Cutting Edges: A Few Reflections on Contemporary Collage

12 Dec

Book Review: Cutting Edges: A Few Reflections on Contemporary Collage

By Lorette C. Luzajic

(Cutting Edges, Gestalten Books, 2011, ed. by James Gallagher et al.)

“Nothing is original,” said Jim Jarmusch, director of Down By Law. He took the words right out of my mouth.

“You’ve written about this theme numerous times,” said the friend who recently passed this quote to me.  Indeed, it is so relevant to me as a writer and artist most interested in collage that I’m appropriating it as my manifesto.

El Esplendor Dice La Palabra Viene – Rodrigo de Filippis

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”

Last week, I also received Gestalten’s Cutting Edges: Contemporary Collage. Edited by Robert Klanten, Hendrik Hellige, and James Gallagher, this 2011 collection is a veritable banquet of collage. My other art books have already retreated in surly envy of this new arrival, which has absorbed more attention in its short time here than many books I’ve loved for years. For the snippet-obsessed, this is a treasure chest.

Collage is, by definition, a pastiche of multiple sourced ideas fused to create something new. Collage is a sum greater than its parts. It is a collection of minuscule slices of the whole wide world, chosen randomly or carefully because, yes, they speak in some way to the artist’s soul. They transform into a brand new statement or aesthetic.

The publication of this and several others on the subject in recent years heralds positive movement towards popularity and legitimacy for collage as an art form. I welcome this shift wholeheartedly, of course, but it isn’t surprising that acceptance of collage has been rare. Collage itself is new.

Never mind today’s graphic design or MFA grads- even nonagenarians won’t quite be able to wrap their heads around what the arts were like in the world before the twentieth century. Art existed only as originals, and only a few of those were lucky enough to be purchased and preserved. The rest of everyone’ work through all of history was relegated to obscurity or obliteration. There were no postcards or small prints or Flickr sites to archive creativity. Only the extremely wealthy were privileged to see, much less own, art.

Collage couldn’t possibly exist when reproduced images themselves were rare or nonexistent. Most certainly there wouldn’t be anyone cutting and pasting from available sources like Titian or Michelangelo originals. Collage simply couldn’t be invented before the proliferation of the image. It required the printing press, photography, and mass reproduction technologies. This is why its history is mostly limited to the past century. Collage is truly modern art, married to modern invention. Without the machinations of mass production, there was nothing to collage.

“The collage as an art form first appeared in the work of George Braque in the early twentieth century,” writes Dr. Silke Krohn in one of Cutting Edge’s two essays. “In close association with Pablo Picasso, Braque pioneered the cubist style as a means of analyzing objects with greater precision.” This created an “appetite for deconstructing and rebuilding” that changed the history of art forever. Krohn says that Braque is considered the first to glue paper- colle- in his work, in 1912. Then Picasso “spent the next two years experimenting with all sorts of materials.” The futurists, dadaists, surrealists, and pop artists also made use of fragments like “newspaper clippings, labels, tickets.” Collage techniques were common but not exclusive in all of these.

Epitaph for a father and mother of three – Greg Sand

Most artists or appreciators of modern art are intimately acquainted with Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg- two of my personal faves. But what then? How many collage artists working after 1970 can the average informed person name? As the saying goes, some of my best friends are collagists. But obscurity has  been a given for any contemporary artists working seriously in the medium. Still, we are hopeful that our astonishing spectrum of creativity will be more widely recognized, and of course, more popular in sales. And this is why Cutting Edges is so exciting and so important.

What changed between Rauschenberg and the beginning surges lately of what I know will be a long and continuous chapter in art history? Just as collage was dependent for its birth on image technologies, the Internet can be thanked for showcasing, networking, and other small steps toward limelight.

“…It was thanks to the massive amount of images being continually uploaded that I had the opportunity to discover hundreds of other artists doing amazing things with collage,” writes James Gallagher in the preface essay.

He explains how Cutting Edges began as a folder stuffed with beloved works. He then created a proposal and was soon transformed into curator of a series of collage-based shows called Cutters in Brooklyn and Berlin. Then Gestalten, a German publisher with its finger on the pulse of culture, got involved and now before me is this wonderful book.

All the places Jarmusch has asked us to look are here, all the suggested ways to open up to the world in our consumption and creation. Films, music, books, photos, paintings, dreams, architecture, signs, shadows, etc. Just for starters: anatomy drawings, textured paper, advertising, op art origami squares, toys, playing cards, maps, catalogues, graph paper, envelopes, obituaries, vintage photographs, pages from a Joseph Conrad novel, postage labels, flight tickets, receipts, stamps, magazines, comic books, poems, dictionaries, porn, numbers, bar codes, stickers, construction paper, science books, letters, and more.

