Tag Archives: Collage

Collage Comes to Katonah

Mario Naves

Mario Naves, Hopes and Wishes Received (2010), acrylic and photograph on paper, 17″ x 11-1/4″; courtesy The International Collage Center, Milton, PA

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I’m pleased to announce that a work of mine will be on view in Remix: Selections from the International Collage Center, an exhibition at The Katonah Museum of Art. The show opens on June 30 and runs until October 13, 2013. Click here for more information.

By Popular Demand: Hannah Höch

Hannah Hoch 6Self-Portrait by Hannah Hoch, 1926

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Nothing at Too Much Art has received as much traffic in recent weeks as my review of The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, an exhibition seen at The Museum of Modern Art in 1997. Operating under the rubric of “Give The People What They Want”, I hereby present Dada’s “good girl”.

There is a gratifying modesty in how The Photomontages of Hannah Höch at the Museum of Modern Art has been properly, if not perfectly, scaled to its subject. Hannah Höch (1889–1978) was the sole woman artist associated with Berlin Dada, a group known for its strident politics and anti-art stance. In contrast to renowned Dadaists such as George Grosz and John Heartfield, Höch has been, until recently, a modernist footnote. At the time of her death in 1978, she was remembered as the “Bobhaired Muse of the Men’s Club” and, most infamously, the “good girl” of Dada, a moniker given to her by the artist Hans Richter. The exhibition at MOMA attempts to correct this dubious recognition by spotlighting the work for which she is best known, and though the hundred or so photomontages on view are as small in scope as they are in size, they are not negligible. While The Photomontages of Hannah Höch does not reveal a major talent, it does show us why Höch is an artist worth considering in the first place.

This is, of course, seeing the glass half full rather than half empty. Yet at a time when marginal artists are hyped with claims that have little to do with art, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is, as an exhibition of pictures, the equivalent of straight talk. Indeed, the curators’ focus—which, by its very nature, excludes Höch’s paintings, drawings and watercolors—involves something resembling connoisseurship. Admittedly, the resuscitation of Höch’s career owes much to feminist art history, and the catalogue underscores (in the jargonistic parlance of the times) her “poignant commentaries on the strains and confusions caused by culturally exacted gender performances.” One doesn’t have to be an ideologue to find the “good girl” tag belittling, but politics is never a good reason for salvaging (or judging) art. If a few reputable artists have been rescued from oblivion because of their race, gender, or what have you, then we are less blessed than lucky. So it is with Hannah Höch.

Hannah Höch, Cut With The Kitchen Knife Through The Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany (1919-1920), photomontage and collage with watercolor, 44-7/8″ x 35-7/16″; courtesy Staatliche Museeun Zu Berlin

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Just how much the revitalization of Höch’s reputation is due to extra-aesthetic matters can be divined from the attention bestowed upon the large collage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919–20). With its snipped and jumbled photos of politicians, artists and entertainers, Cut with the Kitchen Knife is a bona fide artifact of the Dadaist epoch. The title alone is fraught with enough symbolism to launch a dozen thesis papers. (Cut with the Kitchen Knife did, in fact, serve as the title of a recent study of the photomontages.) In her catalogue essay, Maria Makela pinpoints the work’s imagery—from Marx and Lenin to Pola Negri and Kathe Kollwitz to a map of Europe that identifies the countries in which women were able to vote—and makes a kind of sense of it, though scant attention is paid to it as a work of art. And, as such, Cut with the Kitchen Knife is a mess. Physically, it has not held up well; the piece’s discolored and mottled surfaces suggest a work that once had graphic power. As it is, Höch’s composition—or, should one say, non-composition—is diffuse. Portions of it are funny, but they don’t coalesce into anything consequential; it lacks the basic armature a good joke requires. What seems a jolting piece of propaganda is, finally, a dissipated rebus. The appeal of Cut with the Kitchen Knife to contemporary taste may be precisely this fragmentary quality. There are, it would seem, few things more validating for a confused culture than a confused work of art.

