Category Archives: Collage

John Ashbery: Recent Collages at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

John Ashbery, Promontory (2010), collage and digitalized print, 13″ x 7-3/4″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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What I know about poetry I know from my poet friends, and what they say about the poet John Ashbery is never less than fond and often more than querulous. Ashbery, a self-described “harebrained, homegrown surrealist whose poetry defies even the rules and logic of surrealism,” seems to share this equivocal response.

What I do know is that Ashbery defies the rules and logic of art criticism. Whether working as a critic for Newsweek or a more specialized forum like Partisan Review, Ashbery proved peculiarly simpatico to the travails and successes—the “inside business,” as it were—of the visual artist. Palling around with the painters Fairfield Porter and Leland Bell probably accounts for Ashbery’s sensitivity; so do four years of art lessons.

How much of a commendation can it be, then, to tout Ashbery’s collages, on display at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, as a dilettante’s gift? There’s no doubting Ashbery’s sophistication; his whimsical works on paper channel Max Ernst’s collage novels, Anne Ryan’s intimate accumulations of paper, string and fabric and Joseph Cornell’s unseemly lyricism.

John Ashbery, Egyptian Landscape (2009-2010), collage and digitalized print, 12-1/2″ x 9″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

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But his collages don’t have a serious (or ambitious) bone in their collective bits and pieces. Coasting on the goodwill of artistic precedent, Ashbery is constitutionally unassuming; the work is airy, all but disposable. Don’t count on anything as epochal as Ernst’s The Hundred Headless Women or as tender as Ryan’s plainspoken grit. And forget Cornell—nobody’s that good. What Ashbery offers is the pleasure taken in making pictures because, well, that’s what a body can do.

Reconfiguring vintage postcards, comic strips and magazines, Ashbery creates dioramas in which Icarus descends into Yellowstone Park, Bosch’s Tower of Babel is a boy’s pillow and Popeye the Sailor Man serves as leader of a cadre of pissing totems. Ashbery isn’t always so winning; the conglomerations of game boards and Life magazine covers are more akin to scrapbooking than an admirer would like to admit. But mostly the poet indulges his light touch for cheery distraction, for moments so ephemeral, silly and mild that we can’t help but be grateful for the wry respite they proffer.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 29, 2011 edition of City Arts.

“Ingenuity and Invention”: The International Collage Center

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The International Collage Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to a medium with its own “unique lexicon of forms and values”, has its eye on a Masonic Temple in Milton, Pennsylvania as a permanent home. In the meantime, Founder and Artistic Director Pavel Zoubok, along with Director Rachel Lawe, have organized Remix; Selections From the International Collage Center, a traveling exhibition featuring pieces from the Center’s permanent collection.

I’m pleased (and flattered) that a piece of mine is part of this grand venture. Other artists included in the collection are John Ashbery, Josh Dorman, Jess, Don Joint, Ken Kewley, Ann Shostrom, Jacques Villeglé and Joseph Cornell, whose Madame Mallarmé’s Fan (1954) is featured on the invitation seen above.

You’ll find more info about Remix here. As for the ICC, there’s this piece from Art in America.

© 2011 Mario Naves

“Translating the Planet Into Something Visible”

Josh Dorman, A Mighty Rain (2011), ink, acrylic and antique maps on panel, 34″ x 33″; courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery
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Interview with Josh Dorman conducted by Mario Naves and published in the catalogue accompanying Lost Divers, an exhibition at Mary Ryan Gallery (September 8-October 22, 2011)

Your work is kaleidoscopic, both in terms of how it encapsulates a dizzying array of images and in structure. Given the organic nature of your compositions and the allusive nature of your scenarios, it’s tempting to see them as improvisations. Where and how does an image begin–with a theme or a material, with collage elements or paint?

My process is improvisational. I work on several panels simultaneously and the images build up, slowly and in layers. A painting may begin as a mountain and end up submerged in an underwater landscape. I do have a small sketchbook where I make drawings of basic compositional motifs. Given the diversity of my materials and images along with vast shifts in scale, intricate line work and other minutiae, I need an overall structure that can be read from across a room. Then I want the viewer to be pulled in and, ultimately, absorbed by the crafting of the piece–and to be puzzled by, say, the distinctions between images that are collaged and images that are painted.

