Our local Arts Commission has recently organized a double-venue exhibition of art on loan from private collections, and I am pleased that two of my collage artworks are represented. Interestingly, these happen to be the examples of my work that have penetrated the most widely online, due to sites such as Pinterest.
“If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.”
— L W Pierson
Awhile ago, someone asked a question about the trajectory of collage: “What’s Next?” To ponder that, I remind myself that one thoughtful critique is worth more than a ton of casual “likes.” Those of us who love this practice need to push beyond the comfort of mutual praise and communicate honestly about the medium of collage (not about our political attitudes). Don’t expect the lords of social media to provide a thumbs-down button. That’s not the solution (even if they do). There needs to be the virtual equivalent of the intense coffee houses and night spots of a century ago, where artists were not shy about challenging the easy answers and safe solutions.
Höch, Hausmann, Schwitters, and their fellow collage “inventors” included found material contemporary with their times. There are many current practitioners who restrict themselves to “vintage” resources, and some of them avoid using anything younger than 50 years old. Whatever they choose to do is fine, but, in my opinion, 21st-century collage artists are challenged to explore the cast-off stuff of today for potential ingredients in a fresh “school of post-centennial collage” that “documents” our own culture, rather than confine themselves to curating the artifacts of our ancestors. Remember, when KS pasted down a tram ticket in place of a brushstroke, nearly a hundred years ago, he was clearly using something that he just acquired on the street. Let’s think about that when as ask ourselves, “What’s Next?”
Tinged By Whispered Accounts
collage experiment in monochrome by J A Dixon
7.75 x 10.25 inches
available for purchase
“And the hits just keep on coming!”
— Bill Drake
Forgive my indulgence as I direct our attention once again to a favorite category of collage artwork. Followers of our medium at Instagram’s deep, mind-bending repository of visual imagery will confirm my declaration that The Surreal Face is thriving in contemporary collage. I’m not the only person who likes to showcase fine solutions by others (which includes the anonymous sponsor of a page called Strange is Better). Call it a sub-genre or simply classify it under ‘21st-century Surrealism,’ it is a phenomenon that shows no symptoms of decline. Perhaps it goes without saying that something so accessible to entry-level collage artists is also an approach that is difficult to master. Julia Lillard’s devotion to the perennial subject demands that I single her out for a future review. Below are are a few examples that have recently caught my eye, and the links will provide a more extensive look at their bodies of work.
“I love the abstract, delicate, profound, vague, voluptuously wordless sensation of living ecstatically.”
— Anaïs Nin
I have to admit that I am weary of seeing the output of collage artists who glean from pornographic content and assemble images that generally fail to rise above the source material. It is a lazy way to shock at best and a mere trafficking in human objectification at worst. That being said, I do have a sincere regard for erotic minimalism, present throughout the full century of collage as an expressive medium. Needless to say, contemporary artists have kept the tradition alive — especially in Europe — and the best examples require no additional verbal explanation.
Nicola Kloosterman | Netherlands
Franz Falckenhaus | Poland
Beatrice Squitti | Italy
Una Gildea | Ireland
Erin Case | Michigan, USA
Miriam Tölke | Germany
Wim Maes | Belgium
Deborah Stevenson | Maine, USA
Alexander D’Haese | Belgium
Waldemar Strempler | Germany
Katrien De Blauwer | Belgium
Kerstin Deinert | Germany
Jaroslav Škojec | Czech Republic
“I don’t want to go home tonight
I wanna turn loose my lust
I want you to squeeze me tight
Do the things that we discussed”
When you have a talk with yourself about your to-do list, does it ever seem like you’re having a conversation with another person entirely? You know intellectually that once the ice is broken, a work lingering on the agenda will be a joyful immersion, a natural high, or perhaps a creative ecstasy, but the emotional preliminaries can be too much like a peculiar seduction.
collage miniature by J A Dixon
4.5 x 6.5 inches
available for purchase
“Talking about my music traps me in a vicious circle and it’s very seldom that I manage to escape it. If I’m writing a new piece then I mustn’t talk about it because if I do then I have no impulse to write it any more. Once it’s written, then there is nothing left to say. That’s very apparent to me. It’s a matter of thinking in music, and I hope my music finds a direct way to the listener without any further explanation.”
