It began with an e-mail and a JPEG. The e-mail was sent on August 3, 2007, by Eric Fredericksen, director of Western Bridge, the exhibition space for the art collection of Bill and Ruth True. The Trues had recently purchased a work by Lead Pencil Studio, two of Seattle's leading emerging artists. The recipient of the e-mail was their dealer, Scott Lawrimore. It read:
Hi Scott. We came across this image of Mariele Neudecker's 2000 work 'The Internal Slipping Out into the World at Large' at Barbara Thumm gallery, and am [sic] troubled by the resemblance between it and the LPS work Bill and Ruth are acquiring. What do you think?
Translation: Did your artists copy to make this work of art that my boss just bought?
Lead Pencil Studio (LPS) is the name used by Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo—the defendants, as it were. They won a Stranger Genius Award in 2006, the same year they created a massive outdoor installation on the border of Washington and Oregon using a prestigious Creative Capital grant. Not long after that, they won the Rome Prize for architecture.
Mariele Neudecker was relatively unknown in Seattle until this, but a lot of people saw Lead Pencil Studio's solo show at Lawrimore Project last spring. It wasn't until after the show closed—and the Trues had purchased Arrival at 2AM from it—that an assistant curator at Seattle Art Museum came across images of Neudecker's The Internal Slipping Out into the World at Large while doing research for an unrelated exhibition.
This was the image attached to Fredericksen's e-mail. It depicted fluorescent fishing line streaming down from two Gothic windows like beams of light materialized.
In Arrival at 2AM, thousands of strands of light-blue nylon thread streamed down from two windows, like moonlight materialized.
The uncomfortable question stood: "What do you think?"
Lawrimore forwarded the e-mail to Han and Mihalyo, who said they'd never heard of Neudecker or seen her piece. After some back and forth, this came to seem like an unpleasant coincidence to all parties. Nobody had reason to think the artists were stealing from another artist, especially since the artists didn't know each other and there were significant differences in the ideas behind the two pieces. Plus, one was an enterable installation while the other was a smaller freestanding sculpture. Chapter closed.
A week later, Han and Mihalyo left for Rome. To the Rome Prize committee, they'd proposed to spend their expenses-free year in the city making three-dimensional portraits of Roman spaces using a laser 3-D scanning technology used by surveyors, called lidar. They've spent their career so far revealing the ways spaces are defined, and their two most well-received projects in the Northwest are Linear Plenum (2004), a field of strings that filled Suyama Space, and Maryhill Double (2006), a full-sized skeletal copy of a remotely located museum on the border of Oregon and Washington.
But five months later, the accusation of copycatting came back.
On January 30, Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett posted on her blog the old JPEGs that had passed between the artists and their collectors. But this time she added a new accusation.
Hackett wrote that Lead Pencil Studio's latest work, Without Room, an installation currently in a North Carolina museum, looked just like an installation by Seattle artist Roy McMakin, Lequita Faye Melvin, that showed at the Henry Art Gallery in 2004. Both pieces involve gray furniture and both pieces, Hackett believes, are referencing the modernist monochrome reliefs of Louise Nevelson. "But Lead Pencil's use of Nevelson is precisely the same as Roy McMakin's. It's McMakin's move, his field and his plow," she wrote.
Hackett continued: "Maybe Lead Pencil's Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo hadn't seen the Neudecker. I know that they've seen Roy's work. He and they all live in Seattle, which is not that big a town. As I'm typing this, for instance, e-mails are circulating in Seattle art circles that make the same comparisons and draw the same conclusions. Just as I was thinking about it, I realized I had plenty of company."
This unnamed company included important people. At the top of the list: Seattle Art Museum's modern and contemporary curator Michael Darling. "There's a lot of things that look like other things in their work," Darling said of Lead Pencil Studio in a phone interview last week.
Darling may have some cause to take offense at the resemblance to McMakin's work, because he has had a long and close relationship with it and respect for it. Five years ago, when he was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, he curated an exhibition of McMakin's work. That retrospective's centerpiece was Lequita Faye Melvin, a gathering of gray furniture named after McMakin's grandmother, representing the artist's memory of her belongings.
It isn't only the McMakin and the Neudecker overlaps that have left Darling cold on Lead Pencil Studio, he said. They also use the same type of webby metal as British sculptor Antony Gormley.
"It starts to smack of coattail-ism," Darling said. "To use that other person's aura in a self-beneficial way—that's when it starts to seem derivative. Those examples make me suspicious. What's in it for an artist to do something that somebody's already done?"
