By Mark Wagner
Modern mediation has made collage a primary player in the contemporary conscious.
We all collage directly in our brains by flipping through channels, by flipping through magazines, by glancing around as we walk down the street. We collage with every Internet search. Culture from one source is constantly interrupted and butted up against culture from another source. Collage is the language of modern life—or, more precisely, its syntax. It is the genius of the age...pervasive, subconscious, and irreversible. Of our children, only a few will sense the texture life may have had before it.
The following examination focuses mainly on collage in the rarified world of fine art. It does so for the purpose of offering artists, students, and art enthusiast a handful of tools for approaching and analyzing collage artworks. But it is an added hope that these same tools—and the knowledge, practice, and experience gained through examining collage on this small-scale—will aid the reader in unraveling the net of feral collage going on in the world about them.
THE REAL HISTORY OF THE COLLAGE IMPULSE
Some years ago, while kicking around the shelves of the school art library, I stumbled on a book titled "European Surrealism of the 12th and 13th Centuries." This struck me as odd because in art class, I'd just learned that Andre Breton invented Surrealism in the 1920s. But here was page after page of evidence to the contrary: sculptures and manuscript illuminations indulging unmistakable flights of fancy. All this hundreds of years before Andre Breton.
Similarly so, let us now be done with the myth that Picasso and Braque invented collage. To grab just a few diverse predecessors: There's Arcimboldo, who, though painting, shows an unmistakable collage mentality. Sandwiches are a practical and tasty form of collage. Portmanteau words, which create a new word by running together existing words, have probably been around since the beginning of language.
Collage is evident since the prehistory of our species. The marrying of two givens to make a new thing, at once familiar, yet strange and new. Ancient mythology is riddled with examples: Minotaur, mermaid, gorgon, winged horse, sphinx…all are parts of one beast collaged onto parts of another. You take the serious part of a human—the features that give our species power and potential, arms that manipulate and a head that senses—and you add the business end of a horse—its legs and speed—and the centaur is born. What nameless storyteller first authored this image? What countless viewers and listeners have thrilled in it? Screw Picasso!
This collage-ish remixing of ideas, forms, and experience seems to be a hardwired part of the human condition. It is so integral to our makeup, we can do it in our sleep...hence all the personalized delights and terrors of the dream world.
THE FIELD OF CONTEMPORARY COLLAGE
Collage is not a medium...it is a method. It is more of a verb than a noun. Collage does not imply any specific material but an activity. One can collage with text, sound, moving images, or architecture...as well as with cut-up paper and recycled objects.
It is one of the simpler creative impulses tipping the domino here. Simpler than the impulse to generate a fully new thing is the impulse to alter what exists. The world can be different, and I will make it so like this and like this.
Collage includes a large family of activities called by other names. And it shares features and philosophies with a handful of other cultural strategies: appropriation, assemblage, bricolage, combine, compilation, computer graphic imaging, cut up, decollage, decoupage, erasure, mixing, montage, sampling, mosaic, l'objecte trouve, and ready made. Don't get flustered by the multitude of aliases. And don't let anyone tell you these other activities aren't actually collage.
Generally put, collage is the attaching of one thing to any other disparate thing. A bicycle wheel attached to a stool is a collage. A piece of tape changing "Driving with Care" to "Driving with Carl" is collage. A human ear growing on the back of a mouse is definitely collage. And, in one sense, every change of camera angle in every movie ever made is an act of collage.
For clarity and brevity, this investigation focuses on the concerns of two-dimensional collage. Though it is my intent that the principles described here apply universally to all manner of collage and think it only a matter of specifics to apply similar analytics to collage in other media. What's more, I take collage in the realm of the fine art world as a kind of laboratory study for collage in the context of culture at large.
I have heard many collage artists described in terms of other fields...so and so says they are painting with scissors and glue...someone else is drawing with paper. Certainly, all of the analytical tools one may employ to critique a drawing or a painting can also be directed at a collage. Discussion of composition, line work, texture, mood...all those qualities you learned about in two-dimensional design. But how about we get at the actual collage-y part of the collage?
In the same way that one inquires about a person's background and history to help judge their character, let us look to the making of collage to provide keys to interpretation.
At a level of extreme abstraction, every collage is born through the processes of three stages, executed in turn. First, an artist must select a source material to use: printed matter, object, photograph, etc. Second, an artist must deconstruct this material: destroy it a little, digest it for reuse, break it down, take it apart. And third, and artist must recontextualize these things that have been taken apart, forming them into a new whole.
The phases mimic in number and mood those of the Hegelian dialectic: "Thesis, Antithesis, Syntheses." With thesis, a premise is proposed; with antithesis, the premise is attacked or argued against; and with synthesis, the original and its refutation are combined into a new and more correct statement. With Hegel, the cycle is circular, and a synthesized statement becomes the new thesis to face new refutation, growing ever more refined. So too a collage artist may cycle through steps in a "lather, rinse, repeat" manner.
Concisely put, the phases are “Selection, Dissection, and Connection.”
In "Look Sharp, Part Two," we will examine each of these three phases in depth next week.