As expected from the complex minds of Todd Bartel and Jack Massey comes “working PAPER,” an exhibition that counterpoints two visually different styles of collage art, that are the same in their intellectually challenging requirement. In “working PAPER,” Bartel presents his signature mode — substantially worked, layered, beautiful and soulful vintage papers from a variety of literary sources requiring focused and physical reading from the viewer, while Massey does the opposite — engage the viewer with emotive minimalism with carefully and simply collaged mixed media, also worked papers, requiring playfulness and calm contemplation.
Bartel bombards the reader with real physical content, while Massey hits his viewers with open-ended questions. Overall, the exhibition theme is landscape: external for Bartel, through direct connective points; internal for Massey, with subtle and private clues.
From the exhibition statement: “Through juxtaposing definitions with period ephemera, Bartel explores the notion of land and land use as well as the history of landscape painting. Massey is committed to form and line exploration in the purest sense. A sense of amused improvisation emerges from these pieces.”
Jack Massey’s minimalist mixed media collage compositions are 13 in the series. They consist of various discarded and worked papers, fabric remnants, image cutouts, text fragments, and drawings, and are monumental in intellectual possibility and mystery. Formally, the series is about collage as a three-dimensional interpretation of geometric abstract painting and sculpture. Each composition is staged on a sheet of irregular off-white paper which has a dual purpose: as foundation for individual focused collages placed on top, and as another element layer of visual, material, and conceptual content.
What is most important about Massey’s collages in where the ‘top collage’ in placed on the off-white paper. Most of the ‘top collages’ are off-center allowing for large areas of ‘void’ space to live as information and material fields. In regard to meaning, the compositions are structured to offer vague reminiscence to reality. The narrative content, if there is any other than pure material form and geometry, has been reduced to basic arrangement with only ‘leftover’ material of what may have or is real.
Each composition has a title that is as curious as the image offering tricky answers. To understand, it’s absolutely necessary to pay close attention to material details that may seem irrelevant, such as where the torn edges meet, or where colored dots are placed, or where frayed fabric lines are allowed to sit. Massey leaves the narrative up to the reader/ viewer to interpret. Simple titles such as “Why”; “Try Not to Look Back – Ever”; and “There is No Answer for Everything” do suggest firm solutions to the abstracted collages. For example, in “There is No Answer for Everything,” two rectangular sheets of decaying and yellowed paper are placed vertical alongside each other so that the ragged torn lines match up to each other with the top corner edges closer to each other evoking the idea that the papers are speaking to one another.
Underneath the papers, in landscape position, is a discarded, heavily decayed colored fabric remnant onto which a very thin strip of yellow paper is laid lengthwise on the very bottom suggesting a foundational boundary. What’s happening here is unknown, but given the arrangement and the title, the answer could be that “There is No Answer for Everything” is a dialogue within a domestic space. The tonality of privacy and allusion to intimacy is felt in each composition. It’s interesting that Massey dedicates the series to his wife “I dedicate, with love, my part of this show to my wife Susan. Massey is a professor emeritus at Rhode Island School of Design, and is generally described as an abstract or conceptual artist working in a variety of areas including sculpture. His work is always about the narrative content of pure form.
Q & A: JACK MASSEY
JFM: IS THERE A MUSICAL INSPIRATION TO YOUR COLLAGES
JM: I often listen to jazz while I am working. There have been times in the past when the music has influenced my work in one way or another. However, my work in the current show was not influenced by music. The pieces simply came together as I worked with the paper.
JFM: THE PLACEMENT OF THE SPECIFIC COLLAGE WORKS WITHIN THE WHITE PAPER SPACE/VOID SPACE SEEMS PLANNED AND PURPOSEFUL. IS THE WHITE VOID ANOTHER ELEMENT?
JM: Yes. The white space is a purposeful part of the collage. It’s as important to me as the other elements.
JFM: THE TITLES FOR EACH COMPOSITION ARE INTRIGUING. WHAT COMES FIRST: THE TITLES OR THE COLLAGE?
JM: The collages always come first. Then, once they’re finished, I intuitively invent a title that often I find amusing. The viewers can interpret the title and the work any way they wish. I provide clues but not answers.
Bartel’s “Landscape Vernacular” is 11 works with poetically educative titles taken directly from or inspired by published old book sources and assembled paper material, borrowing and giving homage to a wide variety of historical events, art movements, philosophical theories, spiritual considerations, and scientific discoveries. They are:
A Journey (After A. D.)
All That Part of a Picture Which is Not of Body or Argument
Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory)
Dog Star Rising
Set Apart or Belonging to An Individual or People
Gateway to the American Sublime — The Crawford Notch, 1826
Proportions and Table Manners
Water Over the Bridge
Common Geography — The Earth and It’s Inhabitants, August 9, 2019
Most, not all, of Bartel’s collages are image and text heavy requiring in-depth discussion. For him, the purpose of collage is to celebrate the beautiful tactile quality of fragments as perfect pieces of ‘living paper’ that can function alone visually as works of art, and are even more energetic when combined with other decaying and transitioning fragments. When these fragments are combined, an intellectual environment/sublime space is created that seduces viewers into a new world of mystery.
To engage the viewer fully, Bartel has included another element into the landscape collages — sound. To compose his unique landscapes, for the exhibition, he’s united each collage composition with a complementary musical piece creating remarkably satisfying and deeply moving experiences. While looking at the collage, the viewer can listen to music via QR Codes scanned by iPhone, directed to a website.