Some of the paintings start with a specific raw material. There are a number of paintings (Gnarled Hill Song, Island Maunderings)–that include diving figures. I’ve had an antiquarian book on swimming and diving techniques knocking around the studio for a few years and, one day, I found a need for pictures of divers. I wanted figures that could be suspended in air–forms that, metaphorically and physically, break the surface of the image and lead into another realm.

Certain themes recur in my work–man vs. nature, the dynamic between the mechanical and the organic, buried and sunken worlds–but I rarely begin with a conscious narrative or message. That doesn’t mean a viewer won’t find one, of course.

The challenge of working with found materials is that they come with their own history–a vintage map is very different in character and quality than, say, a tube of paint. The map already has a certain period flavor. How conscious are you of building upon (or thwarting) the readymade patina of your collage elements?

I often wonder what a Kurt Schwitters collage looked like when it was freshly made. Part of my attraction to the work, and to Cubist collages as well, is the gorgeous softening of color that comes with age.

I am conscious of simultaneously building upon and thwarting my collage elements. I want my paintings to feel dislocated in time–like they could have been made in 1850 or 2011. I embrace the mellowed tones of the old paper, but I also augment these tones by applying saturated color.

Ultimately, I’m drawn less to the elegance of this-or-that patina than to what weathered paper and outdated imagery might imply–the passing of time or the altering of knowledge. I want viewers to consider lost methods of recording information or outmoded science. I want them to notice the beauty of a paper map and, not least, recall a time when a human mind and a human hand was needed to translate the planet into something visible.

I generate a set of rules for myself and, eventually, break them.  I was working exclusively with oils on canvas until about ten years ago. Then I bought a ream of old ledger paper at a barn sale. The patina of the pages, the fact that they had led a prior life, seduced me. I started drawing again. It was two years before I could bring myself to draw on the antiquarian maps I had been acquiring. Another two years passed before I could cut them into fragments. Working with antique diagrams and engravings took even longer. I’m in constant mental battle with my materials. If a map is too beautiful or an engraving of an animal from a nineteenth century encyclopedia is too artful, the struggle to transform and integrate them is even greater.

Josh Dorman, Grand Parade (2011) acrylic and antique maps on panel, 24″ x 24″; courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery

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In pieces like A Mighty Rain and Grand Parade you achieve a metaphorical density that is, if not anti-modern, then markedly pre-modern. Blake comes to mind when looking at them, as do Bosch, Bruegel and Dante. What does it mean for a twenty-first century artist to channel such forebears?

When I’m working, I don’t think about my location in art history or in today’s art world. I’m inside the act of painting, cutting, pasting and drawing. The art I see in museums and books filters into this process. In this regard, the writing of Italo Calvino has been particularly inspirational in the last few years. In both Invisible Cities and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler he creates multiple simultaneous realities. Time shifts constantly, moves backwards, ceases. Space and scale are also unfixed: cities can be microscopic, paper-thin. They can mirror themselves underground; they can be inhabited by the dead.

I can’t change my paintings to fit into some kind of contemporary art “slot”. The art I care about most is old–Bosch is a hero, and Bruegel, but I also take inspiration from Romanesque sculpture, Sienese painting, Chinese landscape scrolls, Turner, Redon and Klee. I don’t believe there’s “progress” in art.  A Byzantine mosaic is as glitteringly alive now as the day it was made.

You’ve worked with Memory Bridge, an organization dedicated to exploring the “cultural memory” of people diagnosed with dementia. What did that experience entail and what kind of discernible effect did it have on your work?

Memory Bridge asked me to spend several weeks with six people suffering from dementia. My task was to create a “life map” portrait of each person. It was a terrifying and sad experience; at other times, surprisingly joyful. The disease takes as many forms as there are individuals.

I learned that if you are truly present with someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there is the possibility of real communication. But you have to approach the person without the need for standard logic. As an artist, I weave together disparate elements–time and space are rendered elastic. It wasn’t a leap to translate the “mind space” of someone with dementia into something visual.

