Contemporary artists are updating the modernist tradition with new tactics and new media
The nomination of Laure Prouvost for the 2013 Turner Prize hinged on her installation at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in March. The work’s highlight was a 72-foot-long panoramic canvas studded with found black-and-white photographs, crudely cut painted fragments, and flat-screen TVs emitting filmed clips of toes wiggling in crystal-clear water and blurry mouths opening and closing in breath.
The circular, classical-looking structure, titled Farfromwords (2013), had an opening that funneled visitors toward a viewing area that screened the video work Swallow (2013), an extended handling of Prouvost’s filmed vignettes wherein staccato cuts train the eye toward berries, bathing beauties, chirping birds, hungry fish, and a woman swimming through a natural pool while holding a pineapple to the crown of her head. Prouvost’s dreamlike montage is set to a soundtrack of heavy breathing and a whispery voice (the artist’s own), uttering occasional statements or directives, such as “The birds are eating the raspberries” and “Swallow this.”
Reflecting on the London-based French artist’s six-month residency in Italy, the multisensory collage transmits the wide variety of what she saw and experienced during her stay. Collage offered an ideal conduit for Prouvost, says Whitechapel curator Daniel Herrmann. It enabled the artist (who cites Merz founder and collage enthusiast Kurt Schwitters as a major influence) to create an immersive, high-impact artwork that nods at the ways in which we share and consume experiences today.
“The culture that we live in has become such a sort of cut-and-paste culture,” Herrmann points out. “Collage has become a representative for that state of cultural production. At the same time, I think it transcends it. It offers an alternative to an ever-shifting, ever-fluid image world and reminds people of tactility, texture, and the reality of the world we live in—a unique approach that visual art can offer that digital media does not convey.”
Collage and assemblage can also be characterized as ways “to experience information simultaneously,” says Laura Hoptman, a curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art—which may be truer to our real-time experiences of people, places, and information than ever before.
This kind of “horizontal cloud of information,” as Hoptman calls it, is perceptible in work by such artists as Isa Genzken, whose first retrospective is on view at MoMA through March 10. Genzken’s assemblage-centric oeuvre includes a broken slot machine plastered with snapshots taken of and by friends; abstract sculptures made from pushcarts, fabric, furniture, and plastic plants; and mirrors coated with brightly colored tape and reproductions of Old Master paintings. It’s information overload rendered in tactile, three-dimensional form. And it’s a wider-reaching approach that Hoptman sees as characteristic of collage in the 21st century. Collage bridges media, flattens time, and reaches out beyond what immediately surrounds us.
Indeed, many contemporary artists are using the technique to confront image culture in the modern world, with its barrage of rapidly spreading, often pixelated simulacra that seep into our consciousness hundreds (if not thousands) of times a day. Video artist Ryan Trecartin is one practitioner often cited as a pioneer of this type of thinking and esthetic. His frenetic, acid-hued videos, digital collages, and installations are described as visual manifestations of the Internet itself—riffing on the out-there, free-associative hodgepodge that is our browser history at the end of each day.
Cameron Gray is another devoté. In June, Gray showed a series of collage and assemblage works at Mike Weiss Gallery in New York, in which LCD flat screens looping sampled GIFs were inserted into static images that were also sourced from the Web. C-prints like I Want to Be the One to Walk in the Sun (2013) were mounted on gallery walls with pushpins over embedded flat screens emitting kaleidoscopic digital collages revealed through strategic cutouts (in this case, a buxom model’s bikini top and bottom). Larger, denser, more assemblage-based works wildly mixed lights, paper cutouts, streaks of Day-Glo paint, and GIF-laden screens.
The effect, when taken as a whole, is nearly abstract—a 21st-century riff on Clement Greenberg’s edge-free preference in painting, now sourced from YouTube, Tumblr, and dump.fm, an online junkyard for user-generated JPEGs and clips. It is all somewhat performative in that sense, too. Gray speaks of his process as a coping mechanism, an exercise that allows him to give physical form to the act of linking, scanning, surfing, and tumbling deep down the online rabbit hole. There’s also an element of discovery, of show-and-tell. As an artist, “I spend a lot of time isolated,” Gray explains. “I get excited when I find something weird or unexpected. And I love that the esthetic is informed by others. It’s the esthetic of others—the esthetic that’s happening on the Web.”
Gray says that he has always seen his approach to art as “reacting to the culture that’s already there”—and none is quite as “there” today as the inherent patchwork that is the Internet. But it’s not simply the migration of images from one medium (magazines, for instance) to another that these artists are mining. It’s an image culture created by the people, for the people—one in which amateurs can participate as never before. He points out that, with all that’s out there, “you could find yourself influenced by some 15-year-old kid.”
In “Still,” his most recent solo exhibition at the Elizabeth Dee gallery in New York, Ryan McNamara explored this user-generated facet of image culture—a kind of self-perpetuated 15 minutes of fame. The artist, who used to work primarily in performance, spent the first half of the six-week 2012 show staging impromptu photo shoots with gallery visitors, encouraging them to create playful postures and compositions. After three weeks, he repurposed his props and patterned the backgrounds as art-making surfaces, peppering them with fractured and saturated cutouts of his viewers-turned-models-turned-decoupage.