At this second revelation, the Trues faced an especially complicated situation. They don't have a personal connection to Lead Pencil Studio, but they do own Lead Pencil's Arrival at 2AM. On the other hand, if the Trues are identified with any single artist, it's McMakin. McMakin designed Western Bridge, as well as the Trues' home in Madison Park and much of their furniture. In fact, they've hesitated to buy pieces by other artists who work with furniture, because they know those might be mistaken in their environs for McMakins.
The other day at Western Bridge, I asked Bill True how he felt about the similarities between Lead Pencil Studio's works and McMakin and Neudecker's works.
He hesitated. He didn't feel good.
"Just looking at the JPEGs—that first glance—it's too close," he said. "In my mind, all of the pieces are tainted."
He added, solemnly, as if this were the worst part, "I don't think anyone did anything wrong."
What's wrong and what's right in terms of originality and art is a matter of serious debate. If no one did anything wrong, then how can a work of art be tainted? Which is worse, theft or ignorance?
"We're surrounded by signs; our imperative is to ignore none of them," Jonathan Lethem wrote in a Harper's essay last year called "The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism," an essay comprising sentences lifted from other places. In one of the few sentences in that essay that wasn't sourced, Lethem proclaimed: "Art is sourced."
The point is that there is no such thing as a "clean" piece of writing or art. An artist's only imperative is to be informed about what came before, Lethem argued, in order to steal better. Outright, daylight theft is best, Fredericksen agreed recently. Accidental copying—the kind Lead Pencil were guilty of with the Neudecker piece—is worst, precisely because it is so uncanny, Fredericksen said: "It's a doppelgänger. That's a classic horror story."
Except what constitutes a copy? Is there a difference in art akin to the DNA difference between a fraternal and an identical twin? What about mere siblings? If artists acknowledge influences more overtly rather than less, does it protect them? Cases of artworks looking intentionally similar through acknowledged influence or overt appropriation are obvious and well documented, but cases of artworks looking accidentally similar are not all that uncommon, either—and present more complicated problems.
In the case of Originality vs. Lead Pencil Studio, what muddies matters is that the debate revolves around works of art the people involved in the debate haven't seen in person. When this happens, the narrative easily turns to issues of loyalty, of curator versus curator and critic versus critic. (After all, Hackett and I are competing critics, and I have found much to champion in Lead Pencil Studio's body of work. Also, I haven't seen McMakin's Lequita Faye Melvin.) In the absence of personal experience, you're more likely to believe an artist whose work you believe in, but professional loyalty should not be confused with nepotism: It comes from a place of having truly been convinced by an artist's work.
Beth Sellars, curator of Suyama Space, has a similar relationship to Lead Pencil Studio as Darling has to McMakin. She says Lead Pencil Studio's critics "need to back off," and to consider their whole body of work instead of isolated pieces.
"Did Michael Darling go to Maryhill?" she asked. "Has he actually talked to Lead Pencil about their North Carolina piece, or seen it? Has anyone actually seen the Neudecker?"
The answers to those questions are no, no, and no. The general half-knowledge of these works seems to argue for a certain amount of circumspection when it comes to making sweeping judgments. Asked about Maryhill Double, Darling readily conceded that he has only seen one show of Lead Pencil Studio's work: "I'm not a bona fide expert on it," he said.
But that doesn't make the resemblances any less striking. JPEGs of McMakin's Lequita Faye Melvin show close-ups of gray-painted furniture—dressers, lamps, chairs. JPEGs of Lead Pencil Studio's Without Room show gray-painted furniture and clutter set on a platform in the middle of a gallery.
So what happened?
Reached by phone in Rome, Han and Mihalyo said they didn't go to McMakin's show when it was in Seattle, although Mihalyo went to McMakin's lecture. They were in disbelief at the charges.
"Artists would never redo work that's already been done," Han said. "It's just not in our interest. Also, for an artist to take something from another artist who lives in the same city as us, who we like, and who is collected by the same collector? We'd have to be pretty stupid to do this."
To them, the comparisons are surface level, based on close-up JPEGs that make the pieces look similar when they're really not. As with the Neudecker case, Lequita Faye Melvin and Without Room have significant conceptual differences.
Lequita Faye Melvin is a reconstruction by hand of the furniture McMakin remembers from his grandmother's home. Some of the furniture is out of proportion, as if seen from the perspective of a child. When Lequita Faye Melvin was shown at the Henry in 2004, the objects were displayed in a jumble, the way furniture is pushed together when it's in storage. If a private collector buys Lequita Faye Melvin, McMakin intends the objects to be scattered throughout the collector's own personal belongings. (It's for sale at McMakin's New York gallery, Matthew Marks; James Harris Gallery represents McMakin in Seattle.)
