Discussing about collage, Uncollage and everything that happened after the Big Bang with Todd Bartel (part 1).
Todd Bartel’s bio is endless. He’s an artist, professor and lecturer in many universities, art historian and gallery director. Todd has been making and studying collage since the 80s and has a lot to say about it. Once we read some of his pieces about collage, we knew Todd was going to broaden our idea about what collage is and he certainly did so.
TWS – You once wrote that “Ever since the Big Bang, it’s all collage.” Can you explain this a bit, please?
TB –I think Walt Whitman said it beautifully in “Song of Myself“: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of stars.” If the Big Bang theory is correct, then that means everything we can and can’t see, everything we can touch and know—everything in this universe—is ejecta from that Great event. Then it follows that throughout the eons, those bits gathered into the planet upon which we stand. The rest is evolution—the formation of our collective quintessence of dust and every mortal coil. “We are Stardust,” to quote Crosby, Stills Nash (& Young). We are collages. I say it jokingly, but I am also serious: Ever since the Big Bang, its ALL collage.
The question is not whether or not something is collage—because it is—the question is: What are you doing with collage? That is where things get interesting. We all make collages so differently! I love that “ALL” is a limitless definition for collage. While that is a humbling consideration, it is not helpful when it comes to appreciating collage in historical or contextual senses. I make the point to establish that collage is an infinitely expansive medium, and rightly so. I sing collage’s song because it is the language of the universe. Everything is glued somehow or other. Believe me, if people could figure out how to stick two planets together, someone would! When there is so much unknown about the universe, it is essential to try to divide up the various possibilities that collage holds for us. I think an exciting thing happens when you divide up the possible ways that collage manifests—something new always makes itself available! We have only scratched the surface of the vast potential of this medium. THAT is what is so exciting about collage! There are more things in heaven and earth, Max-o-matic, than are dreamt of in our scant few definitions of collage!
TWS – In your article “Uncollage: An introduction,” published at issue 25 of Kolaj magazine, you mention the importance of categorizing collage operations to be able to have an accurate definition of what collage is. Why do you think this categorization is relevant?
TB – I have a voracious appetite for collage and understanding its possibilities. I have felt this way about collage since I first began making collages in 1981. And since about 1990, I regularly research the history of collage, it’s makeup, its applications, and its divisions. In the mid-1990s I realized:
1. Most collages are accumulations of built-up surfaces and collections of materials: additive collage. 2. Some collages involve the removal of materials—below the surface collage and collage excavation: subtractive collage. 3. Some collages are made into a single-surface creations: puzzle-piece collage and uncollage.
In my first “uncollage” article (Kolaj #25), I pointed out that collage is so vast a medium that we have hardly categorized its possibilities. Collage is often misunderstood and looked down upon, and as such, it is regularly under-appreciated. And yet, collage is the most democratic of all creative processes and deserves devoted attention. With that in mind, it is essential to catalog collage’s impact, collage’s reach, and collage’s influence to better understand the creative act. For as long as we hominids have been sentient, collage has been a pervasive activity of ours. Once it became a major preoccupation of Modernism however, collage exploded into scores of new possibilities. Have we adequately named all the developments yet?
At the time of my lecture on “uncollage” at the Kolaj Fest, during in the summer of 2018, I had cataloged 66 completely different collage operations. Today, my list is just over 80 separate collage possibilities with corresponding definitions and the running list does not seem to have an end in sight. Just looking at the list of words inspires ideas. Collage’s potential is boundless! Here is my working list:
I have also been trying to categorize glue into basic types. At that same Kolaj Fest lecture, I pointed out that so far as I have discovered, glue comes in only a handful of types. I suggested that putting things together involves one or more of the following kinds of glue:
I consider the above lists to be a working-lists and they are anything but exhaustive. As a collage teacher, I regularly refer to all of the above. And of course, I am always on the lookout for types and operations to add to the respective lists. Understanding the differences increases the possibilities of Finding, Minding and Binding — the three main operations of collage.