McNamara’s project is a nod to the ways in which imagery is not only consumed but created in the Instagram age, bringing to mind Time magazine’s gimmicky but prescient 2006 Person of the Year: you. It’s an idea that Jeff Koons, too, seems to have broached in his recent work, especially his ongoing series of large-scale photorealist paintings. The collaged compositions feature, among other things, images of Koons’s own sculptures, which are themselves elements of today’s image culture.
For other artists working in collage, the more traditional news media remain a source of perpetual fascination, both online and in their increasingly rare print form—a basic attribute of collage that dates back to Picasso’s early-20th-century penchant for snipping away at his copy of Le Journal and Hannah Höch’s Dadaist constructions (a wide selection of which will be on view at her first U.K. retrospective, opening at the Whitechapel on January 15). News today, of course, is an entirely different matter. “A lot of artists are taking into account the global nature of information,” says Hoptman. Not to mention our increasingly global perception of the world itself.
“We live in the age of not only digital culture but of multiculturalism,” says New York dealer Pavel Zoubok, whose gallery deals exclusively with work rooted in collage and assemblage. “We live in the age of interdisciplinary theory and studies. Everything about the way we function now is sort of innately collaged.” That kind of hybridity lies at the very core of Wangechi Mutu’s work. The Nairobi-born, Brooklyn-based artist is best known for what she calls her “collage queens”—life-size tableaux featuring woman-animal hybrids intricately spun from magazine clippings and Mutu’s own sinewy lines. As of late, Mutu’s signature technique has become an agent for migrating between media as well—first to sculpture, then film, now animation.
Mutu debuted her first animated piece in “Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey,” a touring survey of her work organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and currently on view through March 9 at the Brooklyn Museum. Titled The End of eating Everything, the eight-minute film features the electro-pop artist Santigold as an omnivorous creature who preys on anything that enters her path. The singer’s hair is animated as slithering serpentine braids; her head is perched on an armless trunk covered with a kind of iridescent plaque not unlike the inkblots used between patchwork swaths of collage in Mutu’s two-dimensional renderings.
Mutu’s oeuvre also achieves something long characteristic of collage: inherent sociopolitical critique, both in what she’s representing (an insolent, all-consuming species; transnational hybrids, not unlike herself) and what she’s using to do so (fragments sourced from World of Interiors, National Geographic, and Vogue).
Mark Bradford is well known for injecting this kind of content and critique into his large-scale collage-based work as well, collecting paper scraps from underprivileged communities and splicing them together into bold and powerful abstract tableaux—pieces that dominate the spaces in which they’re installed, pieces that are exceedingly difficult to overlook.
Creating her own kind of social puzzles, Pittsburgh-based artist Vanessa German makes what she calls “Power Figures”: totemic mashups of African sculptures, found toys, and other miscellaneous detritus (telephones, hand mirrors, seashells, guns, small white porcelain Lladró-like figurines, tiny plastic watermelons). Propped up on various types of pedestals, from toy horses to small scales, the objects test her viewers’ perceptions of the black body—the body beautiful, the body in performance, the body standing tall—all the while creating a dialogue between past, present, and what’s yet to come.
In Chicago, John Sparagana manipulates the tactility of printed media. He discovered that if he pressed and kneaded and shoved magazine and newspaper pages into his backpack for long enough, they took on the look and feel of disintegrating flesh. They became “something very fragile, something organic, something that had some physical density to it,” he says.
At first, Sparagana would tediously splice and weave together multiple copies of the pages to create delicate tapestries. Initially, he focused on fashion editorial images and ads—pristine, carefully contrived compositions that he could effectively age and disrupt through his paper-fatiguing technique. But more recently, he has been shifting his target source material to images from the news—plucking photojournalistic shots of politicians or protestors or countries at war and even splicing them at times with reproductions of modernist masterworks to create new formal relationships. He has also started to paint two or three copies of his source images red and/or white before weaving them into a whole piece. The technique creates specters of statesmen and militants, visible to us only through lo-fi static haze.
“The formal idea is always in the service of activating the viewer’s relationship with image culture,” says Sparagana, who will exhibit a selection of new collages in a solo exhibition at Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey up until January 25. His goal, he adds, is to “shift the terms from information to a poetic condition.”
Collage technique and tradition are naturally suited to commenting on politics or culture because the genre is formally connected to “disparity, upheaval of rupture,” says Zoubok. In that sense, Martha Rosler’s iconic 1960s- and ’70s-era photomontages of housewives vacuuming while American troops invade Vietnam immediately come to mind. As do Mutu’s collaged heroines, their flesh often composed of pornographic, ethnographic, and hip hop–centric portrayals of black women. “It’s the language of that—the language of rupture,” Zoubok adds. “And it is a kind of inherently poetic medium.”
It can also be a witty medium. Collage has long been associated with humor too. Urs Fischer’s “Problem Paintings” are screenprints on aluminum wherein knobby root vegetables and crinkled cigarette butts are plastered disruptively atop vintage Hollywood head shots. And John Stezaker, an influential figure in postmodern British art, succinctly cuts and splices film stills and other found imagery. His wry, almost Cubist compositions fuse mismatched features, bodies, landscapes, and limbs—seizing cheeky, strange, and unexpected visual bridges and connections in ways and places others might not even consider. His hybrids include a showgirl-slash-cowboy and a chiseled head of industry sharing a face, a head, and an upper body with his maid. Collage can say it all.
Rachel Wolff is an art writer, editor, and film producer based in Brooklyn.