Ever since the Cubists first started gluing real-life materials, like newspapers, onto their two-dimensional representations of the same materials, collage has become an increasingly dominant art practice. Throughout the 20th century, in movements like Dada, Arte Povera, Fluxus, the post-painterly Abstractionsists and Pop art, collage played an important role. In the age of manifestos, collage was used for very specific aims, breaking from historic standards with projects that defied art logic and served inventive and experimental purposes. Today, though, the revolution has come to power, and collage no longer defies art logic, it is art logic.
The idea of collage is everywhere in art. Over the past century collage has come to mean much more than cutting and pasting. Now it is a ubiquitous term that refers to the assembling of materials or ideas, past and present, that are originally intended for a different context or purpose, now composited with other elements intended for other uses, creating an original visual and ideological composition. It is perfectly suited to the postmodern artist looking to define visually and ideologically elements of replication, appropriation, plurality, relativism, post-structuralism, and the post-historical.
One such postmodern artist who employs collage in his work is currently on display at Art Access through Aug. 14. In this exhibit, photographer and digital artist Anthony Siciliano displays a large body of collage works that fit loosely into three “cycles,” each with a distinct visual language.
The first cycle, the only one actually fabricated from different materials and manually layered to create a composition, is based heavily on historical references. Each work uses a frame-like presentation focusing on a collaged central icon or icons. “Forget Me Not” has a “kitschy,” Raphaelesque-like image of an angel, while “The Grand Farewell” features an original photograph of a gentleman in Edwardian dress. The compositions in the cycle are heavily varnished to create a patina-like effect and filled with antique elements such as old newspaper clippings, wallpaper that seems to have come directly from a Victorian London home and symbols whose meanings are ambiguous.
The second cycle has an entirely different approach, combining the historic with contemporary visual imagery. It is digitally contrived and each of the four pieces is shaped like a Renaissance altarpiece. These prints feature the dominant image of a Renaissance angel. In “The Foretelling” one might assume the popular Renaissance subject, “Annunciation,” is being alluded to; in “Rising,” the angel with its spear pointing down might reference the archangel Michael thrusting rebellious souls to hell. These images are spliced geometrically, morphing the angel into scenes of urban sprawl or housing projects. Here, one sees a clear delineation between iconography of past and present, all mastered digitally.
The final grouping of images, also digitally created, are very “Popish” scenes of Coca-Cola advertisements, ’50’s beef-cake men, pin-up women and similar memorabilia. Augmenting these nostalgic images is a smattering of lesser icons, perhaps symbols, whose code, again, the viewer has no insight into.
According to Siciliano’s statement, “By arranging objects and layering them within the collage, I hope to create a visual language that speaks of no particular time period, but rather re-contextualizing the imagery within my experiences and to a collective past; a kind of wish fulfillment of familiar stories that speak to our underlying belief in love, a guiding force to our destiny, and our daydreams of wants and desires. Regardless of where I begin, my artwork tends to deal with issues of time and memory. . . It goes beyond simple nostalgia, for I don’t look to the past and yearn for days gone by. Rather, it becomes an enshrinement of memory and creation of a relationship between the object, the viewer, and myself.”
Siciliano’s collages are like much of the genre today — they fit the post-modern mold, its fundamental structure, but use it like one would a manual. This mold is well fitted in these collages, evoking post-modern ideologies of time, memory, past, present, nostalgia, re-contextualization and existentialism. Beyond this, though, there is a lack of significant content, other than a tenuous allusion to love. The collages themselves, although well-crafted, are not particularly innovative, the substance of the work less so, and the “relationship between the object, the viewer, and myself,” seems to be one-sided.
By the very fact of its omnipresence today, collage is widely misused and can too easily become an arbitrary placement of signifiers with no significance. It is created for its own sake, devoid of content, merely using fundamental tools of the foundation of post-modernism but putting it to no meaningful use. Art such as this is devoid of stimulating content, relevance, provocation and serves only the visual, lacking actual aesthetic value, failing to establish a substantial relationship between the art work and viewer. Collage should be a vehicle to aims higher than simply pleasing the eye. Ideally, like a Baroque allegory, the joining of disparate images has the power to create new meaning, and this serves the artist in engaging the viewer in a compelling manner
Siciliano’s use of pop icons and layered nostalgic imagery brings to mind the Italian artist Mimmo Rotello, someone whose collages function like a conceptual installation. Rotello’s large pieces are replications of an urban scenario. He appropriates actual historical posters from the past, of celebrities, films, events, icons and densely layers them, torn in portions revealing the layers beneath, as one would find in a small side street of a densely populated area. The posters he uses are timely and significant in themselves, but also re-create the urban environment and changing shifts in culture and historiography within society. This gives them a physical presence and historical rootedness that is lacking in Siciliano’s digitally created images.
Cultural artifacts, traditions, motifs and symbols should be preserved, and are being preserved; however on the level of fine art their use must go beyond post-modern clichés, and transcend the mere visual. The “look” of postmodernism does not automatically give a work weight. Artists with genuine gravity of content might sublimate collage to another approach, allowing their creative voice to be heard. Collage is now so widespread it can often be mundane and predictable, and the very mass of its use threatens to make its edifice crumble on top of its foundations.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.