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Essay

by Niamh White .

Bringing the Pop master's aesthetic bang up to date, Knight reimagined Lichtenstein's most popular body of work, the war and romance paintings, to produce a comic strip for the digital age.

Despite his status as a Pop art legend, Lichtenstein was first and foremost a painter. But unlike his Modernist predecessors who rejected realism, Lichtenstein took inspiration from the world around him and the images that bombarded him in everyday life. He employed the visual language of mechanically reproduced comic strips, with their palette of primary colours, thick black outlines, and most recognisably, the Benday dots that suggested tone and shadow, to explore the formal concerns of painting. He toyed with the fine art establishment, producing apparently superficial work that displayed finely tuned compositions, a vibrant and well versed painting style and pertinently, a fierce engagement with the social role of the artist.

It is this enduring legacy that Nick Knight drew upon for his collaboration with Garage Magazine, Whaam!. Bringing the Pop master's aesthetic bang up to date, Knight reimagined Lichtenstein's most popular body of work, the war and romance paintings, to produce a comic strip for the digital age. The strip depicts a beautifully-styled Lindsey Wixson discovering her partner has been unfaithful via her Facebook page. Her pleas for reconciliation, revenge and eventual capture are told in a series of wonderfully vibrant comic blocks. A Mac laptop, iPhone text bubbles and emoticons, exaggerated digital retouching and the latest fashions are all included in Knight's homage to the late Lichtenstein.

Tate Modern's recent staging of the Lichtenstein Retrospective provided the perfect opportunity to explore Knight's tribute further. Each room was dedicated to a subject that explored Lichtenstein's painterly practice - Black and White, Mirrors, Entablatures and Nudes to name a few. The first housed the Brushstrokes paintings; an early body of work that showed his handling of this intuitive gesture in an automatic and controlled style, a characteristic that would remain dominant throughout his career.

Tate displayed Lichtenstein's most famous works, the comic bookstyle war and romance paintings, in a single room. These images immediately captured the American imagination and made the then 39-year-old artist an overnight sensation. It was this series that Nick Knight was particularly enamoured by and inspired his Whaam! editorial. Encountering the works amidst the entirety of Lichtenstien's practice revealed all the more clearly how relevant this reimagining was and also highlighted each element that Knight used or altered to make the pieces resonate with his audience today.

Lichtenstein borrowed imagery from popular comics to create pieces that told melodramatic stories of US fighter pilots and distressed young women. The original WHAAM! derives from a 1962 issue of All American Men of War where a rocket is fired from a fighter plane to the caption, 'I pressed the fire control ... and ahead of me ... rockets blazed through the sky.' Lichtenstein cropped or eliminated detail in his source image, exaggerated the colour printing techniques, occasionally mimicked the poor registration of mass production and adjusted or deleted the speech bubbles. In Knight's Whaam!, the imagery is adjusted once again. Instead of the Benday dots, Knight uses varying sizes of pixels and there are iPhone text icons instead of speech bubbles. Similarly, emoticons communicate the inner world of his characters and digitally blurred backgrounds instil a sense of drama and motion, much like the stripes that filled Lichtenstein's renderings. Knight channels Lichtenstein's methods of appropriation to communicate with a fashion audience fluent in the languages of social media, live streaming and immediate information.
 
Knight also made use of what Lichtenstein coined as the 'pregnant moment.' In Tate's display works like That's the way.. it should have begun! But it's hopeless! or Bratatat embody the idea that one frame can communicate a character's entire story. Knight instills this into each frame of his comic strip, but it is particularly apparent when his narrative reaches its climax.  Our scorned heroine reeks revenge on her unfaithful lover, shooting him with a machine gun. It is an explosively dramatic moment characterised by the recognisable burst of flames and the trajectory of the fateful bullet picked out by a simple graphic motif. This image, chosen for the cover of the magazine, embodies Knight's own 'pregnant moment'. Aided by Perez Hilton's pithy speech bubbles, Knight's image is loaded with our heroine's narrative.

Not satisfied with aesthetically updating Lichtenstein's imagery, Knight also breathed life into his characters by digitally animating them. Geared towards the internet-savvy audience that Knight entertains from SHOWstudio, each block relays its story with moving image. What Lichtenstein implied with paint, Knight communicates with technology.