Net Artist Sells a Painting of Other Net Artist’s Meme at Major Auction

July 3, 2014 | Marina Galperina

This is Press ESC to Escape, a 2013 painting by artist Jeanette Hayes. The work is rendered in oil over a chromogenic print on canvas. The original image was Photoshopped and put on Instagram by artist Mattie Hillock a year ago, with the caption “I’m sick of looking for jobs.” Hayes commented, “I wan 2 paint dis.” Hillock sent her the file, which she then printed and painted over. Hayes’s painting of Hillock’s meme just sold at Paddles On! in London for $2,143.67 (£1,250) just above the low estimate (£1,000 – 2,000), with no mention of Hillock on the Phillips Paddles8 site.

Hillock’s post was pretty funny, exactly what it was intended to be. The inserted Pere Borrell del Caso’s Escaping Criticism itself is a funny, meme-like painting of a boy escaping a painted portrait frame. Hillock’s Photoshopped photo sprouted a collaborative Meme Art History page with another digital artist, Systaime, which we enjoyed. It is no longer frequently updated.

Though Jeanette Hayes exhibited the painting in Rome crediting Hillock last year, there is no mention of him on the Paddles On! Lot page. Meanwhile Hayes’ art practice description emphasizes aesthetics that could very well have resulted in this collage. Anyone reading would assume she concieved it, not just painted over the print of it.

“This is probably the most confusing situation I’ve ever been in,” Hillock tells ANIMAL. He is fully aware of a certain irony that his image is itself a form of appropriation. “Honestly, it’s an appropriation of an appropriation. I made the work as a joke and now seeing it actually just easily put up like that… Kind of hurts. But it shouldn’t hurt. It’s like, good job. *Wince.*”

When did this meme become auction-worthy art? Was it legitimized specifically in the moment that it was painted in oil? When it was put up for auction? Did the buyer purchase a physical painting (because paintings always sell) or an aesthetic, an idea… a compilation of images that were nearly identical in their digital form? What level of appropriation (Del Caso x Hayes, Del Caso x Hillock x Hayes, etc.) was the buyer aware of appreciating?

I would now like to apologize for anyone not identifying as a “net artist” involved in this. This is to contrast the work with other similar arguable acts of Instagram-to-canvas appropriation, specifically, this new thing Richard Prince is doing with canvas prints of art girls’ from Instagram, as recontextualization is fairly evident, though excitingly debatable, at least to me. ANIMAL profiled the Phillips Paddles On! auction in New York last year and we’re pleased to see excellent artists like Yung Jake and Sara Ludy selling work. There are many great pieces in this auction. But to me, this particular work is very problematic. Beyond both being digital artists, both Hayes and Hillock specialize in internet commentary specifically, and authorship isn’t immediate to someone new to viewing or buying digital-born art.

As of yet, neither Hayes nor the auction curator Lindsay Howard replied to inquiries. Check out Mattie Hillock’s Artist’s Notebook feature here. (Images: Phillips, @MattieHillock)