Collagists and assemblagists gain new respect
by Zack Stentz
Chopping up existing works of art and rearranging their components to create new meaning is the quintessential late-20th-century mode of expression, which can be seen manifested in everything from the billboard ad for a pricey gin to the artfully “cut-up” wordplay of William Burroughs to the manic musical samplings of a rap song.
So given the ubiquitous presence of the cut-up aesthetic in modern life, why isn’t collage–and its three-dimensional cousin, assemblage–taken more seriously in artistic circles? “Oh, that’s simple,” says San Francisco collagist Winston Smith. “If you don’t know how it’s done, it looks easy.”
“There’s definitely the ‘I could do that’ reaction from some people,” agrees Mendocino County assemblagist Joanne Stephens.
What these armchair artists don’t realize is that while it may be easy to glue random objects onto a board or slice away and rearrange photographs from some fashion magazine, to actually invest these recycled images with new meaning is another matter entirely. “I go through literally thousands of images looking for ones that are the right size and position for juxtaposing,” Smith says of the work that goes into his disturbing, often pointedly political works. “And I often paint around the edges to make the images match better.”
Smith specializes in taking the “Golden Age of America” images from popular magazines of the 1950s–happy housewives, pipe-smoking dads, atomic space cars–and rearranging them into disturbing tableaus of dreams broken and power abused. His work has heavily influenced an entire generation of up-and-coming collage artists, who encountered his collages on the album covers and concert posters of their favorite punk rock bands. “I first saw his work when I was in high school down in Orange County, listening to the Dead Kennedys,” says fellow San Francisco collagist Robert Reger, whose works will be exhibited with Smith’s at a one-night-only collage-themed art show Dec. 13. “The whole look of it has been a really big influence on me.”
Reger’s own work often mixes collage with conventional painting techniques to create more abstract images. “I’ll start by making an abstract painting and then collaging into it,” Reger says of his creations, which sometimes resemble the fantastic backgrounds of William Blake with the flotsam and jetsam of everyday industrial life superimposed upon them.
If anything, expect too see even more artists jumping on the collage bandwagon, as the advent of image-manipulating computer software such as Illustrator and Photoshop has made snatching, altering and juxtaposing pictures all the more accessible, though Smith and Reger both eschew the technology in their own work. And according to Smith, the object of all this high-tech manipulation often has been to artificially create the look of the old-fashioned handmade collage. “Photoshop has made collage really easy,” Smith says, “and what you see in some magazine ads is the artists using the computer to artificially give the image a cut-up look. The ‘Mr. Jenkins’ Tanqueray Gin ads are a perfect example of that.”
But Smith does see at least one use for the new technology. “I’d like to be able to use color copying and Photoshop to scan images, so I won’t have to cut them all out,” he says. “Because the magazines I use are getting more and more rare, and I really feel bad slicing them up.”
In a way, the San Francisco show (appropriately titled Queezenart) represents the higher profile and increased respect being accorded to collage art. Smith’s work has gone from appearing on rather obscure albums to gracing the cover of Green Day’s latest million-seller, Insomniac, and appearing regularly in publications such as UtneReader and Spin. Smith tentatively is set to participate in a collage and xerography show scheduled for 1997 at San Francisco’s Lawrence L. Hultberg Fine Art gallery. “I have friends who do collage, and I do collage. I’ve always liked it,” says Hultberg, who is currently exhibiting the work of Stephens and other assemblagists in a show titled “Assemblage Barrage.”
Comparing the two art forms, Hultberg says: “Collage has never had the same status as assemblage, even though they have a lot in common.”
And according to Stephens, it’s only appropriate that San Francisco be the location for assemblage’s revival, given the key role the area played in its birth. “Assemblage was very big in the 1950s, especially in the Bay Area, which is as it should be, given that it’s really the first all-American art form,” she says. “It’s been coming back strongly in the last few years. I’ve seen a lot of people doing assemblage in the Bay Area, in Los Angeles, and even in Orange County.”
Stephens’ own work has garnered much media attention, especially the 7-foot-tall “Altar to Elvis” she constructed, which accompanied the popular traveling art exhibit devoted to Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe (currently showing at the San Jose Museum of Art). “People really responded to that piece,” Stephens says. “It ended up getting photographed for the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure front page and for an airline magazine as well.”
Like Smith (the two artists are friends), Stephens draws upon the imagery of post-World War II American popular culture (plastic soldiers, automobile parts, Elvis Presley, etc.), but her work often veers heavily into the darkly symbolic realm of medieval religious iconography. “I’ve been really interested in Madonnas lately,” Stephens says, referring to the mother of Jesus rather than the dance-pop chanteuse. “And some of my pieces end up looking almost like ancient Russian Orthodox images, even though I’m using modern sources.”
As to the growing appeal of collage and assemblage in the culture at large, Stephens can only say: “As an art form, it’s very reflective of our consumer culture, which is so dominant.”
“And,” she adds, in a particularly 1990s spin, “it uses recycling.”