The Subversive Genius Of Isabel Chiara’s Art-GIFs

How are we to react to the ‘age of the GIF ‘? Have we abandoned complex thought or just complicated things further?


Behold the 30-year-old file format that plays images in a strange and often staccato loop. They are used every day on social media as visual shorthand for the wrist-flick of dismissal, the thunder of applause, rage, joy, celebration, derision, and—literally—every reaction in between.

They’re as powerful a linguistic shortcut as the contraction, and just as ubiquitous. And while artists have taken advantage of other forms of colloquial shorthand for centuries, how are they to react to the age of the GIF — designed, as it were, to obviate the need for reams of words or images of deep complexity?

As it happens, some artists have cottoned on to the implicit possibilities of the GIF as a form of expression: the avant-garde author Dennis Cooper once wrote a novel—Zac’s Haunted House—in GIFs, which reads as a baffling and often beautiful assembly of found objects. Cooper snatched images from video games and blogs about self-injury, old movies and pet videos and nature compilations, to create snatches of unsettling narrative: a shower, a tumble from a rooftop, the shattering feeling of grief.

A section of Chapter 1 in ‘Zac’s Haunted House’

Spanish artist Isabel Chiara has said that GIFs are, for her, a natural extension of a love of movement, drawn from her experience making art films. Her baffling, often joyous images, made in the same manner as her extensive body of collage work, are a romp through art history: Michelangelo, Magritte, and de Chirico are augmented with tintypes, botanical illustrations, and showers of pixels.

In one image, Norman Rockwell’s stern farmer couple babbles at us from a 1950s television, while Rockwell himself looks on; the image is framed by a woman’s lush mouth in black and white. Another, a daring play on Velazquez’s “Las Meninas,” seamlessly replaces the heads in the iconic painting with flickering light bulbs; only the dog is unscathed, and looks on sullenly.

Chiara likes to play with gender dynamics; women, so often sliced open by surrealist painters like Max Ernst, are reconfigured in her work to be magnificent and grotesque. Fishnet-clad feminine legs in heels are welded to a rusted Roman helmet; a stiff-frocked noblewoman’s head is adorned with the bones of a foot from an anatomy textbook, waving, toe-joint by toe-joint, languorously leftward.

‘Talking about…’

A sullen jewelry model’s hat is the dome of a building; biological illustrations of fish swim through her manicured hands. Steam bursts from the scalpless head of a screaming face, attached to a body in a bustled, beaded dress of delicate pink. A naked Renaissance muse rides a wrecking ball into an alley, as if Miley Cyrus had been painted by Titian.

Chiara’s nimble subversion of art history and advertising iconography is a subversion of the GIF as well. Just as the language in a poem is an elevation of ordinary language, her images seem to push the GIF format’s possibilities.

Though they are as fleeting as any other flickering square of repetitive imagery, Chiara’s women demand to be more than punctuation, holding attention for their own sake, not just for their illustrative potential. They weep; they rage; they dance, naked, atop a vinyl record; but they resist easy or singular interpretations. Dazzling, hypnotic, they leave the viewer staring at an image on endless loop, yet hoping, somehow, for more.

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