Cut with the Kitchen Knife is the largest and most overtly political of Höch’s photomontages. Yet both its scale and “content” were alien to her sensibility. Most of the collages are small—“intimate” is not an inappropriate word—and without the vitriol typical of Berlin Dada. A German critic described the photomontages as being “skeptical in an almost tender way” and this seems about right. For Höch never took great interest in expounding an anti-art agenda. “A clear aesthetically resolved statement” (as the artist had it) was important to Höch. It is noteworthy that not until 1929, almost ten years after the First International Dada Fair, did she feel confident in exhibiting her photomontages publicly. During this time Höch was not completely convinced of photomontage’s viability as an art form and exhibited, albeit sporadically, only her paintings and textile designs. Nonetheless she found within its “traditionless” parameters an artistic and imaginative freedom absent from her other work.

Hannah Hoch #2

Hannah Höch, Watched (1925), cut-and-pasted printed paper on printed paper, 10-1/8″ x 6-3/4″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Although the philosophy of Dada didn’t altogether jibe with Höch’s world view, the movement itself was an essential catalyst for her art. She clearly benefited, artistically if not emotionally, from being in proximity to the “men’s club.” Höch’s vision, however, was not fueled by anger or despair. What emerges from the photomontages is a sly and not ungentle intellect with a deft eye for design and a love for absurdist disjunction. She was a quirky miniaturist at the beginning of what seemed, at the time, an impossibly big century. The century turned out to be bigger (and more impossible) than anyone in 1920 could have predicted, and if some of Höch’s collages seem dated it isn’t due to yellowing newsprint alone; the fractured juxtapositions of scale, image, and text in the photomontages have long been a part of our cultural life. The artist (and Höch’s one-time lover) Raoul Hausmann, writing in 1931, griped that photomontage was rapidly being shanghaied by commercial and political interests. In this respect, he was prophetic—more than he could ever imagine, in fact. If the edge in Höch’s work has dulled a bit, her portrayal of the new century—dizzying and open to possibility and paradox—is often still exhilarating. It is impossible, for instance, not to read the rush of overlapping images in The Beautiful Girl (1919–20) or Untitled (1921), with its glamour girl spinning atop a turntable, as anything but paeans, albeit acerbic ones, to a world in flux.

Höch’s works of the early 1920s are impeccably constructed and the best of them is High Finance (1923). Here we are presented with a surfeit of images: an aerial photograph of the Ausstellungsgelände and Jahrhunderthalle in Breslau; British chemist Sir John Herschel; machine parts; a truck riding over a tire clipped, one imagines, from an advertisement; the red-white-and-black striped flag of the empire; and a double-barreled shotgun. With its provocative scraps of imagery, High Finance can be read as a satirical comment on industrialism and power. Yet what makes the collage truly memorable is, for example, how the graphic slickness of the oversized rifle offsets and dominates the grainy photographs of the piece’s two main figures or how the ball bearing at the bottom left corner serves as the collage’s anchor. Höch snaps her units of information into place and the results positively hum. (The dead-on stability and rhythmic counterpoints of the composition would have impressed Mondrian.) High Finance is neither novelty nor propaganda; it is an expertly executed work of art and Höch’s masterpiece.

Hoch 4

Hannah Höch, High Finance (1923), photomontage, 36 cm. x 31 cm.; courtesy Galerie Berinson, Berlin

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High FinanceThe Beautiful Girl, and The Coquette I (1923–25), a sardonic depiction of courting that has the delicacy of a Persian miniature, all have Dadaist overtones. But the movement, such as it was, petered out in the early 1920s. Höch drifted away from her Dada contacts but not from the avant-garde. Friendships with Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Kurt Schwitters, Theo and Nelly van Doesburg, and Hans and Sophie Tauber Arp provided Höch with an artistic community more conducive to her temperament. “Hans Arp and Kurt Schwitters …” said Höch in a 1959 interview, “were rare examples of the kind of artist who can really treat a woman as a colleague.” (The Dadaists, more often than not, condescended to her.) Yet, the strongest influence—if that is, indeed, what we can call it—on Höch’s post-Dadaist work may have been National Socialism. The Nazi rise to power, and its concomitant antagonism toward “degenerate art,” were felt early on by Höch: a planned 1932 retrospective of her photomontages at the Dessau Bauhaus was canceled when the local wing of the party closed down the school. In 1939 Höch, keenly aware of the threat to “cultural bolshevists,” moved to Heiligensee, a suburb of Berlin, where she lived and worked in relative isolation until the end of the war.