In a tangible way, the Memory Bridge experience opened me up to new materials. Previously, I’d been painting on vintage topographical maps, but used few other collage elements. The responsibility to capture fragments of memory, of fantasies and scraps of (quite poetic) dialogue, led me to clip directly from old books. Attempting to render the “collaged” mental state of a person with dementia led me toward the kind of internal artistic logic I was seeking.

You’ve described your work as being “puzzles”, a phrase that implies a certain ambiguity or mystery. Yet the images themselves seem very specific–even if we’re not able to pinpoint the meaning of this or that image. What do you discover about your pictures when you work on them? What do you discover about your pictures when they’re completed?

I’m a believer in something Braque said: “The only thing of value in art is that which cannot be explained”. When I’m working, I trust intuition and fate . . . and mysterious accidents happen. The space between a bird’s wing and a turbine engine will suggest the shape of a fish. The words “Burning Springs” will, almost unbidden, peek through a collaged tangle of pipes and a wash of hot orange paint. I feel that I’ve discovered a visual language that allows for infinite connections, as well as the room in which to incorporate the microscopic and the cosmic. I allow the materials to guide me.

A few years ago, I was on a boat watching eddies trailing in the water. Looking up, I saw the same spiraling forms in the clouds. As I paint, I’m aware of fractal-like constructions–a rib cage and a birdcage; a snake and a river; the grid of a city and of windows at night–and I coax them into fruition.

After the works are complete, they take on a new life apart from me. Part of what I do as an artist is to pack each piece with an abundance of information, so that there’s no way I could recall all the various ingredients. Viewers often come up with multiple and often crystalline readings of the work. My primary goal is to create worlds that are utterly specific and completely open.

Josh Dorman at Mary Ryan Gallery

Josh Dorman, Crazy Traffic (2011), acrylic and antique maps on panel, 24″ x 24″; courtesy Mary Ryan Gallery

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I’ll admit it. What’s likely to set me posting on a regular basis is stuff that drives me nuts: political lightweights; navel-gazing hotties; and frat-boy avant-gardism. Anything that pimps art in the service of extra-aesthetic purpose. Nothing like high dudgeon to set a guy off, right? But this time around I’m posting because of love–love, that is, for art.

Josh Dorman’s collages–encyclopedic meditations on nature’s dizzying beneficence and humankind’s many and various foibles–have been on my radar for some time now. Over the years, the pieces have evolved from being diverting curiosities to impeccable displays of craft to a phantasmagoric cosmos given scope, breadth and life. The current show of collages, drawings and a lone animation at Mary Ryan Gallery is Dorman’s most fully articulated and assured to date. It’s a must-see, a two thumbs-up, an “if you must see one show this season . . .”–well, you get the point.

In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, novelist Nam Le writes of how Dorman “offers us . . . a shared illogic–that maunders like the mind, that honours its own eccentric questings, its pointless cataloguings, its rampant, fecund combinings.” In his response to my query–yes, I conducted the catalog interview–about what it means to be a twenty-first century artist taking inspiration from the likes of Bosch and Bruegel, Dorman responds:

“I can’t change my paintings to fit into some kind of contemporary art ‘slot’. The art I care about most is old . . . I don’t believe there’s ‘progress’ in art. A Byzantine mosaic is as glitteringly alive now as the day it was made.”

The Dorman exhibition runs until October 22nd.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Dynamic Duo

sfl17

Pat Lay, SFL4OVO #17 (2010), collaged digital images on Epson archival paper mounted on archival museum board with MDF and wood backing, 85″ x 60″; courtesy Sideshow Gallery

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What is it with Rich Timperio and duos? Timperio–painter, arts impresario and Williamsburg pioneer–has made a specialty of mounting two-person exhibitions at Sideshow, the gallery he opened in 1999.

(In the interest of full disclosure: Timperio has included my work in the last few editions of Sideshow’s winter group exhibitions.)

Sideshow is a good-sized space, though not as encompassing as some of the hangar-like Chelsea spaces we could name, and decidedly hamish in tone: No attitude at the front desk. On a mission to provide “a stage for unseen work”, Timperio dedicates significant exhibition space to mid-career artists who can’t otherwise get a fair shake in a scene that values blue chip merchandise, youngsters fresh out of art school and not much in-between. Why Timperio has made a habit of pairing artists is anyone’s guess. But you know what? He’s got a knack for it.