— Arvo Pärt
Allow me to dive deeply into the context of my most prominent large-scale collage artwork to date. Some of you may dismiss my analytical subtext as obscure artspeak, or others might think that I have lost myself in an esoteric miasma. But to those of you who are kind enough to offer the benefit of the doubt, or who also conduct the same kind of “post-mortem” (heaven help us), this is the kind of thing that people with a visual design background have a tendency to do. Nevertheless, a collage artwork should stand on its own without a preliminary explanation or a closing summation (just so you know where I stand on that). For those of you who are still with me, let’s jump in…
My goal was to create an illusion of depth with an abstract layering of value and
color contrasts, culminating with the “title character,” a Queen Alexandria Birdwing —
nature’s largest butterfly (which corresponds to this being the largest collage on
canvas that I have created so far).
My development as an artist has been rooted in the small format, taking what I have
learned from that into the realm of a larger scale. It is not surprising that I find myself
embedding actual collage miniatures into bigger works, as I have done here.
In addition to my preference for ingredients that represent the culture of language
and symbolic communication, I lean toward a “maximalist” approach, in this case
the clustering of dense material to contrast with bolder shapes and color-quantities.
The counterpoise of angled polygons and strong diagonals forms the basis for a
dynamic visual tension, allowing for more nuanced details to serve as focal points, spatial anchors, and color accents.
Although I have inserted into this artwork many details for literal association and
observational reverie, it is essentially a “collage painting,” with attention to the
artistic surface, an activation of visual space, and the overall viewing impression.
Thanks for visiting! Please register and comment here to let me know what you think. Criticism is permitted here. I promise to respond.
I am honored and pleased that my Diamonds in the Rough was a part of the largest show ever mounted at Eastern Kentucky University’s Giles Gallery. Order and Chaos is this year’s Chautauqua Series theme, and the juror for their exhibition was the distinguished Robert L. Croker of Philadelphia, who chose award winners in eight media. He wrote, “I winnowed the field from over 400 entries to 73. I weighed, to a greater or lesser extent, the following characteristics: inventiveness, originality, and technical skill in employing materials and techniques. The level of technical skill in all the entries was gratifyingly high. There were few entries that I thought addressed the issue of Chaos in any cogent manner. This may be because it’s an impossible task, the principle of ordered experience being the linchpin of visual art.” Croker’s perspective goes to the heart of my own continued aesthetic pursuit. The collage construction is another of my abstract studies which seeks to bring a harmonious resolution out of apparent disorder. The ongoing investigation goes back to a 2007 solo show that I called KOSMOS. It continues with my recent collage on canvas, Empress of Wings, the largest I have created so far. As I have done before, I shall follow up and share some compositional crops of this new artwork, exploring the design relationships that make these efforts so rewarding for me.
Diamonds in the Rough (detail)
collage construction by J A Dixon
total size: 36 x 36 inches
available for purchase
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when
brothers dwell in unity!”
— Psalms 133:1
Collage collaboration is thriving in the Bluegrass. Robert Hugh Hunt and I began to think about a new project earlier last year, to follow our double-piece venture of 2015 (unveiled at the Kentucky Artisan Center’s It Takes Two show, featured at JUXTAPOSED, and also recognized in the state capitol rotunda as part of the 2016 Governor’s Derby Exhibit). Based on a thumbnail sketch in my journal that suggested a pair of interlocking shapes, we each took a 16×20 canvas-on-wood construction and worked independently on a solution to our “puzzle.” As we shared images online, a color scheme evolved as visual ideas echoed. Out of the gate, a found drawing of lupine eyes would demand a lower face with grinning mouth. Before long, we had exchanged a digital simulation of how the pieces would configure. Robert responded with a television element after I pasted the face of Fidel into a vintage TV set. (Strangely enough, this was a few weeks before the dictator’s demise.) When my partner, known for his mixed-media roosters, drew a chicken head, I added a corresponding game fowl to further the red-black theme. Did my fragment of a playing card spark his array of floating club symbols? His hand-drawn kissers certainly inspired my pencil and acrylic rendering of the “photo-booth” Kennedys.
Finishing touches were made after we had shared our final interim images. When our halves converged for the culminating “intercourse,” we thought it desirable for me to install a clamping device, so that the components might stand alone in the future. I explored possibilities and tried some ideas at my workbench, but, alas, I have never been an engineer. Fortunately, my kind collaborator was comfortable with a decision to join them permanently and declare victory.
