WHY ALL THE FUSS ABOUT COLLAGE?
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 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. It is better understanding collage in this larger context that is the ultimate goal of this analysis.
1,2,3 THE VERY ESSENCE OF COLLAGE
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.” We examine each now in turn.
1. SELECTION...THE CHOOSING OF SOURCE MATERIALS
There is a mushy, undifferentiated nature to painting and drawing materials which allow them to directly step into the roll of becoming art. A tube of paint is nothing in itself...a blob...it is a proto-thing and has no identity to lose before taking on that which an artist may impart to it. By contrast, collage relies on the pre-made...things which themselves already have a degree of character. In a finished collage, source materials usually retain some of their original integrity, bringing with them their own heritage...their own time, place, style, and story.
Collage is like speaking, only in quotes, with the artist using someone else's words, idioms, and vernacular to express their thoughts. A thing must already exist in order for it to be collaged, and so collage is a reinterpretation, or redigestion, of what went before, hence it is often quick to irony, sarcasm, and critical thought.
The array of source materials used is as varied as the entire material culture of this world. Both the represented world of paper culture and the for-realsy world of objects themselves. If something's been made, be assured that someone has used it in collage. From candy wrappers to human cadavers and diamonds to dung balls. With the whole world of items to choose from, the fact that an artist has selected certain materials over all others proves telling.
There are collages that use valuable items...antiques, cash money, and factory-new automobiles spring to mind...but more often than not, collage materials are of a more common, less precious variety. Often, selection of materials is simply a function of what is available, thus an undertaker is more likely to build their house from formaldehyde bottles and an alcoholic from whiskey bottles.
A wasteful industrial culture was a necessary precondition for the flowering of collage. Collage is couched in the world of paper ephemera and publishing. The print revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries led to collage's real first flush. Its technical innovation offered a steady proliferation of material...first of words and then of images...in one format then another...in a parade of print process...in a plethora of changing styles...in such quantities that materials quickly became disposable. Enter collage, the cheapest and greenest of art world genera.
Collage is essentially popular, or "pop," in nature. It deals in the stuff of life...documents meant to serve some other purpose: advertising, packaging, news-providing, et cetera. Often low-brow or no-brow at its source, collage boasts a mobility of cultural stratification not accounted for by Walter Benjamin in his "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Elevating the forgotten or vulgar, enshrining it, up-cycling it into high culture.
Though the root of printing lay in the printed word, it has in the past century thoroughly embraced the image, leaving the collage artist with a full range of styles and subjects of image to work with...black and white to color, illustrative to photographic, in any subject matter. Nineteenth century medical engravings or 1970s porn...take your pick. An artist may pluck materials from another time or another part of the globe...from deep within the visual jargon of a specialized profession or from the front page of this morning's tabloid.
There is a veneer of authority to all of these mass-produced pieces of paper, similar to the latent believability bestowed to words simply by putting them in print. They have an air of mass approval and industrial backing. These materials of mass culture appeal subconsciously as a given quantum, passed to us as a constant from the other side of some veil. These qualities are available for the collage artist to adopt, exploit, undermine, or subvert.
Part of the appeal offered by these cultural artifacts is a technical polish they've received...a crafted aura imbued there by professional writers, designers, illustrators, printers, and the like. In this way, collage is a sort of unauthorized collaboration with those who created the source material.
Collage is an affirmation that culture feeds on culture. But also calls into question the notion of original authorship and the legal extent of copyright, fair use, and appropriation.
2. DISSECTION...THE DECONSTRUCTION OF MATERIALS
If step one is "boy meets girl," then step two is "boy loses girl." Collage is an art rooted in the act of destruction. It is named for the sticking—colle is French for glue—but before anyone gets around to gluing anything down, something must be destroyed, broken, chopped, sawed, sliced, or smashed. The specific manner of deconstruction and material handling can add a great deal of emotional tenor to a finished collage.
A cut edge can be every bit as lively as a drawn line. It can carry just as much information and expression. Mathematically speaking, the edge of a cut shape is a line with no width, making it imminently more precise and supple than any drawn line. Thus every collage—in addition to whatever else it may be—can be seen as a drawing of cut edges. Silhouette work, Chinese paper cuts, or the Matisse cut outs, made from plain or flat colored paper, are tantamount to collage without source material...being only the act of dissection: their cutlines, carving negative space from a positive field.
Cut or torn. Precise or loose. Methodical or gestural. In a manner that corresponds with the subject matter of the source material or seems to ignore it. With the tedium of an obsessive or the grand gesture of Zorro.
Metaphors of violence are close at hand...slash and stab, the thought of butchers carving up carcasses. Frankenstein. But metaphors of surgery are fitting as well...a promise of skill and the sense that the thing is being taken apart in order to correct a thing and make it better. Decay is a common theme as well...as wear leads to discard, and discard a necessary precursor to use in collage.