Take Sideshow’s current exhibition featuring Theresa Ellerbock and Pat Lay. Their work would seem to have little in common. Ellerbock trades in material nuance: paper and fabric are stitched together in geometric arrangements so gently stated–so fragile, really–they barely qualify as geometry at all. Lay’s totem-like sculptures and digital collages don’t abjure tactility, but, instead, coolly yoke it to a post-Dadaist Futurism: imagine Metropolis as funneled through the age of virtual reality. My initial response upon seeing this mismatched pair was:  What the hell is Timperio thinking?

But first glances lead to second glances and second glances to second thoughts, all of which ultimately revealed deep-seated correspondences–between structure and pattern, between piecemeal construction, compositional intricacy, frontal compositions and technology, both confirmed (Ellerbock’s insistence on the textural integrity of materials) and subverted (Lay’s contriving Persian carpets, or something like them anyway, from reproductions of computer motherboards).

In the end, Ellerbock and Lay bounce off the other in ways that are surprising, enlivening and not a little quirky. Give the ladies a hand. But don’t forget Timperio, who divined commonalities that do both artists proud.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Al Souza at Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Tip Tops ReduxAl Souza, Tip Tops Redux (2007), acrylic, puzzle parts and glue on wood, 28″ x 24″; courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery

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The best Gerhard Richter painting extant isn’t by Gerhard Richter. It’s not even a painting—or, rather, it’s mostly not a painting. It’s a collage by Al Souza, whose recent work is at Pavel Zoubok Gallery.


As with the majority of pieces on display, Tip Tops Redux is an abstraction cobbled together from store-bought puzzles, the kind of thing you put together while visiting Aunt Helen on a Sunday afternoon. Except this time around, Souza has superimposed whiplash slurs of glossy acrylic paint. Keying into the puzzle’s color range, he achieves a tenuous detente between the two divergent media, between two modes of representation, really. Tip Tops Redux has the photomechanical sheen and slippery disconnected space of a vintage Richter, albeit without the theoretical backstory. That, and it’s kind of silly. Souza is an affable artist.

[sic] is the title of the exhibition, a literary conceit that should (or so it is suggested) reassure viewers who might wonder if Souza is capable of putting together a coherent puzzle version of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte. The stately couple that anchors that masterwork can be seen veering toward the upper left corner of Souza’s Last Impressions in near vicinity of fleeting snippets from Renoir, the Mona Lisa and Hasbro knows what else.

Unlike Jess, the Bay Area artist who employed dye-cut puzzles to conjure dream-like panoramas, Souza is interested in sensation, not narrative. Puzzles are meticulously layered and reconfigured into expansive, all-over fields of pictorial incident. Images are discernible—crayons, bowls of cherries, macaws and candy canes figure in the work—but don’t detract from the artist’s Pop-wise brand of Colorfield painting. Pulsing, effusive rhythms and overripe colors, fireworks of saturated colors, define the work.

Accompanying the puzzle works are a suite of muted, cut-paper collages inspired by the musical strategies of John Cage and Edward Curtis’ silver gelatin photographs of Native Americans. How much knowing the aforementioned information will bolster your appreciation of a near abstraction like Clayoquot (Edward Curtis American Indians series) is an open question. Still, there’s no denying the rarified air of Dadaist caprice and intimations of historical gravitas.

While these pieces are less generous in temper than the puzzle abstractions, nor as involved in terms of construction, they are subtler, more haunting and, or so it seems, promising. It’s Souza’s newest body of work and a reason to look forward to his further elaborations on the art of collage.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 3, 2011 edition of City Arts.


James Barsness at George Adams Gallery

James Barsness, The Temptation of St. Anthony (2010), acrylic and gold leaf on paper mounted on canvas, 11-3/4″ x 10-1/4″; courtesy George Adams Gallery

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On a recent class trip to The Cloisters, not a few of my students found themselves transfixed by The Master of Belmonte’s Saint Michael, a painting from 15th-century Spain. They were especially taken with the creature on which the title figure stands: the Anti-Christ, a slithering mélange of faces, fauna and rotting flesh. This over-the-top visage gave these burgeoning artists pause. The readership of Juxtapoz would love this painting (I was told), even as it was admitted that The Master of Belmonte’s demon was more convincing than any tattoo seen in recent memory. Why, they wondered, was that?