Without Room, at the Weatherspoon Art Museum of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is an exact replica of the crowded living room of an anonymous woman who lives in Greensboro. The woman was selected from a pool of volunteers who responded to an ad by Lead Pencil Studio calling for someone who lives in a small space. Museum staffers went into her home and documented every object, then the artists scoured second-hand stores for precise approximations of all of her belongings (a Michael Jackson doll was substituted for a Pee Wee Herman doll). They coated the objects gray and reconstituted the crowded room—without walls—on a platform. A gray rectangle painted on the ceiling demarcated the room. The only critic to review the show, Travis Diehl, writing for the campus newspaper, described it as "a living room rendered lifeless."
The difference: Lead Pencil Studio's Without Room was a precise, jam-packed space designed by real use. McMakin's Lequita Faye Melvin was a jumbled, evocatively imprecise memory closet.
On the phone from Rome, Lead Pencil Studio said they count McMakin as an artist they admire, but not really as an influence. For Without Room, they cited other influences, including Margaret Roberts, an Australian installation artist who uses swaths of paint to alter interior spaces, and the lidar technology they're using in Rome, which translates built environments into flat, unspecific gray surfaces. (They've been on the other side of this scenario, too. In 2004, the same year Lead Pencil Studio filled Suyama Space with green and white filaments, Predock Frane Architects filled a gallery at the Venice Biennale with green and white filaments. Lead Pencil Studio decided to chalk it up to coincidence.)
McMakin has mixed feelings.
"When I saw those pictures [of Without Room], it felt peculiar—to use an incredibly vague word deliberately," McMakin said in a phone interview. "I think art is a very fluid thing, and I don't know them as artists in a very deep way. I don't know. But what they're doing is a setup for things feeling odd to people, not a setup by intentions but by circumstances."
As for Neudecker, who is based in Britain, she responded to the comparisons by e-mail. Her windows explore romanticized imagery, she wrote. They are adapted from a nostalgic black-and-white postcard of light streaming through windows at Grand Central Station. Lead Pencil Studio's windows, when exhibited at Lawrimore Project, were hung so that the angle of the strings corresponded directly to the way light would enter Lawrimore Project if the windows were real. Lead Pencil Studio were Lawrimore Project's architects; they were commenting on their own architecture.
"Really interesting question. And sort of happens a lot, I reckon," Neudecker wrote. She said she couldn't pass any judgment without being able to compare the pieces in person.
The two cases that have been lumped together are not the same, said Liz Brown, chief curator at the Henry Art Gallery, and the lumping together leads her to think that, on some level, there's some "joyful backlash" going on against Lead Pencil Studio. She has seen nearly all of their work, with the exception of Without Room, and says that these appear to be surface-level similarities that don't diminish her opinion of their work overall.
Her take on the difference between the two cases is not what you'd expect. Given the relative obscurity of Neudecker and the relative fame (especially in Seattle) of McMakin, Brown said, Lead Pencil can be excused for not knowing about Neudecker's windows, but they can't be excused for not knowing about McMakin's gray furniture.
It boils down to this: They don't have to subject their ideas to a Google search before they make them—although that might be an easy way to avoid a controversy like this—but they do have to take into account a reasonable person's expectation of their most attentive audience's base of knowledge.
Back to Bill True's double assertion that something felt wrong, but that no one did anything wrong. The catch is in how wrong is defined. What did Lead Pencil do wrong, according to Brown?
It was not going to the McMakin show in the first place, especially since he is a leading artist-architect in Seattle, working in territory adjacent to theirs. And it wasn't exactly wrong, but certainly inadvisable, she said.
When I put the idea that artists are unaware of context at their own risk to Bill True, he put his head in his hands. "I do want to think of artists slaving away alone in their studios!" he said. "I don't want them to have to run everything through the filter of what's out there!"
It's what Sellars said: "If artists had to worry about what was out there in the world, they wouldn't do anything."
Then again, Sellars and Darling do agree on one point: When they see things that look similar to other things, they stop paying attention. Last year, the artists Hadley + Maxwell had the same reaction to their own work. They made a white flag at half mast for an installation at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver, B.C., and when they saw it repeated, coincidentally, by other artists around the world, they considered their own idea weaker for it, something less well-authored because it was more likely to pop up.
It seems fair to say that some resemblances can be avoided by knowledge, and some can't. It also stands to reason that if artists should be held responsible for what they see and don't see, so should commenters on their work.