For example, the first composition in the exhibition, which holds special significance for Bartel, “A Journey (After A.D.),” 2011, is staged with Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa – II (Silentium),” 1977. The collage piece itself offers a text fragment from what appears to be a dictionary source: “Land: to set to shore; to disembark; to debark” while the full composition image is a large area of open space, a series of puncture marks in a shape resembling an abstracted human body as if falling through air, while at the bottom are fragments of marbleized papers functioning as water with a sun icon at the bottom middle.
Of special note is a ‘star’ shaped puncture near the human body form suggesting the lovely idea that humans are ‘star dust.’ The musical component by Arvo Part offers violin, piano, and chamber orchestra evoking a feeling of alternating tumbling and floating, slow and dramatic, rasping and burning in parts, as if moved, pushed, and torn by air currents, matching perfectly with the ethereal and textured visuals in Bartel’s paper collage, “A Journey.” The other must listen piece is Aphex Twin’s “Blue Calx,” matched up with Bartel’s “Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory)” a collage suggesting the often-forgotten history of Native American genocide in North America, with particular attention in Bartel’s composition to the Indigenous Peoples of Eastern States, and a conversation about land ownership.
Along with music by Arvo Part, and Aphex Twin, the “Landscape Vernacular” playlist also includes works by John Cage, John Adams, Zoe Keating, Ethel, Moondog, Hildur Gudnadottir, and a combo by Ty Burhoe, Krishna Das, Manotama, John Friend and Amy Ippoliti, for the collage “Common Geography The Earth and Its Inhabitants August 9, 2019.”
Q & A: TODD BARTEL
JFM: TELL US ABOUT YOUR SOURCE MATERIAL, WHERE DO YOU FIND THE VINTAGE PRINTED WORKS, BOOK PAGES AND OTHER PAPER MATERIAL?
TB: I have been collecting book materials since the early 1980s, and particularly drawn to 19th-century texts, and only use books for my collage work that I own. I just purchased a copy of “American Monthly Magazine” 1, January 1836, and am thrilled to have an original copy of Thomas Cole’s essay “American Scenery” which I quoted from in “Gateway to the American Sublime.” I often stumble upon books I want to purchase while searching for online for engravings. I get my papers from a variety of places, including donations from friends, and am particularly interested in finding aged and damaged paper. Jack Massey just gave me several pieces of 13th-century monastic blotter paper. It is so mysterious and beautiful, made with oak gall ink, and the salt and acid in the ink ate away hundreds of holes over the centuries, it is like looking at a moth-eaten cloud with dark-rimmed holey freckles!
JFM: WHAT COMES FIRST FOR YOU: THE MATERIALS OR THE CONCEPTS? DO YOU HUNT DOWN CERTAIN PAPER WORKS TO FIT AN IDEA, OR DO YOU ALLOW THE PAPER ITSELF — WHAT’S PRINTED — TO DIRECT THE NEXT PIECE?
TB: Actually, yes, to each question! It is always interesting to see which comes first. One thing I love is that as I am working and realize I need a certain image or text, I often just go through my files, review them and pull out things I have collected over the years, rediscovering things I forgot. I love making connections with materials, images, and texts. Collect and connect! Whenever I go on the hunt for materials I always find more than I need and often that prompts the next work.
I love pointing out that the first piece in the “Landscape Vernacular” series was not even intended to be a series. I simply wanted to make an altered facsimile of one of my former professor’s collages, Alfred DeCredico’s “A Journey.” My own “A Journey, (After A.D.),” was meant to only be an homage piece, but it led me to two other pieces, “Sublime Climate” and “Animas Hominis,” and then from there I realized I had a series.
I just ride the waves, come as they will, whatever they may be and this keeps me happy and interested in the studio! Also, and this is important – once I realized I had a collection of dictionaries from the early 1800‘s to the present day, I reread “Discovering the Vernacular Landscape” by John Brinckerhoff. His essay on the etymology of the word “landscape” is why I named the series after his book.
JFM: THE INCLUSION OF SOUND AND MUSIC PLAYLIST WITH THE “LANDSCAPE VERNACULAR” IS FANTASTIC. HOW DID THIS IDEA DEVELOP FOR YOU? WERE YOU LISTENING TO MUSIC WHILE WORKING?
TB: Yes, it was a happy discovery, quite by chance, feeling the music and the collage together. Making the QR Codes was a labor of love, hours of work. I had been intuitively gravitating toward listening to the clean sounds of string quartets, so I created a special playlist I dubbed “Landscape Vernacular Playlist.” Sometime over the last four months, while planning for this show with Jack, I happened to notice the title “Be-In” by Ethel was playing while I was looking at and holding the collage “Gateway to the American Sublime” and realized there was an interesting relationship between the music and the collage.
In the QR code Playlist there is only one work that has a purple color. All the other colors of the QR Codes are green, the color of plants. Purple, is considered a spiritual color. That song, that collage, “Animas Hominis” is the only work in the “Landscape Vernacular” series that does not have a dictionary definition. It is about the spirit of wo /man, sublime. Here is a link to see the “Landscape Vernacular” collages on my website: https://toddbartel.com/collages-/landscape-vernacular
(“Todd Bartel and Jack Massey: working PAPER” continues through October 5 at the Hera Gallery, 10 High St., Wakefield, Rhode Island; there will be an artist talk by Todd Bartel on Saturday, October 5 at 1 p.m. For more information, call (401) 789-1488.)