At a casual glance, Ashley Anderson’s “Shinobi Marilyn,” at Emily Amy Gallery through September 1, might be mistaken for a better than average remake of the well-worn theme of homages to Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe: pixelated versions of the Marilyn photograph that Warhol appropriated appear solo and in grids overlaid with text. But closer inspection reveals that the nine photos in the grid are all similarly composed but distinctly different head shots of the archetypal actress.
At this point it becomes important to know that the show derives from the moment Anderson discovered a grid of Warhol’s Monroe images on a crudely imaged wall in the Sega video game Shinobi, which was released soon after Warhol’s death. Subsequent versions of the game for different platforms used different Monroe photographs for the same alley wall: nine in total. Anderson speculates that this was a detail inserted by art-school-graduate game designers in memory of Warhol; but if so, he asks, why was a different photograph used in each version of the game?
The question haunted him, leading eventually to issues of representation that are, perhaps not coincidentally, updated versions of the theoretical questions artists were asking themselves when Shinobi was produced in the mid-1980s.
Some of the results of this interest seem directly related to work from the mid-1980s. Anderson lays logos of Look magazine and Kool cigarettes circa 1962 over the Marilyn grid, untransformed in “Check Her.” He reverses the Kool logo in “Iris.” Both logos are pixelated in a fashion that suggests they may have been found in a video game rather than in a high-resolution scan of the relevant magazine covers and cigarette packaging.
Some of the smaller pieces are gorgeous, wonderfully made one-liners, such as “Gold Dust Woman,” in which the artist prints Monroe with metallic ink on transparent duralar film. Others are far more oblique, such as the Marilyn overlaid with the text “a frequent returning / and leaving unnoticed / we’re older than we realize / in someone else’s eyes.” Anderson tells us that these lines and those in the adjacent parts of the “Talking Heads Marilyn” series are from the Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” recording he was listening to while making the work. Other quotations also require the artist’s explication. Fortunately for inquisitive viewers, Anderson will present an artist’s talk on August 18 at 1 p.m.
The most strikingly original works in the show are the large-scale digital prints in which the dimly rendered image of Warhol’s Marilyn is created by subtle manipulation of grids of small repeated images taken from video games: Campbell’s soup cans in “Lost in the Supermarket,” clouds on a blue background in “Super Mario Clouds,” gold coins and moneybags (for the actress’ smile) in “Gilt.” “Normal Jean” consists of repeated candlesticks in which the Marilyn image is produced by individually distorted candle flames, as Anderson replicates, pixel by altered pixel, the “candle in the wind” to which a familiar song compares the actress.
The overall result is a triple overlay of 1962, 1987 and 2012. Video game culture is faultlessly referenced alongside Warhol and appropriationism, with a fair amount of theory thrown in for good measure. It’s a singularly smart show.