All in all, I found our creative teamwork to be an immensely satisfying collaboration. The result was selected to be part of the local NEW YEAR NEW ART winter exhibition. Even though the interlocking feature of the artwork is probably more discernible when viewing it in person, it makes for a provocative online impression, and we were pleased that it was designated as the promotional poster for the show. After I had sorted through dozens of potential titles with a lack of conviction, Robert coined the phrase that stuck. He wrote this to me when he summed up our experimental process:
“Well, this collaboration was unlike any I had done. Most art collaborations have multiple artists working one at a time on a single piece until it is finished. As the artist, you are either ‘starting’ the collaborative piece or ‘finishing’ it, and, in cases with more than two collaborators, you could be working the ‘middle’ of the piece. But with Dreams Aligned, we took a different approach — creating two pieces, which I felt should stand on their own, and merging the two into one piece that not only worked as a whole, but made a stronger piece than the two works alone. And the fact that we had worked together successfully before, and understood each other’s artistic language, and that we kept a visual dialogue ongoing, showing each other the progress on their ‘half,’ following each other’s visual cues on medium, color, composition, etc. — in this way we were able to create a collaboration with two distinct artistic halves. It wasn’t a merging as much as an alignment of our artistic styles and languages, hence the title.”
a collage collaboration by J A Dixon and R H Hunt
mixed-media construction, 26.75 x 26.5 inches
(left component by Dixon, right component by Hunt)
available for purchase
“I tell you what gets harder over the years, it’s coming to grips with ‘is it finished yet or do I want to make one more change?’”
– Burton Cummings
Being invited by our Community Arts Center to participate in the annual winter invitational of regional artists never fails to jump-start my burst of year-end activity. Submissions to the January-to-February show are required to have been completed after August. The request comes in late October, but, instead of selecting from completed works, I’ll typically commence a work specific to the exhibition in early November. I set a goal this time to produce my largest collage ever and to shoot some in-progress photos.
The first image below indicates how I blocked out the early composition with mostly larger elements. The second represents how the color-quantity contrasts and spatial manipulations resolved themselves. The last image is the finished work with final layering and a few closing refinements.
It is a challenge to maintain a high degree of spontaneity when creating so large a work (for me, the dedicated miniaturist). It helps to carry a momentum of small-scale experimentation into the process, plus there are things I do to boost an “organic” flow. For example, if there are aspects of the color scheme I want to enhance, rather than acquire and position new elements one by one and invite too much preoccupation with each, I will quickly prepare a batch of ingredients and place them into the composition as rapidly and as intuitively as possible, responding to my impression of the evolving totality. Instead of pondering two-dimensional locations, the eye or hand moves first, and one learns to trust whether something “belongs” or not. Also, it can be difficult to know when the winding down to conclusion should start. At a certain point, I become conscious of a natural progression toward closing refinements (more logical considerations for balancing and harmonizing the overall effect). Noticing an escalation of rational deliberation can be the reliable signal that a piece may nearly be done — almost time to “pull the plug and sign it.”
We are unlikely to hear any collage artist say that completing a work is an exact science. Personally, if I walk away from something that I suspect is finished, it is less probable that I will continue to monkey with it when I come back. It is beneficial to have an objective consultant — in my case, a trusted partner willing to instruct, “Don’t touch it!”
I also should note that the exhibition is an opportunity for Robert Hugh Hunt and me to unveil another major collaboration (more to say about that next time). Creating the interlocking mixed-media construction was an interesting process. The result is something unconventional, and we’re pleased that it was selected as the promotional image for the show.
an early and a late
stage of my largest
collage painting to date
(click each to view larger)
Empress of Wings
collage on canvas by J A Dixon
42.25 x 30.375 inches
available for purchase
“Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue,”
– Mary Oliver
Not long ago I thought this series had run its course, but now I realize that it contains a rhythm which I hope will never stop. Originally inspired by the lost bibelots of George Headley, it has taken on its own continuity as a collage exercise that calls me back. I might spy a particular color, a certain fragment of printed typography, a shiny ingredient, a scrap of this or that — the next thing I know, a new miniature has cracked its shell, and it is unmistakably a “bibelot.”
It will not portend the fruitful struggle of demanding art. Rather, it is a favorite tune sung again, a pleasing walk taken more than once before, a quiet gift to oneself. And, just perhaps, a new mystery will be revealed — something worth investigating later — when simple delight must give way to challenge.
Churn (Bibelot 151)
collage miniature by J A Dixon
6.625 x 7.75 inches
Purchase this artwork.
“Art has to be something that makes you scratch your head.”
I think it is good to start a fresh cycle with something that perplexes me. Will anyone else think that this is art? Does the irrepressible creative urge need to take matters into its own hands now and then? Or am I merely illustrating an untold story from my rambunctious imagination?
collage miniature on book cover by J A Dixon
7.25 x 9.5 inches
Purchase this artwork.