It is little wonder, then, that Höch’s work of the 1930s and 1940s becomes increasingly private and prone to Surrealist reverie. These works are problematic in that Höch’s chopped up and rearranged figures had already become routine, rarely rising above the limits of a good formula. (There are, perhaps, one too many mismatched sets of eyeballs here.) While the work of this time is not as tight as the Dada-inspired collages, cumulatively, it makes Höch’s pressurized world felt. There are numerous moments of arresting weirdness—the floating, disembodied legs of Never Keep Both Feet on the Ground (1940), for example, approach the magical. The best of this group, The Accident (1936), however, is atypical. While it uses recognizable motifs—wagon wheels, baskets, and polka dot fabric—The Accident is, essentially, an abstraction. Its clunking, circular rhythms create the pictorial equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Höch would work abstractly again, primarily during the 1950s, but she never equaled the off-kilter beauty of The Accident.

Hannah Hoch 3

Hannah Höch, The Dream of His Life (1925), cut-and-pasted hand colored photographes and printed paper on paper, 11-3/4″ x 8-3/4″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The mistake the curators make is in trying to revamp Höch as a contemporary artist. It is surprising to learn that an artist associated with the Weimar Republic was also a contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg, and one sympathizes with Höch when, in 1976, she wearily states: “I’m sick and tired of Dada.” Many artists are unfairly stuck in historical brackets that limit our appreciation of their life’s work, but Höch is, well, fairly stuck. The most unsettling aspect of her postwar collages isn’t necessarily that they are bad. On the contrary, works like Synthetic Flowers (Propeller Thistles) (1952) and Burst Unity (1955) are accomplished, handsome, and utterly bland. Whether abstract or pseudo-Pop satires, the late photomontages are without bite or artistic necessity. Höch may well have flourished best in an artistic and historical context that made demands of her gifts. At a time when the heritage of Dada was being mainstreamed—courtesy of Rauschenberg, Pop, et al.—Höch was, at best, coasting. It is sad that the most “memorable” work here is also the most embarrassing, simply because it breaks out of the final gallery’s monotony. Homage to Riza Abasi (1963)—which juxtaposes the head of an Audrey Hepburn look-alike with the ample body of a belly dancer—is so simple-minded it would make a sophomore art student blush. It isn’t Dada-inspired so much as it is Dada-lite. Surely, the exhibition would have been better if it had ended with Dove of Peace (1945), a scary and incredulous take on world events, but such are curatorial prerogatives. Instead, we get a finale that is beside the point.

Despite the anticlimactic nature of the final gallery, The Photomontages of Hannah Höch is a welcome exhibition. If Höch’s work doesn’t elicit the intense pleasure we associate with the greatest art, its unassuming pleasures should not be dismissed. “Höch-watchers,” including the catalogue essayists, may use terms like “genius” and “dazzling” in describing the work, but these words are too strong for what is, in the end, a pretty good artist in a pretty good exhibition. Such a statement may be interpreted, in some quarters, as the merest chauvinism. Yet it is entirely possible to be a feminist and deplore the politicization of art. Privileging ideological intention over aesthetic fact results in little more than political placebos and diminished art—results, I daresay, Höch herself would have found questionable. Hannah Höch’s contribution to twentieth-century art is modest and solid. The crowds I attended the exhibition with seemed to be having a good time. We should take our cue from them and leave the proselytizers to fend for themselves.

© 1997 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 1997 edition of The New Criterion.

Shameless Self-Promotion, Part II

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I’m pleased to announce that my work is included in The Allure of Collage, a group exhibition at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art in Sarasota, Florida.  Click on this link for more information.

Shameless Self Promotion, Part One

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I’m pleased to announce that my work will be included in Revisions, a group exhibition at Trestle Gallery in Brooklyn. Please see the invitation above for more information–including the date and time of the opening reception.

© 2012 Mario Naves

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

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.

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