Monday, July 28, 2014

The Art of Collage

This post is in three parts. The first contains some general thoughts about collage as an art form. The second is a discussion about one particular collage that I recently completed. Those of you with a taste for the concrete over the generalized may wish to skip directly to Part II. I have also included, for those of you with an appetite for the subject at hand, an appendix of sorts (Part III) with links to further investigations.

Part I: Thoughts on Process

I have been studying and practicing the art of collage for something like eight years now. Much of what I see done by collage artists, and even more of what I see written about it (and about most other forms of art as well), is at odds with the practice of art as I have experienced and understood it. Robert Motherwell, a master of many forms of art, including collage, and certainly one of the most thoughtful and articulate masters of the modern era, had this to say:

Art like love is an active process of growth and development, not a God-given talent; and since in modern society the audience rarely sees the actual process of art, the audience's remoteness from the act of painting has become so great that practically all writing about modern art has become explaining to the audience what the art is that the audience has got so far away from. And those whose profession it is to do the explaining are more often than not mistaken.

Motherwell asserts two things here: first, that art as he understands it is not a matter of ability but of practice (which is to say, a disciplined and continuous movement toward something not already mastered or understood), and second, that most people misunderstand the true nature of art, especially those who think they know the most about it. [The same of course can be said about writing and those teachers—unfortunately the great majority in our schools—who starting in elementary school and going on all the way through college foist the most bizarrely twisted notions of what writing is and should be upon their students, and then wring their hands in despair when their students seem to be both uninterested and incapable of living up to their "standards." I have addressed that topic elsewhere on this blog, and will doubtless do so again. (BTW, the cover article in this weeks New York Times Magazine Elizabeth Green writes compellingly that the same can be said of the teaching of math in most American schools today.) But I would just like to suggest at the start that much of what I intend to say here about the practice of art applies to the practice of other disciplines as well. I will rely on the thoughtful reader to make the connections.]

Collage involves a number of operations. Before one can even begin, one must have some materials, and so the first operation might be said to be gathering. I have a closet filled with glassine envelopes filled with papers and pictures and handwritten letters and the yellowed pages of old books. I suspect that I am drawn to these particular materials because I have been a dedicated reader since I was a child and have always felt most comfortable when surrounded by books. I like the textures of papers, the smell of them, the heft of them. I like words. I like how putting one word next to another creates a little world in the space between. (A very talented and inspirational teacher at the school I used to work at would ask his eighth graders at the start of the year to do a series of exactly this kind of poems: two words to create a world. See a brief explanation here. )

The materials I select must necessarily come from the world that I inhabit. Another artist will have another collection. Collage artists who prefer to work in three dimensions rather than two have their own name for their enterprise: assemblage. And their collections tend to be even quirkier and more idiosyncratic than those of us who work in two dimensions with paper.

Once one has some materials at hand, there is the need for a process of selection. What will the elements of this particular composition be? Here, as in writing, there are two schools of thought, and, as in writing, I find myself closely aligned with one of them. The first way, which might be called the deductive approach, is to plan it out in advance: to decide on a theme or an idea and then select materials which relate to that idea. The problem with that way of proceeding, from my point of view, is that it cuts the element of surprise out of the picture from the very start. You decide what you are going to do, and then you do it. The likelihood that you are going to come up with something fresh or original or revelatory is next to nil.

The second way is to work inductively, that is, to work up from the materials. There are many classic formulations of this manner of working. Jasper Johns explained his working method to an interviewer as: "Do something, then do something to that, then do something to that." Picasso, speaking of the act of drawing, says something similar:

Ideas are simply starting points. I can rarely set them down as they come to my mind. As soon as I start to work, others well up in my pen. To know what you're going to draw, you have to begin drawing… When I find myself facing a blank page, that's always going through my head. What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

The processes of selection and arrangement are nonverbal and intuitive. Randomness is built into the method as an essential component. Attending to what takes shape under your eye as you work is as much, or more, a process of learning than it is of a process of being in charge. This is the way of working that I find to be most interesting and most satisfying. I almost never know, even after I have assembled my materials, what my first move is going to be, much less my second or third. I have to be willing to work things out as I go along.

