On view now through August 11 at the Concord Center for the Visual Arts, “unfoldingobject” collage is a formidable exhibition, featuring the work of 50 artists, presenting an expansive understanding of what collage art is physically as well as conceptually while also highlighting the meaning of uncollage.
Curated by collage artist, writer and intellectual, Todd Bartel, who is also a participating artist, the collection of works on view range from standard cut-and-paste on flat surfaces to three-dimensional forms of collage-layering and three-dimensional assemblage and sculpture, and painting, that takes on collage as a style.
“unfoldingobject is a neologism created to describe the quality in a particular work of art that provokes discovery upon each encounter,” Bartel writes in the curator’s statement. “Despite the ceaseless innovation that it provides, collage is often overlooked or dismissed as a respectable art form because it is typically, but not always, made with things an artist did not make themselves. Amidst longstanding attitudes about authorship and originality, artwork made by incorporating found, recycled, and reused materials is often deemed a lesser art form.”
“Collage artists dismiss the criteria of originality, preferring to discard such blinders as too limiting. Collage artists understand what Jean-Luc Godard meant when he stated: ’It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’ Collage artists are alchemists, interested in the act of seeing that sparks a transformation of something old into something new. What kind of glue holds together an idea, a visual relationship, a memory, a pattern, a poetic connection, a leap of the imagination or a call for justice? A collage may look easy to make, but that is a deceiving aspect of the process.”
With collage, it is process that defines the art form. The process of collaging materials together starts with the recognition that a physical fragment is important on its own and can stand alone as an independent visual, and yet, when placed alongside other motifs/ objects it functions as a visual word, part of a larger visual sentence and even greater visual paragraph.
To understand this, we look at Antonio Frappa’s “Primavera en Montserrat,” 2019, collage, book cutouts, double-sided tape. This work is a collage-assemblage of flat paper of images that are standard and well-known late-medieval and Renaissance motif each with specific iconography. Each individual motif has been decontextualized/ deconstructed from its original sources and reassembled to provide another/alternative/new interpretation of the main theme. The female figure personifying spring/primavera (the main theme) sits in the middle while around her are motifs suggesting her short-lived and ultimate demise. While the idea here is not new, the manner in which the artist has positioned/ placed/collaged each cut fragment around her provides an updated and contemporary attitude, honoring and yet breaking away from old romantic representations.
Most striking in “Primavera en Montserrat” is the large sandaled foot above the figure’s head, as if it is stepping on primavera, while she holds white lilies symbolic of death; to her left, a skeleton stands on her shoulder, while a figure clad in old Roman attire with a bull’s head (perhaps Taurus) looks on. The artist could’ve achieved these ideas with paint, but cut paper collage does something that is higher level in thinking — it honors the perfection of the original image.
While “Primavera en Montserrat” is standard cut-and-paste format, the idea of collage can also be achieved visually on a painted flat, two-dimensional surface. In painting, the physical visual of fragmentation is the main point, and yet it is expressed as uncollage which means that it is not cut-and-paste or assemblage, yet achieves the look/style. To understand this, we look at Ginnie Gardiner’s “August,” 2011, oil on canvas. It is not a physical collage, but gives the illusion of collaged fragments because of the manner in which the artist has organized and layered geometric space and depth via light and color.
Traditional collage and uncollage methods work together easily resulting in lush complicated layered paintings. An excellent example of the two is seen in the work of Talin Megherian. “Khatchkar No. 5,” 2016-18, a work that is part of an ongoing series of paintings inspired by the artist’s Armenian heritage, is a composite work of 18 parts in ink, gesso and watercolor on paper. The paper parts do not rest on top of each other as is traditional in collage, instead, they are arranged next to, above and below as individual sections.
In this work, the illusion of cut-and-paste collage format is achieved by the way paint and ink is layered in washes onto the surface of the paper, and also via the quality of expressive lines. Some lines are soft, while others are harsh, resulting is interplay been translucent quality in some areas with heavier characteristics in others. The watercolor washes give some areas a watery and foggy appearance, and then the ink lines are applied to give the image a collaged style. Megherian’s style has a sculptural tonality to it even though it’s completely flat. It is in her ability to reproduce the idea of three-dimensionality which makes her paintings unique and endlessly mysterious.
Along with process, the other important element of collage is its dual personality of being flat and yet potentially three-dimensional.
Because collage is about layering of material/objects it is also sculpture, specially assemblage. Excellent examples of assemblage collage sculpture include Peter Thomashow’s “Biological Diversity (Color Study Series),” 2016, which is a vintage 1920s watchmaker’s box, with glass vials and scrolls of 19th-century marbleized paper.
Maureen McCabe’s “Amazon Women,” 2003, an assemblage on double slate of dyed red snakes’ spines, beetle wings, wooden darts with cotton, 19th-century cutout prints, feathers, metal toy monkey, small toy plane and silver breast milagro. Kerith Lisi’s “Resist Patchwork,” 2019, is a fabric collage assemblage piece exploring geometric and minimalist design. The work is layered fabric headbands from discarded books with adhesive, bookbinding thread on watercolor paper on foam core mounted to a wood board. Allan Bealy’s “Insects [Exploded Box series],” 2016, is a sculpture in that an object — a paper box — is the focal element, opened up to expose the interior allowing the inside to be another surface for collaged/layered images.
In the area of specific collage sculpture, there are three intriguing examples: Gerri Rachins’ “Red Herring 2827, 2754, and 2659” are three individual geometric paper-collaged wall forms made from the artist’s drawing fragments, graphite, ink and gouache on paper, and mounted to panel. A surprising inclusion in the sculpture area is Jack Massy’s “P.P. Ruiz’s BikeI, 1984,” 2016 is a readymade, c. 1900 Peugeot bicycle, imported from Pau, France.
“unfoldingobject” is an expansive and must-see exhibition too large to describe in full here. Todd Bartel has gathered some of the best collage artists working today including Luciana Frigerio who is showing “Book Slices,” a series of 12 pieces of 46, from 2017 made from collage book and art catalogue pages. The collage-style here is of the moment, featuring fragments words, simplified into a poetic format, in a redacted format over some well-known artworks giving the pieces a meme quality that is simultaneously poignant and funny.
In the area of classic deeply layered collage, Bartel himself excels tremendously. His piece “Proportions and Table Manners [Landscape Vernacular Series],” 2014, is an interactive piece in which the back may be viewed by unlatching the frame. The work is heavy with materials: burnished puzzle-piece for collage, 19th-century papers, end pages marbled papers, xerographic prints on antique end pages, toner transfers, cancelled stamps and envelope and much more.
The image itself is as complicated as the materials. It shows who male figures at the center, images from medical text book, underneath of what appears to be a volcano or mount where a large tree form expands out above it. There’s a collage image of lungs to the right, a scientific leaf drawing to the left, and underneath, a fragment from a science book about Carbon Flux Ratio showing cells and biological explanations of such things are parasites and biological activity such as symbiosis.
In all, “unfoldingobject” achieves its goal of teaching us the complex nature of collage art and how diverse it can be. From simple cut paper on flat surface to ceiling-mounted cut out sculpture compositions, collage is an intellectual concept as well as a practical process that is utilized in all art and is fundamental to how artists create.
(“unfolding object” remains on view through August 11 at Concord Center for the Visual Arts, 37 Lexington Rd., Concord, Massachusetts. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. and on Sunday from noon-4 p.m. For more information, call (978) 369-2578 or visit concordart.org.)