation and art history.
It’s the same reason why Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup paintings were not deemed to be an infringement of Campbell Soup’s copyright or trademark. He added something new, important and transformative that changed the core message of the original.
Regardless, van Boekel thinks it’s a matter of ethics.
“What bothers me most is perhaps … that it actually was an intentional misleading of the public by Mr. Griffith. That is what bothers me the most.
As former director of the von Liebig Art Center in Naples and Fort Myers Public Art Consultant, Barbara Hill has curated many museum-quality shows. She also finds the lack of attribution questionable.
“It’s an appropriate policy for staff, not only the curator but the executive director, to at the very best of their ability exhibit work that’s original. And if it’s copied, to respond to that in terms of acknowledging what was copied, and from whom, just so there is clear transparency. I think transparency is very key to an educational institutional and that’s what separates the men from the boys. Hopefully we have gotten that caliber in Southwest Florida and in my opinion this was just disappointing”
Although Griffith agreed to be interviewed for this story, he declined to speak on tape. But he steadfastly adheres to his original position. There’s no need to disclose other works or artists who employ ants on buildings since Antibodies is not a copy because its message is fundamentally different from those other exhibitions.
- A recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the City of Fort Myers, Lambertus “Berry” van Boekel is a portrait and figurative artist. He is known both locally and internationally for painting the portraits of the musicians and bands he listens to each year, a documentary endeavor that he has been pursuing since 1983. Van Boekel moved to the United States from the Netherlands in 1993. He was educated at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Enschede in the Netherlands and Ohio State University where he received his MFA. Berry shares his extensive knowledge of art and art history with students through “Hands on Art History” at the Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs and 5-week classes in drawing and painting.
- Bradford Shaw Hermann is a self-taught recycle artist who resides in Fort Myers. He is known in Southwest Florida for his Arts of Palm masks, which he makes from coconut palms and palm fronds. His work is informed by his parents and childhood experiences. He was raised on a 50-acre horse farm near Athens, Georgia. His dad was a professor of entomology and biology at the University of Georgia. His mom was a horse trainer and riding instructor. Life on the farm was a very freeing experience that led to a deep love for all animals, from insects and beyond.
- According to Hermann’s Artist Statement, Antibodies is a manifestation of work produced to counteract specific emotions. In a time where self-preservation is very necessary, try to understand that good and bad are mere reflections of one another … a matter of perception.
- Copyright law is very complex. When one artist uses another artist’s prior work without the artist’s permission, it is called “appropriation.” This may or may not violate the original artist’s copyright. Copyrights arise automatically. It is not necessary to file for a copyright with the United States Copyright Office to establish ownership. However, there is an exception to copyright infringement and enforcement. It’s called the fair use doctrine. Several types of fair use allow an artist to use another's copyrighted work. One common example is parody – changing the lyrics of a popular song to make fun of it or a political commentary. Late night hosts like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon do this all the time. But there exist other examples of fair use, including research and reporting. Under this body of law, Antibodies may or may not be an impermissible infringement or appropriation of Rafael Gomez Barros’ Casa Tomada exhibition.
- Appropriation is different from art forgery, where someone tries to pass off a copy as if it had been made by the original artist. Even the most astute and experienced museum curators, directors, authenticators and auctioneers can be fooled. In one famous case, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York exhibited three Etruscan warrior sculptures for decades that turned out to be fakes. And Christie’s Auction House recently sold an expensive painting for actor Steve Martin that turned out to be a forgery created by Wolfgang Beltracchi, who has been called the “forger of the century.” But with a copy, the artist appropriates another artist’s imagery or idea and passes them off as their own.
To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.