And, of course, black holes are ubercollage makers, and, everything can be undone too; entropy is the great ungluer of ALL.
The Burning of Old Providence Station, 1988 stage 1 — additive collage — book cover, burlap & painted boat tarp added to paper on top of Masonite stage 2 — additive collage — manila envelops and Italian Letter glued over previous layer stage 3 — subtractive collage — stage 2 was sanded to pull up first layer textures and then additive collage elements were glued on top
TWS – Can you please talk to us about Uncollage, the new category of collage proposed by you?
TB: How did the idea of “uncollage” come to light? I realized over the years there was something I regularly credited as being collage, but none of the terms that I had been crediting celebrated this one particular situation I continually found myself appreciating. I slowly began to realize we needed a new word. (I tell the story of when I first uttered that word in Kolaj Magazine #28.)
In the years that followed my BFA (1985) and MFA (1991), I found myself gravitating to all things collage. Specifically, I went to exhibitions to see the paintings of Julie Heffernan, Talin Megherian, James Rosenquist, David Salle, Leslie Saar, and Mark Tansey, to name a few great examples. I would always be struck by the composite nature of their imagery, while simultaneously being frustrated that the word collage did not seem appropriate to discuss their paintings because of the limitations of language. I have this standing conversation with my longtime friend and dedicated collage artist, Michael Oatman, and we would see art like theirs and say, “yeah, that’s a collage.” I think that because Braque and Picasso coined the term “papier collés,” that the medium of collage is now exclusively linked to glue and paper. Despite that the word “collage” means “sticking,” the term itself has evolved to be synonymous with paper. The misunderstanding with collage is a failure of all people who do not understand the emphasis of the medium is not on paper. I suspect that because the revolution of papier collé is so easily associated with paper, that the general public has yet to realize the implications of the original term celebrates gluing.
The funny thing is that today, after more than a century of so-called “fine art” related collage practices, paper and glue are not required to make digital art! The virtual equivalent of collage—digital collage—uses a combination of hardware, software, and key commands to do the work of scissors and gluing in a virtual rather than analog or tactile sense: “Command C” and “Command V,” respectively. Globally speaking, how many times every day do people use “virtual” collage operations?! I realized that there is “material “and “immaterial” collage and that given that paint is essentially glue with pigment mixed in, it seems reasonable that paintings can be considered collages under the right circumstances. I coined the term “uncollage” to give credit to the myriad ways that collage manifests that do not include paper and glue proper. I was invited by Kolaj magazine’s editor, Ric Kasini-Kadour, to write a series of 4 articles on the term, and my essays have appeared in issues #25, #26, and #27. The current issue of Kolaj Magazine, issue #28, published, for the first time, my working definition of “uncollage.”
An unexpected aspect of my history with collage-based work is that I temporarily stopped making collages between 1989 and 2002. During this period, to see how immaterial collage would affect my drawing and painting, I did not allow collage to enter my work in the analog sense, preferring appropriation, and hand-painted landscape imagery instead. For ten years, I worked on making uncollages before I had that term, which I did not coin until 1999. My Garden Study drawings over pages from Ovid’s Metamorphosis are all uncollages. The only exception, is that I sometimes used my children’s negative sticker remnants to create windows for my landscape images as shown in “Garden Study (Frontier).” In each drawing, I imported a hand-copied image, appropriated from the history of landscape painting. I painted each borrowed image about an inch in diameter to marginalize the land image as a way of critiquing contemporary attitudes toward land.
TWS – Where’s the limit of this visual or conceptual importation that defines Uncollage in seamless-hidden composite imagery? Is there any chance to avoid any visual or conceptual importation to create an artwork? (I have in mind Thomas Eakins using images as inspiration to create a painting)
TB – LOL! There is no limit, other than what you don’t have in mind or hand. It’s impossible not to import images and ideas into art. As we walk through this world, we take in many varied impressions, and then they spill out onto the works we create. Our minds do that every moment of every day! In fact, all still lifes are collages of where we leave things we touch; every arrangement of objects on the planet are all collages. This is infinitely unavoidable.
