Shirin Kouladjie: one of Found Images (

Figure 3.25
Shirin Kouladjie: one of Found Images ( digital/march00/gallery.html)

3.3 Visual Form and Semantic Content

At the end of the previous section, I noted a difference in what a fragment contributes, specifically, whether it is included for visual form and texture or for some part of our knowledge of what it represents either in the world or in its original context. So something that looks like an advertisement from a popular magazine (complete with print-through from the opposite page) brings with it associations of the consumer commodity culture and its array of practices and appeals. This effect is intensified when the product's logo, product name, or sales spiel are included, as if to say "No straying off topic here! Focus on the product!" Old advertisement images do not have this same effect of connecting us to products; rather, they point clearly to the vanity of human wishes, at least consumer wishes. The faded inks, the yellowed paper, the old styles of hair and dress, quaint layout and typography--these mock our consumer's lust for the latest and greatest product in much the same way that old girlie pictures mock us: the bodies they enticingly offer now lie mouldering in the grave.

There are differences, nonetheless, in the ways and degrees to which a fragment mobilizes associations from its original context, from its own content (in the case of words), or from our knowledge base, and these differences may be laid out on a scale of semantic density vs. purely visual abstraction. Stamps, for example—those very popular collage items—can be little gems of pattern and color, or they can evoke the culture that chose to represent itself with them (hints of the exotic, other people's heroes, and so forth), or, especially if cancelled, they mark an event of passage through the mails and the time, date, and place of sending can sometimes be made out. They may suggest separation, or reaching out—in short, the whole act of letter writing and what it might entail. We thus arrive at the most semantic end of the scale, where what the stamp looks like is not nearly as important as that it is a postage stamp. I will explore this scale in four areas, those of:

  1. use of newspapers,
  2. use of advertisement images,
  3. use of famous museum canvases,
  4. possiblity of abstract collage

Hans Haacke: Violin and Cigarette: Picasso and Braque (1990)

Figure 3.26
Hans Haacke: Violin and Cigarette: Picasso and Braque (1990)

1. yesterday's papers:

When Picasso started making collages in 1912, he cut many fragments from newspapers— columns, headlines, advertisements, whatever. Christine Poggi sees this as an anti-salon art move, since newspapers are extremely consumable and were regarded as "common" in his time by many refined spirits. The fragments were large and legible enough to engage viewers as a readers, teasing them to complete the cut off words and bearing various glancing or ironic relations to the other themes of the painting ( the work of scholars is summarized by Poggi, p. 148). Braque and Gris also used newspaper, though less of it than Picasso. Occasionally, the newspaper becomes the texture surface of an object, as it does for example in the Braque work "Violin and Pipe: Le Quotidien" instanced earlier, where it is the surface of a pipe. The text, as it were, runs beyond the flat planes of newspaper and onto objects as if they were paper mache.

Hans Haacke saw the possibility of imitating the early collages but with the newspaper text making a direct, topical point. "Violin and Cigarette: Picasso and Braque" refers to a Picasso and Braque exhibit at MOMA sponsored by Philip Morris. Braque's pipe is replaced by a cigarette (also with text on it) and the newspaper strip, upside down in Braque, is rightside up for better reading. And the reading is about using trade sanctions to open up other countries to American tobacco products during the Bush administration. Haacke will not let Philip Morris (and numerous other companies, elsewhere) wash away its deadly machinations and wrap itself in the mantle of patron of the arts—the very art itself doth cry out against it. Here the newspaper becomes a vehicle for bringing economic and political facts to light. Which is to say it is a newspaper column functioning like a newspaper. An unsympathetic critic might say that what Haacke has done is travesty Braque's collage in order to execute one of his tedious anti-corporate exposes, and this message has nothing whatever to do with art or Braque or cubism. The refutation of this foolishness is left to the reader as an exercise.

The list of artists who have included readable pieces of newspaper (more than just title words) reads like a roll call of Cubists (Picasso, Braque, Gris), Futurists (Boccioni, Severini, Carre), Dadists (Schwitters, Baader), and other notable members of the avantgarde (Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Claes Oldenberg).

