when social media invades the art world

By Elissa Callen

Oh, a butterfly, I must be an artist

While fumbling around on my computer, using Facebook as a handy distraction tool, I noted the post of a horrible artist, Charmaine Olivia, announcing a big, hyped up show nicknamed SEI4, short for the 4th Annual Supersonic Art Invitational. It would happen in San Francisco, that beehive of hype and questionable taste, and one of her horrible paintings would be a part of it. Why didn’t I just burn the event from my mind? What compelled me to go see the painting of a painter that I knew was bad and who had polluted my Facebook feed? Maybe I subconsciously knew that there was a bigger story and that without really knowing it, the show, this SE14 would be part of the answer, because that is exactly what it had turned out to be. Most of all, it provoked the realization of blasphemy far deeper than that of Olivia’s work as well as a serious question: how could a show possibly be that bad? How could it possibly encompass all that was bad with art, life and hype in the beginning of the 21st century? After being subjected to this morass of garbage, I could hardly blame Olivia anymore. What she does is a minor crime compared to this entity, this shadow organization of bad taste, Supersonic Art, which allows and encourages people like her to not only paint, but also to be able to sell. What is going on here? I want to scream “Art Crime! Art Crime!”


Supersonic Art started off as a personal Tumblr blog by Zach Tutor (I hope this is his real name), but became more focused on art and artists. It eventually evolved into something more formidable, if you will, with its 400,000 Tumblr followers, as Tutor boasts on his site. You might think a place for young or up-and-coming artists to have their work displayed in a widely accessible way would be a positive thing, considering such artists are given the opportunity to have a conversation about their work or get some feedback from people all over the world. However, Tutor does not even try to start a discussion about the work or artists he highlights on his Supersonic Art blog. There is no commentary and there is definitely no criticism; he simply slaps up images and calls it a day, inviting his 400,000 Tumblr followers to absorb the content and simply be in awe. For Tutor, thought and care are unheard of qualities.


Yes, that's an art crime

I digress—let’s take a look back at Charmaine Olivia. Olivia is a self-taught artist from San Francisco who appears to have gained some fame through social media sites such as Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook. She boasts a mountain of “likes” on her pages. Her technical skill, to some degree, is adept and she can render a human face, although I have only seen one example of a portrait that is not female. She understands how to use mediums, with oil paint as her main tool, but she utilizes her skills to concoct finished pieces of the most cloying and guileless imagery. She knows no bounds when it comes to saturation and arguably uses every color of the spectrum, or, rather, of the “rainbow”—the rainbow should sue. Her use of color is not clever; it is overdone and seeks to simply accomplish that which is “pretty,” although her idea of “pretty” typifies the aesthetic of an adolescent, perhaps even younger, girl. Even her subjects are heavily idealized, as she paints over Photoshopped catalogs of Victoria’s Secret and celebrity magazines featuring women idolized for their beauty. That makes more double idealization if you’re counting, which is at least one-and-a-half too much idealization for the normal human being.

4 and 5.

Not too good

Let’s take a look at the piece Olivia submitted to the SEI4 show titled, Flower Water. It is an 18” x 20” oil painting on an oval-shaped stretched canvas and priced at $1,800. The image depicts a centered, stylized profile of a woman from her head to the bottom of her bare breasts, where the figure awkwardly disintegrates. Her nose is straight and tiny, her lips plump and voluptuous, and her eyes are adorned with flower petal lashes. Finally flowers seem to be growing out of her hair and pretty little mermaid scales on her arms—if this weren’t so cloying it might be a horror movie. Olivia used every single standard saturate hue, with the saturation level so intense I would be surprised if s they weren’t straight out of the tube. The only relief from this color overdrive is the way the woman recedes into a background of twee pastels that flutter around her face. The painting looks like it belongs on a 4th grade school girl’s Lisa Frank homework folder, if Lisa Frank had just seen 50 Shades of Grey.

Take a look at the rest of Olivia’s portfolio—you can reference any one of her paintings and find some equally, if not more, nauseating quality, whether it be her overt female sexualization and idealization, celebrity appropriation or more Lisa Frank cotton candy la la. Her painting Water Lily features Candice Swanepoel, a famed Victoria’s Secret model, swimming in loose, aqueous yellows, pinks, and blues, staring enchantingly back at the viewer. Another painting Honeybee seductively features Mick Jagger’s model daughter, Georgia Jagger, envelopped in the Charmaine Olivia rainbow aesthetic, as well. My personal favorite Olivia is a painting she posted on her Facebook without a title, but the caption reads, “when you’re drowning in flowers, but you kind of like it.” The accompanying imagery is, of course, none other than a sultry female figure who is making a facial expression like she is drowning in something all too suggestive, as her bust threatens to burst out of her pink seashell mermaid bra. But it wouldn’t be an Olivia if she wasn’t simultaneously enveloped in—you guessed it—rainbow.


What did you say butterfly? You said, I'm an artist?

See, Charmaine Olivia doesn’t actually know what painting is—the extent of her unsophisticated concern is all that which is pretty, seductive, and, according to her mind, “enjoyable to look at.” Olivia’s understanding of art is as real as the content of her paintings; she is a fantasist. She enjoys the idea of being an artist, which is made obvious by her flaunty social media posts of her laying flirtatiously with her paintings of muses in her studio or her bathing in the sunshine on the grass in a garden with a sketchbook in hand and giddily cavorting with a butterfly. Olivia is about attention, not about substance. I question whether she would continue to make such emetic paintings if it were not for her 225,000 followers on Instagram where she parades herself as an “artist, paintress, [and an] explorer.” A vicious cycle—she feeds off of the hype and feeds back to it.


Please teach me to overcome my fear of bad art

This is the type of phenomenon that Zach Tutor is encouraging and calls a part of a “generation of artists,” as stated on the Supersonic website. Value is gauged by popularity, which is determined by the piddling “likes” or “follows” accumulated on various forms social media that surfing individuals spew out as mindlessly as the carbon dioxide emitted from their bodies. This is nothing anyone should put on a résumé; an art director of a museum would undoubtedly scoff at any attempt to do so. Yet, they appear to be the basis by which Tutor is conducting his oh-so-prestigious curatorial work.

Tutor and Supersonic Art’s methodology is the same as that of advertising—litter people’s vision with hoards of the same content, telling them that they love it, and eventually they will follow, as they have. The convincing content that he uses is the fact that Supersonic Art is the location of a “new generation,” that these are young people making their way; look how great they are for their age. And so, they receive lofty attention and admiration, and maybe even money. Art should not be judged based on “age” but based on quality and content. To dismiss a person’s lack of quality fulfillment because he or she is young or “getting there” is to dismiss the entire necessity for quality at all, which seems the point of this dubious enterprise.

More Supersonic Art
Without a construct like the SEI4 show, individuals would have to persistently work, think, configure, reconfigure, rethink, and rework until their process became substantial enough to be recognized. Tutor and the SEI4 show merely embrace individuals for the attention they’ve received by arbitrary Internet viewers and give them the physical opportunity to exhibit their work, and that is what really encourages and pushes such artists to continue in their amateur practice without any chance of growth. As exemplified by Charmaine Olivia, they feed off of the hype and they feed it back to us—a vicious cycle.

Just tell me one more time, Butterfly
©Elissa Callen and the CCA Arts Review

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