Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Art I'm Looking At: Do We Need a Collage Taxonomy?

Why create a collage taxonomy? Presumably the goal is to allow clear, concise discussion of collage art, which seems a worthy goal given the recent surge of interest in collage among artists and collectors around the world. Kolaj magazine, the world’s premier periodical devoted to collage art, recently asked readers to help create a “collage taxonomy” in an effort to facilitate discussion about collage. The idea got me to thinking—and wondering whether such a taxonomy is really necessary.
(Above: Untitled Collage No. 135 (Santa Rosa), Colin Talcroft, 2016, acrylic on paper, acrylic monotype, fragment of a doodling robot drawing in marker, collage. Mixed media? Collage? Both?)

What is collage?

What is the essential characteristic of collage art? “Stuck-togetherness,” I would argue, is the defining characteristic, if you’ll forgive the awkward term, and this is appropriate as the English word for collage comes from a French root meaning “to paste.” A collage is a work of art made of at least two elements somehow stuck together, typically, but not necessarily, with glue. Other means of sticking elements together include a variety of pastes and artist’s mediums that act as glue, such as acrylic medium, or actual paints, any of which can be considered glue for our purposes. I will discuss digital means of sticking things together below.
(Above: Order, Nancy Goodman Lawrence, 2016, paper, dry transfer letters, acrylic)

Having written that, a couple of possible “problem children” come to mind immediately: 1) is an artwork made of elements sewn together a collage? I would argue yes—unless it’s a quilt. I think common sense will allow us to distinguish the two; and 2) is a collection of three-dimensional objects stuck together or a three-dimensional construction of other elements stuck together a collage? I would have to say no, as we have better words for these things: “assemblage” and “construction” (I will leave it to the three-dimensional artists of the world to work out what distinguishes assemblage from construction and the nuances of the two words in detail—but more about dimensionality below). Note that many dictionary definitions of “collage” assume collage involves pasting disparate elements to a fixed surface—to a backing—but that is clearly an error. There are many examples of art made of elements stuck to one another without an independent backing that we would easily accept as collage.

And what of paintings with paper or other elements pasted into them? Picasso and Braque were early pioneers of that technique, adding bits of newspaper and other items to the surface of oil paintings. Are “mixed media” and “collage” synonymous?

"Mixed media" and "collage" are not interchangeable

I suspect I’m not the only collage artist that finds the term “mixed media” annoying. It’s a sloppy catch-all. “Mixed media” is virtually self-defining. The term is a broad one encompassing any artwork made using two or more media (the paintings by Picasso and Braque mentioned above fall into that category). The term doesn’t tell us much more than that. Many artists combine watercolor and ink or ink and graphite, for example, to make drawings or create paintings using acrylic and oil paints on the same canvas. These are rightly called mixed-media pieces. Stuck-togetherness is not the issue. Robert Rauschenberg’s famous Monogram 1955-59 (a stuffed goat in a car tire mounted on canvas) quite obviously uses more than one medium. It’s probably adequately described as an assemblage or a mixed-media piece, although Rauschenberg himself called such works “combines” and thought of them as being in a novel artistic category combining elements of painting and sculpture. “Combine” is probably a better word for Monogram 1955-59 than "assemblage" or "mixed media"—and that underscores the vagueness of “mixed media.” When speaking of collage, let’s abandon “mixed media.” So, to repeat, combination of media is not the main point when talking about collage, stuck-togetherness is the most important point.
(Above: Monogram 1955-59, Robert Rauschenberg, 1955-1959, goat, tire, paint, found objects on canvas. Collage?)


Both assemblage” and construction” are useful terms. I will not attempt to define either in any detail, but I hope readers will agree that both immediately connote three-dimensionality. I suppose you could call a flat artwork composed entirely of two-dimensional elements an assemblage, but we have a better word for that: “collage.” “Assemblage” seems best reserved for three-dimensional art objects made from assemblages of other three-dimensional objects. A “construction” is a three-dimensional art object made of discrete elements that is in some way architectural or sculptural. Note that the elements making up such a construction may themselves be two-dimensional—imagine a glued-together tower of playing cards. To define these two terms more precisely would take us too far afield—into a dimension beyond the two dimensions of collage—but I hope the point is made.