Gary Wortzel: Trust

Figure 3.27
Gary Wortzel: Trust

By way of contrast, it is worth taking a look at another contemporary artist who uses newspaper but much more as a material and texture. Gary Wortzel is a Seattle artist who has a small site of smallish images, which is not so good when you are trying to read newspaper, but I assume the originals are large enough to see. He composes with torn strips of photographs and newspaper, and he has carried the technology of newspaper collage into the digital age with the invention of transparent newspaper. Actually, it appears to vary in opacity and to displace edges as if by refraction. Wortzel uses this "material" elsewhere as well, where light seems to project through it casting the print shadows on the nude torso. At times the effect is rather like strips of paper mache or transparent tape waiting to be applied. One becomes so entangled in figuring out what is going on that the paper ceases to be readable (also, the strip "columns" are too narrow and too much is missing). Elsewhere, Wortzel uses fragments of newspaper for plane areas in faces. All of these effects move newspaper well back along the scale to purely formal texture.

2. advertisement images:

A very common source of images for many collages is magazines: these can be cut up and reworked and nobody complains. And the most common source within magazines are the advertisements. Adverts can be appropriated in diverse ways. One way is that of Bernie Stephanus, whose work we have looked at in the preceding section. Stephanus raids the magazines for their images of women, clips away the logos, slogans, and text, and pushes the image so that it cracks and slips out of its seamless slickness. It is, as we say, about "images of women" in contemporary French magazines. The text and the incessant tying of image to product name and corporate logo is simply bracketed away.

Pierre Robin: Parfums

Figure 3.28
Pierre Robin: Parfums

Pierre Robin is a young medical intern in Lyon who also clips French magazines and collects postcards, candy wrappers, perfume packaging and other useful bits of debris. He has also put together a sizeable body of collage which he presents online for free. Figure 3.28 illustrates his characteristic fondness for bright, highly saturated primary colors--itself a sharp break with the tradition of subdued color that goes all the way back to the earliest days of Picasso, Braque, and Gris. (Of course, our printing technology has greatly extended the range of printable, relatively permanent color.) The piece, Perfumes, makes extensive use of perfume boxes and a few adverts with brand names prominent, if sometimes disrupted. The fragments are carefully cut and shaped, not torn, and he uses triangles here and even more elsewhere to produce dynamic movement not seen in collage since the futurists and constructivists. In his piece "12 Hands" he even produces the nearly unheard-of effect of recession into the picture plane! In "Perfumes," one feels a celebration of focussed visual intensity rather than a critique of the arousing of spurious desires and false promises of glamour, elegance, and sex appeal. I do not see the pointy olive-colored things around the eye as threatening or sadistic but as echoes of the eyelashes; echoing is favorite compositional device for Piro, as can be seen in the next image. Here the eye with flare staring straight at you counterbalances the shaded and downcast gaze. "But this is pure structuralism," you say, "where is the critique of ideology? What does the eye on which all the diagonals converge, the eye that stares straight at you, mean?"

Pierre Robin: Decollage

Figure 3.29
Pierre Robin: Decollage

But surely we come now to the critique, yes? Two margins of women in underwear, each with name or source indicated. And in the center, Mickey and his cool French chick counterpart (red, white and black, don't you know, with big white hands). Plus a scattering of elephant stickers. One becomes ensnared in the three upraised left arms and bent right ones. The center belongs to Mickey and he is mightily amused. It is not, I fear, a serious political poster. Indeed, it is much more like a parody of one. Though these pieces name names, they do not take us into the world of marketing and consumer commodities but toward pattern, repetition and variation, color and shape. And they might be the most effective way to disconnect these images from the power to arouse consuming lusts in us.

Pat Street: An Effect in Yellow

Figure 3.30
Pat Street: An Effect in Yellow

3. famous canvases:

Once in a while, collage artists turn their scissors on art books, especially on the most famous works that may be recognised from just a small fragment. This fragment can function as a citation bringing a large, rich, and very specific other "text" to bear on the collage. Or it may not. Figure 3.30, Pat Street's "Effect in Yellow," does not encourage us to try to identify the Vermeer citation, and her list of fragments next to it suggests that the identities of the parts do not matter.

Elements: Page from antique book; details from antique map; tobacco card; illustration from bird book; detail from painting by Vermeer; found handwriting example; scrap of dress pattern; clippings from fruit illustrations; text from antique geography book.