Every dream—daydream or during sleep—is a collage of our experiences. Our memory is the glue and the generation of dream imagery the collage. Collage’s limitlessness helps to recognize its importance and pervasiveness. In my opinion, every footnote ever written, all references to other’s ideas, all music-samples ever recorded, every mashup, and every combined thought, etcetera, are all collage-based products! It used to be the mantra that “Everything has been done; Nature did it first.” Perhaps it is better to replace that mantra with a new one: It’s all collage, and it’s in our nature to make them.
I sense hesitation and a bit of guardedness in your question, and so I would also point out Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliant idea, “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” Yes, it is easy to create collages, but not every collage is memorable or valuable or useful or provocative. So the real work of collage is to establish a transformation by combining two or more things in some kind of provocative way. Making a collage is easy; making memorable collages, or transformative collages, or haunting collages requires a mindful use of what can be combined. I would amend Godard’s statement to point out that when we borrow or reference, we also combine contexts that enhance the meanings of each instance things are used or referenced! Context and transformation are the things wherein we catch the consciousness of the viewer.
TWS – I loved reading (in Kolaj Magazine, issue 26, Before it’s Uncollage) what you said about collage being “one of the tools of the mind to make sense of the world and our experiences in it.” I can totally relate to that. But, with this in mind, why do you think so many contemporary artists working with collage use vintage source material to create their work? Why do you think contemporary source material isn’t favored against the old/past images/paper in favor of the materials available in the present world?
TB – Great question! I would invite all collage artists to reflect on their answers and then share them with us! Wouldn’t that be a fantastic column to maintain?
Perhaps one reason is linked to practicality. Depending on how recent they are, materials from a previous generation are typically affordable and available in abundance as people get rid of them, and then, in turn, artists reach for what they have around them. Another reason might be that artists gravitate to a particular vintage for all kinds of rational or personal inclinations. For example, the appeal of the color or the imagery or the visual quality or the locus of the times associated with a particular era, reference that previous time with intrinsic attributes and content. Vintage materials reflect the time they emanate from—and a specific time might very well have a significant impact upon the present moment. For example, a lot of femmage makes use of 1940s through 1960s ad imagery. The overtly outdated messages these period materials contain fuel a political strategy that raises questions about the present culture, which has yet to purge disrespectful attitudes and outmoded ideologies.
When I look at the typical collages being made today, I have noticed that there is a prevalence for contemporaneous ephemera. I would say that it is more often than not that collage artists use quotidian resources. Regarding the prevalence of artists using vintage materials, who ignore resources from the here and now, I would suggest that some artists want to steer away from the “shock of the new,” which causes an artist to direct their attention to the materials from a previous time. I think that forging the next wave of things or pathfinding the next new thing is an essential artistic project, and I believe that referring to the past helps us to see anew. I don’t think one is any better than the other. We need both approaches in contemporary art; the world benefits from both methods.
When I use period materials I point to ideas from that time period in such a way as to raise questions in the time I am living and that is why I always list each and every material I use.
TWS – Sometimes, I sense that there’s an undermining of digital collage versus its analog counterpart. Do you believe there’s any sense in having this division? What is more determinant from your point of view, technique, or conceptual approach?
TB – Yes, there is the unfortunate situation we collage artists find ourselves in that collage, in general, is undervalued. And, yes, digital collage is sometimes seen as undermining analog collage. But ultimately, I think the division is an essential one, and I am glad we have it. With this division, we can differentiate material collage from immaterial collage. These differing approaches contain materials in different ways, and that is a significant development in the appreciation of what collage offers.
Material or analog collages are manipulated and created with tools, physicality, and actual worldly materials and processes (and of course mental procedures). Immaterial or virtual collages are conceived and created with thoughts and software processes, tracking pads, mouses, and key commands. Some virtual collages are mental procedures only and have no worldly form we can see with our eyes. Thank you, Marcel Duchamp, for The Richard Mutt Case: “The only works of art America has given (the world) are her “plumbing and her bridges.” What a fantastic mental collage!