The arrangement and assembly of the elements of the collage is perhaps the definitive step, the part of the process which is most purely and obviously "creative." Every individual choice, once made, eliminates an infinite number of others. Do I start with this piece, or with that? A big piece, or a small one? At the center, or on an edge? Rotated this way, or that? Use a color that blends with what is already there, or introduce something new? Do a preliminary layout and paste it up once I've figured it out, or (more likely, in my case) paste down one piece before I decide on the next? One constant negotiating point has to do with edges. Is the paper to be cut with a scissor, giving a hard edge, or torn, giving a softer, more fluid edge. If torn, should it be from the bottom side of the paper up toward you, which will generally leave a monochrome edge, or from the top down, which will leave a sort of variable border of a different color that whatever is on the surface of the paper. Will the collage be flat—that is, strictly two-dimensional—or will there be elements which stick up or out, interrupting the picture plane? How many different individual elements? (My general observation: less is more. I've seen very beautiful collages with three or four elements in them. But one of the supreme masters of collage, Kurt Schwitters, often has dozens of elements layered on top of one another to stunning effect.) Will it be entirely collaged elements, or will it be a painting with collage elements or a collage with painted passages in it?

Another decision point: will the pictorial element in the collage be continuous with or discontinuous with the rectangular shape of the paper or backing? You can arrange shapes ON a paper, or you can cover the paper completely. Which will it be this time?

All of the above decisions take places more or less intuitively in the act of making the work of art. The fact that you are using bits and pieces of paper (or, in the case of assemblage, wood or metal or whatever) means essentially that there is always going to be some degree of concord and some degree of discord between the assembled elements. Here's Motherwell again:

…essentially the collagist takes a lot of disparate elements and places them. The problem is, given these disparate and conflicting elements, how ultimately to unify them. It's a painful and precarious way of making order. The separate elements tend to carry on guerrilla warfare with one another, a source of tension, true, but also possibly of chaos.

What often results in in the making of the collage is the creation of a kind of self-contained alternate universe. The individual elements create a web of associations that invite the onlooker to imagine an self-enclosed world that operates on rules which are perhaps parallel to but quite dissimilar from the ones we are familiar with.   Inevitably, given its origins and the process by which it is produced, a collage is also almost always, if obliquely, a self-portrait of the artist at the moment of its creation. The selection of these elements as opposed to those, in this order as opposed to that, in the context of this person's aesthetic intuitions as opposed to someone else's: all these choices suggest something in the way of an intimated autobiography.

Once the collage is complete, further decisions need to be made about presentation, as well as dispensation. What happens now? Is the collage to be framed? If so, what kind of frame? With or without a mat or mats? With or without glass? Is it to be given away, or sold, or kept? If kept, is it to be in daily sight, or tucked away in a drawer?

The whole process invites the question, why do it at all? It's a given that most people are not much interested in collage unless it has been completed by a child in their family. It's a given that even those who are willing to take a look are unlikely to look long enough or closely enough to meet the work of art on its own terms. An artistically inclined young person might be well advised to try another line of inquiry: drawing, painting, sculpture even. There are broader and better informed audiences for these endeavors. But still, it's honorable work, and interesting. Perhaps anything can be, if approached in the spirit of a practice.

Part II: The Floating World

Several weeks ago I completed a collage that pleased me. Not all the ones I make do. As with the writing of a poem, there are a lot of ways you can go wrong. One unfortunate addition can take a very nice work and wreck it, unless of course you are able to reconceive the work in such a way as to incorporate and gain advantage from what is initially an unpleasant surprise. To turn the familiar adage on its head, Failure is always an option. But once in a while things fall into place surprisingly well.

