Charles Wilkin: Always pushing the limits

You have been doing collage since the nineties, being one of the few who, at that time, gave collage a new meaning and helped to change the way it was perceived and performed… how do you feel collage as medium has evolved since then?

I’m fuzzy on the exact year but it was in college, sometime around 1989. I fell into it by accident in a drawing class using scrap prints of my photos. I have no idea what that first collage was, probably something figurative. I struggled for a long time with more traditional mediums like painting, but in this weird way, collage just felt natural. What has never left me is that feeling of endless possibility I get from collage. In the early 90’s there was a handful of people doing collage, Grunge music was hot and Ray Gun Magazine really opened the door for the artists doing it. Even though everyone was cutting everything apart back then, collage still never seemed to be able to transcend into something bigger. It still had this stigma of being something from the 30’s or a 3rd grade art project. Galleries shunned it at that time because it was perceived as graphic design or just empty decoration. My early work often got lumped into illustration because and the idea of blending art with design was a surprisingly new concept, now it’s everywhere. When grunge died getting people to take collage seriously was impossible, it had become tainted by the very thing that brought it out of the shadows. However, collage is having a huge resurgence today, which is great. I think what’s really exciting to see is the diversity and conceptual complexity of contemporary collage. Social media has helped shed some of the historical baggage and make collage a truly global medium, it’s also easier for artists to find each other, create collectives and share ideas. Some galleries are taking notice but collage’s overall perception in the larger art world is still second-class at best. Which is sad, really, considering how many artists are pushing the boundaries of what collage is and can be. Collage is a medium that is always changing, and that feeling of endless possibility I had now seems to be a universal theme many collage artists share. I also believe it’s the one thing that will continue to push collage forward as it gains more respect and understanding.

Your style has been changing over the years, but you always seem to develop an artistic voice of your own, with a very personal style… How would you describe the process that led you to your way and style of making art?

In the beginning my work was really raw and generally abstract, I really didn’t have a point of view other than the act of cutting and pasting. I was just making collages to make them, sometimes dozens of pieces all at once. I’d say that excitement for making is still there and my preference to let the process itself be my guide conceptually has not changed. I can certainly say my work and process has evolved over time, I mean what artist hasn’t? Looking back there are very distinct styles or concepts that emerge visually, which definitely corresponds with moments of either frustration or an eagerness to push my work forward. I could probably tell you exactly which pieces are the ones that changed everything, those breakthrough moments. As a result I’ve become much more aware of how I work, which has helped me to focus on developing cohesive bodies of work rather than one-offs. Over time, I felt the need to streamline my process and set some very basic rules. This was a tough transition for me because for the longest time I saw collage as a way to break the rules, I wanted collage to be reckless. Sometimes though, too much freedom can become paralyzing and I struggled with this for many years. I certainly didn’t want to kill the spontaneity and a huge part of my process. However, I’ve found these very loose boundaries have made it easier to build upon previous work and in some cases even more of a challenge.

My experimentations these days are more linear and my interest the quantity has shifted to quality, less is more. My work has also become conceptual and surreal while at the same time adaptable. I’m constantly challenging myself to explore new ideas, which is why every piece I make feels somewhat unexpected. This continual cycle of experimentation has become an incredibly important part of how I cultivate the messages within my work. It’s also one of the universal elements throughout that’s has help me create a consistent point of view even as my work changes over time. While any sort of visual structure or style I’ve achieved is directly derived from the process itself, it’s always secondary. I see style as something that’s purely superficial, too often borrowed and easily mistaken for meaning. I find true meaning only comes from pushing through the failures and embracing the “happy accidents” that present change. Good work transcends style and resonates emotively, becoming something greater than emulation or decoration.

You seemed to have discovered the potential of (printed) textiles, deconstructing them and making them central parts of many of your classic pieces. What drew to them? What role do they have in your most recent work?

