This article originally accompanied ‘Collagerie’ exhibition at Stew Gallery, Norwich in 2009. I think it remains relevant.
“Each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world, giving rise to other relations, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.”
The glaring similarity between artist and the audience of artwork is a natural inclination to collect: amassing, immersing in and assimilating information cannot be avoided. The result is a memory bank of sounds, sights, tastes, feelings, and these accumulative life experiences I liken to collage.
Collage is the metaphor for a collection of and collective life experience: in the visual arts it is the appropriation of existing materials that are intently ordered and organised or sporadically and spontaneously assembled, layered or reduced to create an artwork. Subsequently, that collage is akin to poetry is unequivocal: the very foundation of collage is the notion of a poetic sensibility.
Naturally, by utilizing the world’s resources as medium, the artist may evoke the zeitgeist with certain immediacy, reflected in the works of luminaries including Picasso and Braque, Matisse, Hannah Hoch, Warhol and Basquiat, Rauschenberg, Nigel Henderson, Thomas Hirschhorn and Angus Fairhurst. These interdisciplinary artists share a proclivity to comment on the world as they see it, or subvert and contradict the reality we are spoon-fed within societiy. Humanity amasses stuff. Collage presents the stuff of experience as an inspired dialogue between artist and audience by utilizing a universal and often literal visual language.
An enforced dialogue that we consumers daily face is with the intrusion of signs and advertisements within multifarious situations and environments. Collage subverts the mundane and passive-manipulative or suggestive images and signals to behave or buy, laying bare and often juxtaposing and superimposing multiple messages. In direct reference to the materials original purpose, repetition is also a device used by artists occupied with collage.
By highlighting life’s appendages and magnifying its inherent symbols, artists occupied with collage more often than not create images that are seem more real than reality itself. The collages present images that we feel are so very familiar and yet have only entered the periphery of our vision and psyche. What the artist often does is ask the viewer to consider and reflect on the messy patchwork of visual banality that is infiltrated as benign, but is in reality explicitly and aggressively loaded and charged.
Apollinaire, excited in 1912 by the emergent surfacing of papiers collés, commented on the influencing components of works such as Picasso’s Guitar, Sheet Music and Wine Glass with which the artist used cloth, newspaper, wallpaper and sheet music. It was the use of the newspaper that really encouraged Apollinaire’s disposition to direct and encourage poetic /artistic discourse, “which, on a sheet, treats the most diverse matters and ranges over distant countries….” The materials used for collaging allow artists to make sociological and political exploration and commentary. Contemporaneously, Hannah Hoch and Raul Hausmann adopted cut-paper techniques as a language with which to deny the mechanical and commercial reality of post World War I society.
The attack on advertising and everyday materials by creating new images has parallels in the innovative punk attitude, aesthetic and philosophy, which mutilates the mainstream cultural narrative, encouraging a DIY approach to change by adapting, evolving and undermining. In art, the defiant and rebellious nature of this movement is upheld today by guerrilla artists who utilize the materials to hand and of the street to effect inclusive dissemination of visualized ideas. An acute awareness and recognition of the world unites these disciplines, movements and practices in a shared interest for the pursuit of freedom, both creative and civil. It is the compilation and fusion of accumulative quotations of experience that promotes the freedom of expression and this is rooted in the philosophy behind collage.
When we consider the works of Thomas Hirschhorn and Angus Fairhusrt, we are at once presented with artists concerned with the bombardment of images. Hirschhorn emulates these attacks on our vision by archiving collections of mass-media both within and outside of the gallery space. He overloads individual pages with imagery, often working into them with biro, and creates spaces full to the brim with his collaged material. Fairhust, on the other hand, concentrates on a reductivist sensibility. Far from minimalist, Fairhurst does however ask his audience to respect and reflect on the spaces between: loss, gain and the ‘other’. By cutting out the figures and words/slogans from advertisements and pages from magazines, contradictorily he reveals what is concealed beyond the surface of the image. By comparing the two artists what becomes apparent is a predisposition to highlight an as yet unknown and certainly ignored infinite absence: emerging from an Hirschhorn exhibition the viewer feels so shagged from being confronted by reality that to take stock and a step back from the visual excess is to digest the absence of tranquillity, serenity and sentience in daily life, whilst Fairhurst’s collages prompt us to address a sense of longing and belonging. Both artists reflect an empty society dependent on material supply and comment on consumerist societies’ belligerent attacks and demands that we are absent without X ‘…because we are worth it’.
Like a war machine, collage literally ‘overtaxes’ the image by destroying and rebuilding it, eliminating and simplifying, magnifying, transfiguring and dismembering, rejecting and accepting. Creating infinite possibility whilst shattering accepted notions of creating and presenting imagery, collage offers a multitude of perspectives, both literally and figuratively. The conflation of perspectives that collage naturally allows pertains not just to angles and viewpoint, but also to this global perspective. In Fairhurst’s work, conventional notions of perspective are completely negated.
By accepting accident, the artist strives to usher forth an representational and debased version of reality through collage. Like drawing, in the conventional sense, however, the art of collage is a gestural activity, and although the resulting image is dependant on the materials at the artists’ disposal, the composition is reliant on an sympathetic notion of surface, line and form, the necessity of editing and cropping, and is ultimately driven by process, renewal and innovation. On the basis that the ego is stifled during the making of collage itself, in that the material speaks for the artist’s expression, it is redolent of childhood creative play: jigsaw puzzles, fuzzy felt, flannlgraph and silhouettes. These activities are regularly used as storytelling devices that allow fantasy and fiction to infiltrate playtime. Like collage, they allow for a kind of ordered mess with the objective of ultimately creating a precious and tactile narrative object. In creating this object, the maker confounds the reality of the edge and the border, which brings us back to the ‘other’. Like in Fairhurst’s work, the assembler of fuzzy-felt examines (respectively consciously in Fairhurst and presumably unknowingly for the fuzzy reveller) the hinge between the work (interior) and exterior experience (perceived material reality). Both as a child and later as artist, the collage is made with the materials of a prescribed reality in a quest to strike a balance between fact, fiction and the fantastic.
Collage is the ‘authentic’ and vital discipline. Intent may not always be honest and integrity may not always be withheld, but the practice, unwittingly the ‘green’ art form per se, is always the sum of its parts, what it says on the tin, so to speak. The meaning in an image could be the direct transference of original material into the gallery space, which in its reinvention defies meaning and here we arrive at an artistic practice that defies definition. I regard collage as a crafted patchwork of experience rather than artistic discipline, the approach to it is however ubiquitous. Whilst often confusing on the surface, the point is, life is confusing, experience is confusing and if we are confronted by this reality for one moment and asked to stop and think about the surface of it, we might collectively initiate some sort of antidote to all the confusion. Collage won’t change our fragile world, it will mysteriously re-arrange it for you though.