Beyond the Plane, Outside the Box
By Tom Wachunas
“Collage is the noble conquest of the irrational, the coupling of two realities, irreconcilable in appearance, upon a plane which apparently does not suit them.” –Max Ernst
EXHIBIT: Ohio Collage Society 9th Annual Exhibition, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH MARCH 15, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, 330.833.4061 www.massillonmuseum.org
Originally, the modern art technique of “collage” (French, for a pasting or gluing, as in applying wallpaper) was introduced by Picasso and Braque very early in the 20th century as they began adhering newspaper clippings, bits of wallpaper, bottle labels and other relatively flat ingredients to their canvas paintings. At the time, the practice was something of a revolution not so much because it broke the two-dimensional picture plane in any seriously appreciable way, but because it signaled an early embrace of found materials. The precious academic conventions of high fine art painting had been breached (some thought sullied) by the inclusion of “non-original”, prefabricated materials. Now, of course, the technique is a tradition in its own right, and as commonplace as the stuff artists find to glue down to a flat surface.
This is not to say that this large group exhibition is ordinary or unremarkable. Yes, the show does have its fair share of mediocre and otherwise flacid exercises in appliqué. But as a whole, within its generous array of styles, there is ample enough inventiveness and tantalizing content to make the viewing experience a rewarding one.
That said, it would seem that the Ohio Collage Society allows for its members to exercise a very broad interpretation of gluing things to a two-dimensional plane. Definitions notwithstanding, interestingly (and ironically) enough, many of the works I found most intriguing here aren’t in the strictest sense collages at all, but fully sculptural in nature, either in- the- round or in high relief.
Among these, some have the look of folk art narratives, such as Tracy Buckley’s whimsical wall piece, Natural Enablement , with its wiry stick figures on top, “rescuing” (via a vine ladder) other similar figures climbing a vertical wall of flat stones and spindly branches. Others are more elegantly refined, as in the two marvelous entries by Leo Miller, Backyard Time Machine and Claudia’s Closet. Both are ornate, free-standing objects made from all sorts of shimmering, found bric-a-brac.
American Surrealist Joseph Cornell called his shadow box constructions “poetic theaters.” His spirit is alive and well here, as in Sharon Wagner’s eerie Unheard/Unspoken – a wooden box on a pedestal, with partial human faces, made of earthenware, peeking out from three slots. Similarly spooky is Terry Klausman’s Skeleton Key – another wooden box, like a Victorian vanity cabinet, embellished with fancy metal trimmings, a real animal skull, and a working door knob. Turn it and open the door carefully, and inside there’s a startling surprise, a… You’ll just have to see for yourself.
Granted, as mentioned before, technically these aren’t collages. So ok, for you nitpickers out there, they’re assemblages. But in looking at the big picture of 20th century Modernism, the emergence of collage quickly paved the way for the introduction of found objects - a logical next step in expanding the parameters of what we would come to regard as fair game for art making.
And speaking of the big picture, one of the stronger “straight collage” entries here, Forest, by Al Aitken, reminds me in a way of everything that made 20th century Modernism so playful, challenging, and enigmatic all at once. Look carefully at these subtly varied infrared photos of a forest - the intricate, dense meshing of branches amid shifting light tones, and the camouflaged block letters laid over the fragmented panorama. A metaphor.
You can indeed see the F-O-R-E-S-T for the trees. Just so, all of the formal diversity of this exhibit – from tactile pictures under glass to full-out 3D configurations - makes for an engaging homage to Modernist practices in general.
PHOTOS, from top: Skeleton Key by Terry Klausman; Unheard/Unspoken by Sharon Wagner; Natural Enablement by Tracy Buckley