Entries in collage (8)
In the wake of recent police shootings of black young people, much attention has been paid to the Birmingham, Alabama riots of 1963 where fire hoses were used on high school students on civil rights marches. Theaster Gates has a series of works, Civil Tapestry, made from decommissioned fire hoses.
Powerful pieces these, minimalist colour field blocks at first glance, and then one starts to see the printed specs, usually telling us they have been tested to 450 lbs pressure, appalling to think of the impact of such pressure on the human body. Like the best minimalism, these pieces shout a big message: they are one thing, one material, with a complex political history.
Looking up 'decommissioned fire hose' one finds lots of tributes to those heroes that are fire fighters; the hoses also receive accolades: a snappy overnight bag/log carrier made out of opened-out used hose becomes a tribute to the hard work of the hose. 9/11 and front-line responders have shifted the political status of the firehose from a vicious instrument of urban street torture to a heroic signifier of bravery.
Gates' Civil Tapestries are similar to Rosalie Gascoigne's work: deceptively lush, these pieces, abstract and elegant, until one realises how freighted with social history the materials are. Highway signs and fire hoses – simply the colourful discards of everyday life until the context provided by the artist proves the materials neither neutral nor innocent, instead they become sinister.
Red-lining was, is, a practice whereby certain neighbourhoods are kept starved of services, where insurance is higher, where mortgages are never given. Part of USA National Housing Act policies of segregation in the 1930s, the red line indicated districts of no investment potential.
In this lull while On Site reivew 31: mapping | photography is being printed, forgive me if I am over-enthusiastic about Gestalten, a Berlin publisher of all things architecture and design, which I have just discovered. There is gestalten.tv, which these videos come from, there are stores, there are fonts, there is much to look at and think about.
This is an interview with John Stezaker on collage, which he sees as a subtraction of material rather than the building up of material usually attributed to it. And he comments on the sheer weight of images we live under, that the bombardment of images reveals an 'unconscious mythology' made evident. He works in film - this excerpt opens with a bit of one.
I've always thought in Stezaker's work there was more than a passing reference to the German collagists of the 1930s and 40s – Hannah Hoch for example, especially in Stezaker's use of images from that era, reassembled in an eery grotesque, but when he speaks about it, you get a different sense, of someone who is working almost as a photographer capturing moments where the scene suddenly assembles itself and speaks.
This is how many of us feel after the grant and essay submission deadlines of last week – the whole community of architects who write or curate exhibitions, or try for the Prix de Rome, and publishers of same, and then [brkt] setting its call for submissions deadline on the same day: it did a lot of people in.
James Gallagher feels (as quoted by Rick Poyner in 'Collage Now') that 'collage is the perfect medium for coming to terms with a culture saturated in images, both printed and online ... today's collage artists carve out fragments from this frenzy and force the disparate pieces to become one...' This is probably the definition of all art, that one accumulates things: ideas, marks, scraps of paper perhaps, maps, photos – everything trailing histories, accumulated meanings, ambitions and contexts – and then makes something out of them, in some other medium.
I doubt that fragments ever re-coalesce to 'become one' leaving their separateness behind. Rather they are used to force a metaphor that might have some sort of unity, but which is only effective if it is complex and layered enough to cut through the frenzy of information, images and ideas with which we are surrounded. But is this frenzy actually a frenzy, or is it just a very rich world we live in?
In previous times it was probably organised belief systems that sorted out our information for us; in a secular world lots of other things step in and on competing terrains of ideology and politics we are confused. We have always turned to art to make sense of things in that completely illogical way that artists consume and transform and represent the confusing, from mediaeval religious icons that stood in for the utterly ineffable, to poets that crammed it all into fourteen lines, to composers who shout into an open piano, as did John Tavener for The Whale, planting the transcendent and very useful understanding of metaphor firmly into our young heids.
Whether or not metaphor is actually what allows me to make sense of things, I don't really care. It does, and that'll do.