Using a material for collage inevitably leads to a certain ambiguity about it. In a way, the collage artist is saying that they like a material by using it: they willingly engage with the source material, they spend time with it, they adopt the material's voice as their own. But in another way, they are saying they don't like it, that it is not good enough the way it is and requires the help of the artist in order to right it. They cut it up, efface it, deface it.
The act of destruction can be titillating, which is to say, it can seem at once both naughty and thrilling. Like breaking dishes after a meal instead of washing them...it is not quite the thing one's grandmother would approve of. Best not to mention to the bibliophile that you'll be cutting up the books as soon as you get them to the studio. It can be an act of protest. Or a way for an artist to assert themselves in the streams of cultural deluge.
To what extent is the material transfigured? Is it to be circumcised...or neutered? Collage can gently adjust or fully transform. Collage can enshrine a thing fully intact...elevating an object, framing and presenting it as a reliquary. Or it can put a material on trial, violate or destroy it, mince a thing into its molecular simplicities.
Collage is an editor's art. It is an exercise of control to cut something up. It is a way to refine through subtraction and concision...to further select from an already select material. It is an exercise in exploration and curiosity too, like taking apart a machine to see its inner workings... like frog dissection in biology class.
3. CONNECTION...THE RECOMBINATION OF MATERIALS
Placing things in proximity enables them to interact. No chemical reaction—be it simmer or explosion—occurs unless reagents first come into contact. All love stories start in this manner. As do all border disputes.
What happens between materials? Mind the gap. Side-by-side on the page, matched images mingle. Some attract, some repel. Pick your metaphors for harmony and dissonance: fair skies and stormy, love and enmity, peace and war—collage is ultimately about interaction, and these metaphors will serve us well. Do things go together smoothly or not? Do they lead to seamlessness or seemliness?
The most overt and attention grabbing strategy for collage is juxtaposition. The flower stuck in the gun barrel. Mona Lisa with a mustache. These are strong images because they embody the meeting of two such opposite things. Contrast images, contrast eras, contrast print qualities...all make for engagement. Juxtaposition is so familiar and facile to collage, it is almost a cliché. Closure is the opposite strategy. Mental closure is the process for which glue is only the metaphor.
The mind is hungry for the task of optical interpretation. Trained thousands of years ago to pick out a predator's silhouette amid a forest's undergrowth, the brain will match up contours and form wholes from scant or disparate parts. This leads to a reflexive suspension of disbelief...a magnetization in which there ceases to be a partial photo of a cat atop a partial photo of a man, and instead, there is simply a cat-man.
Like a stage magician, an attentive artist can strengthen the illusion with just the right diversions or visual cues...matching line work, perspectives, or lighting from source materials.
The most cohesive work is perhaps "single-source" collage. Utilizing materials from a single origin can jumpstart the mind's closure. Max Ernst's canonical picture book, "Une Semain de Bonte," uses only engraved book illustrations as source material, giving the work a unity in texture and style uncanny for its surreal subject matter. Similar effect could be achieved with, say, all black and white xeroxes, all reproductions of Van Gogh paintings, or all text and dissected letter forms.
But to close or to juxtapose is not always an either-or decision. Distinctly different realities can still make use of mental closure by, say, matching contour lines or textures. Sometimes allowing viewers to mentally flip back and forth between individual pieces, and orchestrated whole...between the thing it had been and the thing it has become.
Technical excellence is not necessarily artistic excellence. Chinks in a façade are not necessarily negative. A less-than-rigorous matching of materials can read as exuberance, honesty, or guilelessness, as well as clumsiness. A ransom note pasted together from mixed typographies conveys a strong message.
Are there visible glue stains? The connective material may even take part in the very subject matter of the work, serving not just as stage hands but as performers in their own right. Consider briefly, if you would, the aesthetic and emotional effects of the entire world of mechanical fasteners: staples, pushpins, drywall screws, c-clamps, and the bolt in Frankenstein's neck. Also the less-used but still potent connective tissues of hand stitching, string, epoxy pour, or chewing gum.
So many fruitful strategies exist for the connective process within collage that it pains me to cut the discussion short. To mention just a few more, there are: The grotesque. Randomness and chance encounter. Repetition of elements possible from mass-produced items. The voodoo-like synecdoche of signifiers. The use of text relative to poetry. The unnatural marriage between just two pieces of paper. Or the everything-and-the-kitchen sink, horror vacui riot and wallow in mass culture.
NOW BACK TO THE GLUE POT
Selection, dissection, connection... I certainly don't mean to imply that practicing artists have these three stages consciously in mind while they are in the throes of making art, any more than rabbits in the field have natural selection in mind while copulating. But together, they form a functional sketch of a diverse field. And begin to indicate some of the dichotomies and spectra one is likely to encounter with collage.
I hope this will serve as useful grounds upon which collage can be examined, judged, and better appreciated...kickstarting a critical viewing. Let me know your thoughts.
Best wishes, Mark.