When considering collage, it has become commonplace – to the extent that the sentiments might as well be reproduced verbatim, using the journalist’s own skills of cut-and-paste – to assert that it is the medium best suited to our modern age. We live, or so the thinking goes, in a postmodern world of sampling, of recycling, of mashups musical and literary. And collage is the visual arts’ counterpart to this culture of creative scavenging. Well, up to a point. There is nothing quintessentially modern about the art of collage. In the more abstract designs it is possible to see echoes of such time-old techniques as marquetry, intarsia and mosaic work, while the act of creating something new through juxtaposition is as old as civilisation itself. What are the mythical beasts of antiquity if not mashups of lions, birds, serpents and humans? Linder Sterling’s collaged figures, their heads replaced by clothes irons or Dansettes, have the same hybrid spirit as the zoologically headed deities of the Egyptian pantheon.

Indeed, for a medium that is apparently so modern, the work of the 82 practitioners of the craft featured in Cutting Edges can often have a decidedly retro feel. This is due in a large part to the sources employed: old scientific engravings, tame Victorian erotica, pompous Edwardian treatises on church architecture, photographs from 1950s magazines and the kind of colour-saturated picture-postcard landscapes that once graced Hilda Ogden’s wall in Coronation Street. In its use of source material, at least, it seems that collage has not moved on significantly since the heyday of Terry Gilliam or Richard Hamilton. Since then, however, collage artists –or their publishers, at least – have become increasingly aware of the pernicious and stifling creed of “intellectual property”, meaning they are obliged to cut and paste using pictures that are safely out of copyright (or, at the very least, sufficiently obscure that the copyright-holders cannot be identified). It is hard to conceive of John Heartfield clearing image rights with the Ministry of Propaganda before creating one of his satirical composites of Hitler.

So what is it that makes today’s collages so different, so appealing? The answer may lie in an increasing trend towards abstraction. Many of the most arresting works in Cutting Edges abandon the slightly adolescent glee of figurative collage, nodding instead at Op (rather than Pop) Art – such as the barcode-like arrangements Valerie Roybal creates from slender strips of paper, like Bridget Riley experimenting with a shredder. There are echoes, too, of Constructivism in the bright geometric shapes of Michael Bartalos and Jacob Whibley. Such pieces are particularly effective because they divest their sources of all prior associations so that they become purely graphic elements, as with Jelle Martens’s triangular fragments of landscape or the complex, bubbling loops Célio Braga carves out of old photographs. Randi Antonsen’s series How to Read a Magazine, meanwhile, gouges through the pages of some glossy publication one by one to create a hypnotic abstract of wobbly concentric rings. It is to be hoped that readers of World of Interiors would not entertain the idea of doing the same with this magazine.

First published in World of Interiors issue 345. Reproduced with permission.

Cutting Edges:
Contemporary Collage

ed. James Gallagher et al  (Gestalten)

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