One of the things I’ve been obsessed with from the very beginning is trying to create work that’s convincing and real. What that exactly means for me has certainly evolved over time but fundamentally it’s there in every piece. Collage has an inherent ability to challenge perceptions and if you look at my work as a whole you can see a clear progression of my desire to alter and create new realities. The textiles in my recent work are simply an extension of this end goal, and the result of many years of exploration with a variety of materials. My fascination with portraiture and revealing the unknown that hovers just beyond our senses has also lead me to textiles as a medium. They have this intrinsic way of choosing what they reveal and what they hide, it’s an alluring and haunting quality I keep coming back to. Many of these emotive qualities found in textiles are the same elements I’ve been cultivating conceptually for a while. In my recent work, especially my sculptures, you can see clearly how the textiles intertwine and melt seamlessly, embellishing each piece in ways I often can’t describe. For me, this love affair I’m having with textiles runs deep and it’s brought my work one step closer to being truly tangible.

For the last years you have been experimenting with other materials apart from paper trying to find new ways of approaching collage… Do you find the urge to work beyond the constraints of paper? What are you looking for in this experimentation?

Collage can be anything really, a bouquet of flowers, a room full of people or a pile of trash on the street. So I’ve never felt limited to paper as a medium, even though it’s primarily the material I use. I think the same goes for materials, is wood, let’s say, strictly limited to furniture? I hope not. Historically paper is the perceived medium of collage, I still think that’s true today. For me, collage has always been about reconfiguring reality and finding associations that may seem awkward or unexpected, paper is certainly one way to explore these concepts. However, using an array of mixed materials I find is the only way to develop a truly complete body of work with longevity, depth and variety. This is something I’ve been actively experimenting with since the late 90’s but it’s usually became the elephant in the room, sort of like scale, but that’s another conversation. Finding the right way to use other materials in collage takes a lot of painful trial and error, many of my explorations just didn’t seem to synch conceptually with whatever I was working on at the time. I can honestly say the only thing I’ve been looking to achieve with other materials is unity, a way to express that variation within a single context. It’s obviously taken me awhile to get there but I’m confident all of my failed attempts have brought me to my current place. I finally feel like I have a catalog of visual and conceptual cues that are interchangeable and scalable across a variety of materials. I think this is reflected in my recent assemblage work and I’m looking forward to pushing it farther. My unwavering desire to make my two dimensional work feel real has certainly motivated my explorations, but for the longest time I just felt boxed in with paper. Using other materials seemed like the only way out, the only way to grow. It’s really that simple.

How would you consider collage is positioned in today´s contemporary art landscape?

Collage has always been sort of an outsider, punk rock, button pushing movement and I think this is still very true today. However, collage has never really been considered an important medium like painting despite influential collage artists like Duchamp and Rauschenberg. I often feel many people, including curators see collage as something their kids do in elementary school. This was confirmed recently when I hosted a collage meetup in NYC and many of the artists expressed similar concerns, some even preferring “artist” over “collage artist” when introducing themselves and their work. I personally hate labels, so I can see how the the generic term “artist” is less limiting, but it does raise concerns about how collage is generally perceived. Contemporary collage has of course moved well beyond its Dada roots and its recent resurgence has helped change some minds and open doors. Understanding why collage is seen as a second-class citizen in the art world is always something I’m thinking about. Perhaps it’s about the small scale, archival concerns or originality, but honestly all of this can be said about any medium. The art world is also changing very fast with many galleries closing, moving to an art fair model or online as a means to sell work. At the same time collectors seem to be hoving at the extreme ends of the market, some choosing well established artists instead of emerging artists while other prefer inexpensive  digital prints. But it’s not all doom and gloom despite an uphill battle, collage has made incredible strides and shows no signs of letting up especially with so many artists pushing boundaries. I’m confident collage will continue to challenge, inspire and poke the eye out of the establishment. So in some ways perhaps it’s best left to simmer on the fringes for now, lurking, waiting…