The images are antiques and they are collected here in a kind of autumn domestic scene. The title does direct us, but toward pictorial thoughts.

Bernie Stephanus: No. 32

Figure 3.31
Bernie Stephanus: No. 32

In Figure 31, by way of contrast, the identity of the fragment does matter very much and is readily recognizable as a nymph from Botticelli's "Primavera," that Renaissance ideal of feminine beauty. In the painting, she is struggling to escape the grasp of Winter. Stephanus here makes his graft to the lovely lady of a jewelry advert. The graft seems like a supplanting of the antique ideal by the modern model, sure of herself as she is.

Shirin Kouladjie

Figure 3.32
Shirin Kouladjie

Here is a citation by Shirin of the even better known Botticelli ideal: "The Birth of Venus." The presenting nymph now steps to the left of Venus and the two look up from off the page toward the girl who seems to be pensively turning pages. There is again a connection across centuries, but here it seems more like a passing on of the role of Venus as ideal of feminine beauty.

Bernie Stephanus

Figure 3.33
Bernie Stephanus

Ingres also proves a rich source of ideals of feminine beauty. Here Bernie Stephanus builds one great one out of the torsos of Mme. Moitessier and Mme. de Senonnes. The second is rotated 90 degrees, but it is not too noticeable because the arms seem to be continuations. I think this piece is funny, as if to say "if one Ingres portrait with all its excess of fabric and jewelry is good, then two should be better." Stephanus makes his point that as far as display of clothes and jewelry go, there is very little to separate these works of Ingre from the advertising in a contemporary monthly magazine. Because they are torn out fragments, they appear very flat and lack the glow of oil. The little card next to them, "wallpaper 163" suggests either that the composition is "unfinished" or that the fragments have become wallpaper samples. A more appropriate fate for Ingres' portraits could not be imagined. Here knowledge of the original paintings is crucial to getting the point.

Cecil Touchon

Figure 3.34
Cecil Touchon fsl354

Cecil Touchon

Figure 3.35
Cecil Touchon fsl1396

4. Abstract collage?

Cecil Touchon has perhaps more collages on exhibit on the Web than anyone else—upwards of 200. He does abstract art, he says, and abstract, non-objective collages. In their content, the collages draw traditionally on old books, papers, and illustrations (but not photographs), and in fact the human face and figure are fairly rare in his work. Figure 3.34 does have words—bits of an old label and cover of a piece of music and other samples of the illustrator's art, but it is also greatly concerned with curved outlines and straight-edged grids and with rectangles of color reminiscent of Rothko and Mondrian. In notes to the on-line version of one exhibit, he points to features in the exhibited works that take their origin from his impressions of his new home in Cuernevaca, but these largely deal with how color is used there. Even if one can begin to interpret text, image, and artifact in a piece here or there, the sheer weight of so many images that do not support interpretive efforts warns us off, assuming as we do that the artist is concentrating on doing a certain kind of thing. The other and original life that the fragments had does not seem to interest him at all. Certain pieces that we have looked at by others (such as Pat Street's "Effect in Yellow") seem to approach this pole of pure abstraction, and every piece is composed with an eye for form, but Touchon's work suspends representation, even to the point of nullifying the strong pull of the fragments out to what they (at one time) represented and the larger whole from which they were taken.

Cheryl McClure

Figure 3.36
Cheryl McClure:Southwest Collage Series, no. 7 (1999)

Touchon also maintains a website, The International Museum of Collage, Assemblage, and Construction, where artists can show their collages by submitting 13 and having Touchon distribute twelve to other contributing artists and keep one for showing on the site. Most of his contributors are from the US or New Zealand. Most do abstract collages, some even more abstract than Touchon's in lacking any recognizable objects, as is the case with Figure 3.36 by Cheryl McClure. It is a useful exercise to work through the Baker's Dozen collections on the site to decide which are abstract and to what degree. Unfortunately, for one set, there are quite a number with no other images or links to images by a particular artist. Some, such as Judith Lemieux Pickard, are full of objects and human figures but lack titles to feed interpretation; others in the "Current Baker's Dozen" have very talkative titles. Collages in this latter set seem to me distributed all along the abstract/semantic scale, indicating the descriptive usefulness of this notion.