A similar question nags at the work of James Barsness, whose recent collaged-and-painted pictures are on view at George Adams Gallery. Why don’t his jumbles of Biblical portent, Boschian grotesquery and ornamental excess make good on their sources? Barsness is clearly conversant with art history and just as clearly a card. He’s a 21st-century artist, after all. Who’s to blame him for taking equal inspiration from Warner Brothers cartoons and the underground artist S. Clay Wilson?

Would that the resulting images were as elastic as Daffy Duck, as icky as Wilson’s unseemly preoccupations or as convincing as either. Barsness’ work never transcends its stylistic and material variousness; pastichery it remains. Pictorial tics gleaned from illuminated manuscripts, graffiti, Himalayan icons, Duccio and Spanish comic books (slapdash accumulations of which serve as grounds upon which Barsness’ figures are splayed) are paraded about, but not endowed with life.

Fraught subjects like The Temptation of St. Anthony, The Temptation of Jesus In The Desert and, um, Lady With The Pill Box Hat don’t rise above the status of learned goofs. If Barsness’ work proves anything, it’s that enthusiasm isn’t the same thing as faith—which goes some way toward explaining why he remains in the shadow of The Master of Belmonte.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 4, 2011 edition of City Arts.

Lily Landes

Lily Landes, Untitled (2011), collage, 6″ x 6″; courtesy of the artist

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Anyone can make a good collage. That’s a friend’s opinion–a joke, really–but I know what she means. The pictorial frisson resulting from the juxtaposition of disparate source materials is all but a given and easier to achieve than when putting oil to canvas or pencil to paper. But just when you think that anybody with a glue stick, scissors and a pile of magazines qualifies as an artist, someone comes along and proves that art is as much about magic as it is about media, that automatic effects don’t count for much if they don’t embody something greater than their means.

What it is that Lily Landes’ collage embodies, I’m not sure. All I know is that within her silky runs of white, grainy textures and precisely orchestrated elements, something uncanny occurs.  The image could be read as an evocation of recent events in Japan, but that’s not the case: Landes created the piece weeks before the terrible tsunami hit. I should know–she made it in my class.

Not to fret: I don’t plan on displaying everything my students produce. Besides, I can’t take much credit here given that Lily exhibited a penchant for collage before she signed up for my course. All the same, sometimes a homework assignment is more than a homework assignment. This is one of those times.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Romare Bearden at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Romare Bearden

Romare Bearden; courtesy The Romare Bearden Foundation

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Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s upcoming “centennial celebration” of the American artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) will, by definition, count as a must-see. For reasons I’ve elaborated upon here and here, Bearden’s example becomes increasingly pivotal as we collectively stumble into a bewildering and Balkanized twenty-first century. For additional insight into Bearden’s genius–not too strong a word, I think, given the scope and depth of his achievement–there’s “A Great Day (And Night) in Harlem”, a lovely essay by the poet David Yezzi from the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Ann Shostrom at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

InsurgencyAnn Shostrom, Insurgency (2006), cotton, synthetics, dyes, acrylic, wax resist, bleach and dye prints, 68″ x 116″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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If Robert Rauschenberg had been capable of more than feckless expertise he might have come up with art similar to that of Ann Shostrom. Like Rauschenberg, Shostrom fearlessly mixes media, reaffirms the grid as structural arbiter and riffs on Pop culture with fond disregard. At which point, neo-dadaist assemblage is left in the dust by an encompassing, head-over-heels embrace of allusion. Employing, embroidering and juxtaposing fabrics–dyed and not, stitched, patterned and frittered away through often caustic processes–Shostrom traverses East and West, camouflage and tie-dye, street art, the New York School and grandma’s doilies. The headiest pieces–Insurgency, Firestorm and the ineffable Secret Sharer Parts 1 and 2–transcend their patchwork nature through expanses of sumptuous color and an attention to surface that is tender, roughhewn and (let’s call it for what it is) sexy.

© 2011 Mario Naves