While I was looking up the history of the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh yesterday, I found it contains a large number of works by Eduardo Paolozzi, who was born in Leith in 1924. Italians in small Scottish and Irish towns — it is a culture that includes Paolo Nutini, born in Paisley, a third generation of Italian-Scots and hopefully more accepted than those of Paolozzi's generation who were interned at the start of WWII. Paolozzi's grandfather, uncle and 446 other internees died when the ship taking them to internment camps in Canada was sunk by a U-boat.
However, Eddy Paolozzi, maker of collages, dense works of many layers, assembled the Krazy Kat Arkive, thousands of items that represent popular culture, the machine age and the iconography of the hero, and gave it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
It is all of a piece with his collages: assemblages that act as archives, illogical collections of diverse things assembled within a certain era. He once was given free rein in the Ethnography Museum in London, to take things from the collections and to curate an exhibit from them, in which he intervened with material of his own. I saw this – it was in the mid-1980s, with an accompanying book, Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl. Not dissimilar to Picasso's discovery of artifacts at the Trocadéro in Paris in 1907, it is the kind of appropriation of cultural property that can't be done today; the material culture of the world is not curious material for the making of European art.
But there is an enchantment in looking at things that through one's own ignorance are pure sensual form without a cultural reading. Lost Magic Kingdoms was perhaps the last instance of this, not that Paolozzi was unaware of cultural meaning, but he was a sculptor whose work used component parts according to different rules. Krazy Kat rules.
It is summer, nothing is urgent, I feel a great need to stick with Rosalie Gascoigne this week. I think about type a lot. I wasn't trained as a graphic designer, rather I was trained as an architect in a time and at a school when graphic design was part of the tools of the trade. Stencils, hand lettering, Letraset, those bars with the attachments for the Rapidographs that traced perfect sans-serif letters with rounded ends – pre-computers one was very busy with one's hands, one's pens and inks.
Graphically, Kurt Schwitters said it all: subversive, obsessive, beautiful work from scraps of paper, fragments of words and letters and then he built his merzbau – subversive, obsessive, beautiful rooms full of scraps of wood painted white. It was always about assemblage for someone trained as I was, and that is still how I see much of the world, from cities to buildings.
However, I have just re-read an article in Eye 64 from 2007 by Jason Grant about Rosalie Gascoigne and her use of type. Assemblage is almost incidental for him: he calls her work 'stammering concrete poetry' and asks 'Why, when typography is the assertive visual feature in Gascoigne's most emblematic work, it is never really paid much attention? It is like discussing Picasso without African art'. This is a typographer speaking clearly.
What Grant does do is present Gascoigne's assemblages of pieces of signage, printed wooden crates and scraps of wood as something beyond the concrete material surface of the works. They respond to what he calls the 'fallout' of post-structuralist literary theory of the 1980s: dislocation and disruption, migration and fragmentation. Because of this, her work is at home with the 'diffused hierarchy of interactivity where the linear conventions of written language are undermined by internet, email, hypertext and SMS'.
Well, perhaps. They are this, and they are assemblage. They are graphic, and they are visual fields. They are found materials, and they are intentionally crafted. They speak of an era when pop bottles came in wood crates stencilled with red 7-UP letters – Grant says that when Gascoigne died in 1999 her favourite materials were disappearing in favour of printed plastics. Her work uses the materials of the mid-20th century, and she rejects the inherent nostalgia of the discarded object.
Rosalie Gascoigne's first exhibited her work in 1974 when she was 57. She was just of the age to have completed a BA at Auckland University before the war started after which she found herself a New Zealand war-bride married to an Australian astronomer and living in a remote scientific community north of Canberra. Her work is made of salvaged materials, notably, road signs and packing crates, and later, construction lumber such as formwork, cut into thin slices and assembled as flat pieces.
For all the robustness of the raw, salvaged materials, the precision with which they are cut and trimmed is incredibly delicate.
Roslyn Oxley 9 shows a wide range of her work on their website.