When I was assembling the materials, all I really had in mind was that I wanted to do something with the color red. I went through my various bags and boxes and drawers and selected pieces that had some variety of red in them, and then took an piece of 11"x14" heavy paper to use as a backing. I taped around the edges with 1 3/8th" masking tape to give me border of sorts, and then began trying out placements. This collage was unusual for me in that I selected and placed all of the individual pieces first, removed them in order from top to bottom, and pasted them back down, one at a time, from bottom to top. I have gotten into the habit of using clear acrylic matte medium to put the materials together. It's easy to use with a brush, it dries transparent, and it's easy to clean up. I first put medium on the backing paper, then on the back of the piece to be glued, then place it down and paint over the front of the paper to smooth it down. With larger pieces of paper it's tricky to get it to lie flat without air bubbles, but that gets easier with practice.

The individual elements in this particular collage cover a lot of territory. The triangular piece in the lower left corner is from a reproduction of "Still Life with Magnolia" by Matisse. Matisse has taken over a large part of my brain in recent years. I did not hear much about him when I was in high school and college. It is only when I started taking an active interest in art as a discipline in the last decade of my life that I began bumping into Matisse everywhere. Picasso I knew, or at least knew of. But Matisse has won me over, and starting this collage with that bit of paper was a conscious act of tribute. That particular fragment also shows all three of the kinds of edges I made reference to in Part I: the left and bottom edges are cut with scissors in a straight line; the top edge is torn toward the top, leaving a rough irregular white border, and the right side is torn toward the bottom, leaving an irregular red edge.  There's an interesting intersection on the downward-sloping top edge where the two kinds of edges meet at exactly the place where the two bordering pieces meet as well. The first of those pieces, the one with with the maroon squares on it, is a holdover from a period several years ago in Hawaii where I was for a while cultivating the habit of making my own paper designs by creating stamps from foam rubber and rubbing them in leftover acrylic paint and using them to press various designs—this one based on a grid of squares—onto rice paper.

To the right of that paper is a map of sorts, which is a fragment of a cover of a recent book review section of the Sunday New York Times. At the bottom right corner of the collage is a reverse "L" shape from the cover of  Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, a book that goes way back to my reading in college. Again, that piece has both hard and soft edges.

The volcanic piece in the middle, the crane piece above it, and Japanese ladies are all from materials given to me by a close friend in Hawaii who took an interest in my artwork and gave me materials from her family archives to play with. I rarely cut out silhouetted pieces for collages, but in this instance I used both scissors and and an X-acto knife to cut out the figures of the Japanese women somewhat precisely. That was the last piece to go down and suggested to me the title for my piece, "The Floating World."

The red piece in the upper left is Christmas wrapping paper from a gift I had been given; I had set it aside against the day when it might be useful. And the maroon piece at the upper right is from my trip to the Medici-Ming paper store I discovered when I was at an NAIS conference in Seattle several years ago. I bought it because I liked the color and thought the rather subtle embossed letter motif felt appropriate to me in my line of work. (In a similar vein, one of my favorite shirts has what looks like an abstract black and white pattern that on closer examination turns out to be connected rows of the letters of the alphabet.)

So not only is this collage a color study, and an arrangement of forms, but it is, like most of my other collages, a sort of oblique self-portrait drawing on experiences, influences, and the history of my involvement with the process of reading, writing, and artmaking, not to mention the fifteen years I spent living in Hawaii.

In essence, what I have attempted here is a painting of sorts, using found materials in place of paints. In this endeavor I have been inspired by many who have gone before, including Robert Rauschenberg, one of my earliest and most significant inspirations, and of course Kurt Schwitters:

I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings; they suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints... It is possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that's what I did, gluing and nailing them together.

Part III: Appendix

I've been curating my own digital museums of collage for several years now. If you'd like to see some of the work that I have found to be interesting and/or inspiring, you might want to check out my boards Collage and Collage II on Pinterest, or this archive of collages on my Tumblr site, on which there is a lot more art of every kind piling up.

Among the many contemporary collage artists whose work I admire:

Finally, my own collage work over the last several years can be found on this board on my Flickr site. (Note, the collages here are displayed from earlier to later. My more recent work is at the bottom.) Or, alternatively, several boards on Pinterest, including this one and this one. I also did a post last year about some collages I was working on at that time.