Who knows why an artist is compelled to collage? The reasons can be as highbrow as an homage to the Dadaists, as basic as a way to test the possibilities of Photoshop, or as ordinary as a destination for the found materials that tend to accumulate in the corners of creative studios. For Brooklyn-based artist James Gallagher, the discovery of the medium two decades ago happened entirely by chance. As an art-school grad and a new dad, Gallagher writes in the preface to Cutting Edges — the book he curated earlier this year for Gestalten — “I had little time to get to the print shop (let alone anywhere else) so for one particular project, I began cutting apart old prints and piecing them together to form a new composition. The results completely reinvigorated my creativity…. There was something truly cathartic about stripping images down to their simplest form and then building them back up again.”
That kind of assemblage art can be traced all the way from Georges Braque to Robert Rauschenberg, but Gallagher makes the case that collage is the perfect medium for our time. “On our streets, in our stores, and across our glowing computer and TV screens, images and information swirl around us at a faster pace than ever before — and the sheer magnitude of these images and information is relentless. From the bottomless archives of sites like Flickr to the printed material piling up around us, collage is all about the recycling, reinterpretation and reprocessing of our collective past, present and future. Today’s collage artists carve out fragments from this frenzy and force the disparate pieces to become one. It is their way of controlling the chaos — or at least pushing the pause button long enough for examination.”
Gallagher first brought together these modern-day examples in late 2009, when he curated an exhibition for the Cinders gallery in Brooklyn, based upon an archive folder he’d been compiling for years of artists whose work he liked. When Gestalten approached him to turn the exhibition into a book, he took the opportunity to find and engage with a whole new batch of artists who aspire to turn the vernacular into art. We reached out to seven of those artists and asked them to explain both where their source material comes from and what inspires their work in the medium.
Julien Pacaud, Psychokinesis Club (top) and Geometric Parade (above): “I work with old magazines or vintage pictures I find on the net, and everything is done digitally. I can’t really remember where the images I used for these two pieces came from, but I put a lot of trust in instinct and randomness, and I like to play with accidents. So the origins of the sources I use are not the main interest for me; it’s rather the emotions they can convey while being associated with other images.”
James Gallagher, Domestic 2: “I collect tons of photographic imagery. I have flat files, bins, and shoeboxes full of paper, tearsheets, and scraps separated by size. And stacks of books everywhere: vintage photo books, sex manuals, clothing catalogs, textbooks and anything else that can be folded into my world. I usually paste down shapes to form backdrops for my scenes, then start placing figures onto them. The compositions usually come together quickly, without any preplanning. And to tell you the truth, I’m never quite sure what will happen.”
Jelle Martens, Natuur: “The material here is an old book I found in the attic, and the biggest inspiration was actually the texture of the photos and the hardcover of the book (the green pieces you see in this piece). At the time, I was very into geometric forms and this combination seems to be perfect. First I scanned the photos and manually cut and pasted to see what worked and what didn’t. Finally I searched for the perfect combination between every color, every form, every line. Today collages are about just cutting and pasting and seeing what happen. But I thought it better to think about and place them in a more static style.”
Malin Gabriella Nordin, Stones, Part Two: “I usually use fashion magazines for my collages because they have the most images with interesting textures or patterns. But when I go to flea markets, I often find these books of stone collections. Sometimes when I buy the books I think they are too nice to cut up, so if I do cut stones out, I save the remaining pages here. In my work, I’m trying to create my own ideas and rules about things I can’t understand, so as to not feel so small. Sometimes I try to imagine objects and surroundings with no actual boundaries, with all of the atoms and molecules blending together, and then I make new shapes from them, or put them together in a different way.”
Valerie Roybal, Which We Desire: “I often work with layered surfaces: pieces from discarded books and magazines, antique postcards, handwritten letters and recipes, obsolete reference material, thrift store textiles, and mysterious random objects. Order, association, and reverence emerge from the collecting, sorting, and placement of each piece into a whole. I’m particularly fond of rescuing discarded and donated old books from my local library, which sells these books at a low cost to raise funds for more ‘modern’ books. I tend to work quickly and intuitively, working on several pieces at the same time. I don’t linger, but work composition out through trial and error. Hence, there are many, many layers, some of them hidden from view, in each piece.”
Mira Ruido, Lost: “I use two primary sources to find the material you see in my works: old magazines and the internet. You can find the first ones in your grandmother’s house or you can buy big packs of them in eBay, but in this case I found the photos I needed on the web. There are great sources of royalty-free and public domain old photos on the net and there I found that kid with that great sad face. I just wanted to express that terrible feeling of getting lost, alone, far from of the skirt of your mother, in a place you don’t know.”
Vincent Pacheco, Untitled: “I’m drawn to the idea of de-collage, where I’m tearing away at images instead of adding to them. There’s something really natural about it. It’s a process of letting go and embracing accidents and nature and the unknown. It’s often hard to predict how the paper will tear way, and what image will be left behind in the end. This work is part of a larger series where I’ve been questioning my role in artmaking, and whether or not I am being too heavy-handed in the process. I’ve been trying to set up a situation where there is less trace of me in the work. A situation that leans more towards a collaboration between me and the universe.”
Excerpted from Cutting Edges: Contemporary Collage. Copyright 2011 by the authors and published with permission from Gestalten.