There are, of course, grey areas. Imagine a work called Canvas Landscape, made of thickly painted canvas scraps cut from abandoned paintings and stuck together with glue. Is Canvas Landscape collage or is it assemblage? I think we have to accept that there will always be hard-to-categorize outliers, but I appeal again to common sense: if Canvas Landscape seems more flat than not and its elements are not obviously object-like, then it’s probably safe to call it a collage. No physical artwork is truly two-dimensional, even the thinnest paper has a third dimension, but we happily ignore the third dimension when it seems small enough to be irrelevant. Is the impasto of Canvas Landscape irrelevant? Probably not entirely, but, given that “assemblage” connotes stuck together objects, I’d argue that “collage” is the better term in my hypothetical example, as its parts would seem to have little meaning as independent objects. I don’t believe collage must be made of paper. Again, media of the elements involved is not a defining characteristic. We come back to stuck-togetherness. So, a collage is a two-dimensional artwork made of two or more essentially flat elements stuck together somehow.

What kind of collage?

We see any number of modifiers in front of collage.” These include words that describe physical attributes and processes such as “digital,” “analog,” “hand-cut,” “handmade,” and stylistic tags such as “surrealist,” “Dadaist,” and so on. I would argue that style and art historical DNA are irrelevant to a collage taxonomy. To call a collage “surrealist” is no different from calling a painting “surrealist.”  We learn something about style, about content, about art historical associations, but nothing essentially new about the thing as object. Process and stylistic modifiers may be useful in describing a piece of collage art, but they are not words with meanings specific to collage; they can apply to art in any medium.

Collage or digital collage?

Computers allow us to stick digital elements together in ways that look like actual elements stuck together. Inevitably, digital collaging emerged as soon as software allowed it. Here, digital layering and mental processes are our “glue.”
(Above: Evelyne Chevallier, Rock Solid, 2016, digital collage)

All digital elements are virtual. The sources of digital elements are infinitely diverse (they may be entirely computer generated, or digital photographs, or bits of other digital images, or scans, etc.), but we are always left with pixels on a screen or tiny ink blobs on a medium such as paper if a digital collage is to become a viewable image. Sets of pixels or tiny ink blobs that we mentally process and understand as physical elements (images of things or swaths of color or texture) are not in reality more than sets of pixels or tiny ink blobs. They become understandable as things because our brains insist on processing them that way; if our brains didn't do that, we'd be unable to understand images of any kind. The digital–analog divide is real and important. A digital collage is an artwork that imitates collage.

The elements in a digital collage are realized and stuck together more by our brains than in reality, but we seem comfortable with the analogy, willing to accept the idea that the digital elements could have been printed out individually and stuck together in real space (or at least laid over one another) as they appear to have been in a digitally created scene. Thus, there is a fundamental difference between collage and digital collage, albeit one we find easy to ignore. Nevertheless, it seems very important to point out that difference when we talk about collage. Collage is non-digital by tradition and precedent, so I recommend using “collage” as the default. Let’s abandon descriptions that seek to distinguish the two in other ways like “analog collage,” “handmade collage,” and “hand-cut collage.” All collage is analog and handmade—unless it’s digital.

Found or made elements?  

Are the elements in a collage found or artist-made? If artist made, how are they made? Does it matter? Stylistically, yes. Just as a collage of cut elements is stylistically distinguishable in important ways from one made of torn elements, a collage made of found paper elements has a very different feel from one made from artist-created elements, but these are stylistic differences. Expressions like “found paper collage” or “monotype collage,” or “artist-painted paper collage,” while useful, are terms that highlight how the elements in a collage are made, not how they come together. They give us information ancillary to the essential characteristics of collage: stuck-togetherness and two-dimensionality.
(Above: Untitled 8-4, Daniel Anselmi, 2016, artist-painted paper, found paper, collage)

A non-problem?

So, it seems to me that talking about collage shouldn’t be more difficult than talking about any other kind of art once we clearly define “collage.” A collage is an essentially two-dimensional, non-digital artwork made of two or more essentially flat elements stuck together somehow. A digital collage is a digital artwork analogous to a traditional collage. All else is description of materials or process, and we already have a rich, widely accepted and therefore useful vocabulary for describing artist’s materials and processes.

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