Prefabricated Art, Undesirable Surrealityby Valery Oisteanu
Manufactured Unreality: The Art of Collage
Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, LLC May 16 – June 27, 2008
Collage and assemblage are the rebellious twins of the modern revolution, challenging the primacy of painting, provoking elusive experimentation, open to all and revealing to few. Started a century ago as a proletarian cubist-dada technique, it is now used and abused across a broad spectrum, exploited in print media as advertising, illustration, political cartooning, and book covers, and succeeding in the multimedia world as digital collage.
Collage survived communist agitprop and populist pop culture, and it will survive the digital revolution. That said, when on display in galleries, collage can be unendurably uninspired and redolent of the banality of scrapbook memorabilia.
The quality of a show depends of course on the demands of the market, curators’ choices or gallery owners’ tastes. Often, works exhibited in this genre are either of art-historical interest, which legitimizes their reproduction and sale as special editions, prints, books, postcards, etc., or they are just mediocre, assembled by artists taking a break from their “regular” work to produce decorative glued-up pieces destined for condo walls or the “dustbin of art history.”
The group exhibition organized by artist Don Joint and deliberately labeled with the upoetical title of Manufactured Unreality: The Art of Collage, combines a diverse range of works in a variety of materials from multigenerational schools of thought.
Some artists from the past, including Witold Gordon (1898-1968), Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), Jiˇrí Kolárˇ (1914-2002), May Wilson (1905-1986), Enrico Baj (1924-2003), Raymond Hains (1926-2005), Naomi Savage (1927-2005), William Copley (1919-1996) and Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), are certifiable icons, and their vintage works remain interesting even as a memorabilia of sorts, such as Cornell’s “Carrousel” (1956), originally created for a MoMA Christmas card, portraying a white unicorn and a white dog on wood, with lots of blue.
May Wilson is represented by two of her snowflake collages: “Boys and Buns” and “Swimsuits,” each from two images superimposed to create a positive/negative collage effect. It proves a strange choice for the show, considering that the majority of Wilson’s works were superiorly different. Known as the “Grandma Moses of the Underground,” she inspired many of the artists in her circle, including John Evans, two of whose daily diary collages (out of 10,000) are also in the show.
Jiˇrí Kolárˇ turns up with five works, probably because he has recently been in demand by the booming art market. “Singing Boot” (1967) displays a small child’s white bootie sitting on a mantle, covered with words, framed at the bottom by musical notes in green. Next to it, more sculpture than collage (though glued), hangs William Copley’s “Trapeze Toys” (1965-67), six figurines the artist made by cutting up his own paper gouaches.
Some of the newer works are less successful. David Beideman’s collages, “Le Viola de Man Ray” and “The Rapture of Antinous, Hadrian’s Lover” (both 2008), combine rhinestones, pearls, beads, photos of male nudes, black feathers and even a squirrel skull covered in gold to achieve an effect of over-the-top kitsch that is tangential to surrealist humor.
Mid-gallery there is an installation of large cardboards standing on edge with cut-out windows and grids that, at first glance, looks like packaging leftovers and is appropriately titled “Under Construction” (silkscreen, 2007) by Kim Beck. Such a piece hardly can be called assemblage or sculpture or even a “site-specific installation,” but rather more of a nuisance, blocking the feng shui of the gallery.
And Maureen Mularkey’s “Days of our Years” (book covers collaged on board, 2007) and “Formal Ledger” (collage on book cover, 2007) are well executed and have a Schwitters-like look but do not posses the dramatic tension of her illustrious predecessor.
Witold Gordon’s untitled collages from the 1940s, in contrast, with their a headless figures and a disembodied costumes, convey simple surrealist poetry. One of them is made up of a black-and-white photograph of a flock of sheep grazing under the care of a shepherd while a cutout engraving of an elegant, lace-and-ribbon-bedecked dress floats in the air (this piece was used for the announcement card of the show).
Among my favorites in the show is “Untitled” (1960), an object trouve made of torn posters sandwiched together and suspended under glass in a chance-operational collage by Raymond Hains. Considered the inventor of the affichiste technique,he started experimenting with torn posters as early as 1947 but did not exhibit them publicly until 1957. Another favorite is “Sabo” (1995), one of six collages by Franz Shanz which incorporates a Sabo coffee poster and several small black-and-white photographs of the artist’s porch plants.
Other contributions include: three 2008 “visual poems” by Paul Forte that set text and words alongside images; an installation of 16 works presented as one by Elise Graham, consisting of collages from colorful magazine illustrations; two photomontages by Naomi Savage (niece of Man Ray), one a panorama of women’s portraits, their images cut out and repeated sequentially, and the other, “Forks” (1984), faux-solarized photo images of cutlery; and works by artist-curator Don Joint, who uses an unusual technique of superimposing his collages with glass plates etched with diagonal lines and glued with old, torn stamps depicting airplanes.
Collage and assemblage endure, both because and in spite of the works on view here.