What you are pointing out are two sides of the same coin! There is an excellent essay by Thomas McEviley entitled “Head’s it’s Form and Tail’s it’s Not Content” that I would point to about cultural bias, and momentary fashion. But to get into the heart of your question, yes, digital collage is culturally and art historically undermined. Indeed, many people are still skeptical of digital collage, but then again, many people are skeptical of analog collage as well. People wrongly think that collages—analog or digital—are easy to make, because they deem, using things an artist didn’t produce is somehow less creative. Such an attitude misses the novelty, the concept, and the transformation that can take place because of image coupling and image juxtaposition. And yes, at the onset of virtual practices people tended to value the analog collage over the digital collage, but this is shifting too with the proliferation of the Internet, social media, the regular digestion of CGI, and digital imagery, which our worldly cultures are producing at an astonishing rate. On the horizon, I sense that analog collage is perhaps on the metaphorical chopping block—no pun intended.
I will answer your question personally because I do not want to prescribe a point of view here—to each is own. As a collage-based artist, I have no desire to deem one more important than the other. The technique, and the conceptual approach—even if it is an intuitive approach—are not to be separated from one another or venerated as being more critical than either counterpart. Technique and conceptual approach inform one another. I value when an artist chooses one over another. I am fascinated by an artist’s rationale for why they operate their practices with whatever determinations and limitations they establish in their work. Suspending or expelling something is a valuable experiment, and so it is the job of the viewer, the culture at large to value any such determination. As for myself, I want a full range of possibilities informing my work: form, content, technique, connectivity, history, reference, and the list goes on and on.
My current work uses digital technologies, which I fuse seamlessly with analog techniques. I cut out elements from actual ephemera and create classic and puzzle-piece collage. I also scan images and text from books, pull images, and text from the Internet and generate imagery as needed using digital imaging software. Sometimes I combine technologies, and sometimes I also draw/paint myself—whatever is required. I use digital imaging software to produce anything I need with any combination of technologies that makes sense.
I am never limited by what I do not have. Whenever I do not have an image or text I need in hand, I use scanning software and OTR (optical text recognition software) or otherwise retrieve and isolate images and text. Then I print digital facsimiles onto period paper. Such “publishing”—as I am fond of calling it—confuses or enhances my imagery because I can return images to the time period they are from while using contemporary technology to assist me. I call this activity “publishing” because if I can’t afford or find a hard copy of the book I need, then I print it myself at a size that suits my purposes.
Here, I would like to credit Michael Oatman for inspiring this idea. His 1984 “So Stories” series were the first uncollages I ever held in my hands, but I only recently realized I have a new word to describe his process. “So Stories” elevated his Max Ernst-inspired collage series to a state of delicious confusion because of how he printed/published the images in the series. Oatman “Xeroxed” his analog collages and swapped the Xerox paper for period paper. The resultant prints, in turn, masked his collage process by forming single-surface images. They look like engravings but are, in actuality, something else—printed engraving collages. Both exist. Oatman has the original analog collages, but he only shows the uncollage versions.
I love that sometimes I have to publish my materials before I can create a collage. In other words, I create from scratch the ephemera I need, and then I treat these creations as if I found them in a used bookstore. Thanks to a host of new tools and software, I am not limited by what I can’t find in the analog world! Fusing technologies has emancipated me from the Scrabble-like limitations of two-dimensional paper.
For example, any image I can find, I can translate into an engraving and then print that engraving onto period paper to locate it in a particular time period. Collage as time-travel! For example, a little over a year ago, I used the Alpha Plugin Engraver III and Photoshop to translate Casper David Friedrich’s “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1818) into an engraving. Then I printed the resulting image in various sizes on various period pages, cut them out, and inserted them into several collages I was working on at the time. I can’t say which is more important: the technical or conceptual aspect of these works that are dependent upon virtual and analog practices!