Dog Show – Dolan Geiman

It’s impossible not to look in here and not see a thousand different ways, which will be exciting for an audience just getting their feet wet. For those who already think and dream in collage, the world becomes downright kaleidoscopic. There is a tumbling jumble of memories and sensations and impressions. Each reader will be attracted to some works, and challenged by others. The inclusion of certain pieces will  even infuriate, but not all collage is created equal, and that’s important to see.

Cake Club – Colin Brown

Colin Brown is one of my favourite artists in the world. He is a master of composition and symmetry. No matter how busy his collages are- and they are very busy, very noisy, very manic pieces- they are still perfectly balanced. This is completely instinctual, I’m certain, yet he never misses a beat. There is no way Brown charts out the law of threes and pre-plans his constructions beyond, perhaps, a focal point of inspiration or general theme. Yet the weight and balance and colour are perfect every time, surpassing many of the best artists, modern or traditional. I was  thrilled to find five of Brown’s pieces included in this collection.

Rambler – Kareem Rizk

Kareem Rizk is a new discovery. The work chosen for Cutting Edges didn’t grab me right away because the theme was cars, and cars have never personally moved me. But I found the backgrounds very compelling because of their simplicity and texture. The nuances of gently shifting shapes of paper with muted tones appealed to me. Intrigued, I Googled and found a goldmine of work that made me completely jealous.  Everything is a standout. Whether by glue or digital means, he combines a sparse few elements of paper and imagery into sublime perfection. Completely opposite to Brown, who uses hundreds, maybe thousands of pieces in each work, Rizk uses hardly any- sometimes as few as a handful of four or five. Nor do their themes overlap. What the two share, however, is that instinctive sense of composition.

Anyone can (and should) improve the composition in their work by learning easy techniques of seeing and arranging, skills taught in any intro classes for art or photography or interior decorating or floral arranging.  The obvious imbalances can be weeded out. Practice makes perfect, as they say.

Or does it? Without a doubt, all of us can grow our compositional skills by leaps and bounds. But only to a point. There are obvious rules of order, but beyond that, there are  finely tuned harmonies of hues and patterns and shapes and relationships so intricate that they seemingly leave the realm of art and move into science.

I don’t know if Kareem labours intensively over each piece, weighing decisions about placement and colour for hours, or if each piece is placed rapidly- but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that each element lands with bull’s eye accuracy every time. I hope it is not presumptuous to quote the film Amadeus in reference to Kareem’s art, but while sifting through the archives of his collages, a fitting scene from the movie came into my mind. Mozart’s rival Salieri was trying to explain the divinity of Mozart’s work. “Displace one note and there would be diminishment,” he said. “Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”

Cutting Edges page – Valerie Roybal

Valerie Roybal is another new discovery for me. With meticulous, repetitive precision, Roybal takes narrow strips of paper and lays them rhythmically side by side. On occasion, alternative shapes complement this pattern; more often, the only variation is the variegation of text and print and colour and size of the strip of paper. Roybal refers to one set of works as “The Secret Language Series” which captures, almost, their distinction. Most of the works are laden with words and phrases and typography but the new language is more like musical notation. The rhythm is primitive and symphonic simultaneously; it also merges art with concrete and other forms of visual poetry.

At the same time, it erases the problematic elements inherent in visual poetry – namely, its unreadable nature- while highlighting its strength rooted in playfulness and aesthetics. While I appreciate every experiment in poetry, most visual poetry falls apart when one stops looking at the typographical orchestration and starts reading; even the majority of such work by geniuses like e e cummings is throwaway. I doubt that Roybal intended this experiment, but by removing the necessity of “reading” a poem and focusing on aesthetic arrangement, the expectation of “a good poem” does not enter the visual experience. The text only hints at words and phrases as if for their decorative elements and nothing else, so the joy of sifting through the words and deciphering handwriting and half-obliterated text becomes a pleasing puzzle of discoveries instead of the frustrating, anticlimactic results too familiar in poetry parallels.

I am so inspired by these that I’ve begun a few pieces in homage to Roybal, to see what a borrowed technique will yield.  “Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.”

We will see how Jim’s statement holds up when I am done.


Lorette C. Luzajic most recently showed several purely compositional collage paintings at Touched By Fire, an annual Toronto gala for artists with depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder. She is also exhibiting abstracts and pop art  as part of an eclectic trilogy called Four Front at Wayla Lounge. She is also a writer with eight books; the most recent is her first fiction collection, Funny Stories About Depression.

Visit her at

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