The Age of Collage

A collection of ‘new collagists’ contains some brilliant work, but lacks in the qualities that make for a great book

Are we living in “the age of collage”, as a new book suggests? The Berlin publisher Gestalten certainly thinks so. It’s only two years since it produced a similar collection, Cutting Edges: Contemporary Collage. If that book inclines towards illustrative and decorative kinds of collage-making, the new volume is more focused, as its subtitle signals, on contemporary collage in modern art. Whether such distinctions count for much is debatable since a number of collagists featured in Cutting Edges apparently qualify for a second outing in the latest volume. Many of the individuals featured in both books have practices that encompass graphic design, applied image-making and personally motivated art. This welcome fluidity is increasingly the name of the game.

On the other hand, there might be some purpose in the distinction that The Age of Collage seeks to draw because it feels like a stronger collection. Cutting Edges has some accomplished work, but is weakened by a pervasive fluffiness; The Age of Collage has more highs overall and a greater feeling in the work of
artistic rigour.

Given the looseness of definition, which is not usually appealing to figures with reputations in the art world, it’s a little surprising to find artists such as Martha Rosler, John Stezaker and Linder Sterling agreeing to be presented on equal terms with a cast that includes many unknowns, as well as stars of the collage scene such as James Gallagher, Katrien De Blauwer, Sergei Sviatchenko and Jesse Draxler. Stezaker’s and Sterling’s status receives recognition with more pages and longer explanatory texts, but Rosler, an important feminist artist active since the 1960s, gets the same brief paragraph allotted to newcomers. Meanwhile, the book’s collage-artist co-editor, Dennis Busch, claims one of the five long texts – an act of self-elevation that ought to be beyond the pale in any book with aspirations to seriousness.

But the inclusion of artists of Rosler’s and Stezaker’s calibre is useful because it sets benchmarks against which other collagists’ work might be judged. The technical simplicity of the craft – exponents of ‘analogue’ collage still use scissors, 2 3 knives and glue – means that everything depends upon the choices made about what to select and exclude. Many collagists draw on the same kind of source material, with some hunting grounds, such as old issues of National Geographic, proving disproportionately popular. Other resources include back issues of Life, Playboy and other vintage magazines, vintage books, comic books, old photographs, prints and postcards, science and nature books, fashion pictures, bodybuilding pictures, pornography, and plates from ethnographic studies.

This gives many collages a similar feeling and means that the work of different collagists often blurs. One trope of the contemporary collage that becomes overwhelmingly apparent when many are shown together is the tendency for collagists to obscure faces by covering them up with other elements. Stezaker is the acknowledged master of this and seemingly a deep influence. He can take a single postcard of stalactites and stalagmites in a cave, turn it upside down and superimpose it on a found photograph of a woman’s face to hair-raising effect.

The shapes in the picture connect with her jawline and eye sockets so that the image seems to materialise some previously impossible-to-see interior world. No other artist masks faces with the same conceptual consistency and clarity of purpose, which makes similar work feel unnecessary. A powerful device is now in danger of becoming a cliché of the genre.

One might expect The Age of Collage to address such issues, but the book offers surprisingly little analysis. Silke Krohn, an art historian, spends most of the introduction reprising the historical overview of collage she provided in Cutting Edges. It would have been more enlightening to discuss contemporary collage in greater detail, referring to history only when work by the Dadaists, Surrealists or Pop artists helps to contextualise a point. Krohn notes that it is difficult to classify present-day collage artists, “because collage means diversity”. Yet the visual evidence also suggests there is plenty of convergence, as we’ve seen. The key question, in any case, is why the digital era has become an age of collage. Or is it merely that the internet and sites such as Tumblr, where collage thrives, have revealed, as never before, the persistence of an activity that has been widespread for decades?

On the question of meaning, it’s the makers who have the most pointed observations. Busch says that collages are his way to deal with reality: “I try to combine different worlds to create new ones.” Matthieu Bourel likens collage to a “fictional puzzle that doesn’t exist, but which might have a solution”. Stezaker – as sophisticated in his commentary as he is in his images – describes reality as a multimedia montage that now engulfs us. For him, a collage is a way of trying to crack open its terrifyingly fused surface with seams and fissures of doubt.

As I turned The Age of Collage’s pages, I was often inspired to visit the websites of collagists who were new to me. With the chance to see more, I sometimes concluded that the artist was better than the printed selection of images had suggested. Confronted by the superabundance online, the collection attempts to cram too much in, blunting the collages’ power on the page. I counted 11 on one spread. I also discovered instances where the book’s designer appears to have cropped some non-bleed images to make them a more convenient shape. Reproducing a clearly captioned detail is one thing, but trimming an artwork is always unacceptable.

Since much of this material is available for free online, the quality of editing – selecting, organising, explaining context – is the main virtue that an expensive visual book has to offer, apart from design and production values. There is some superb material here, but the editorial conception and presentation by a largely in-house team doesn’t do it full justice. A publisher with Gestalten’s international prominence has every reason to tighten up its act. 1

Rick Poynor blogs at observatory.designobserver.com/rickpoynor. The Age of Collage: Contemporary Collage in Modern Art, Gestalten; £34.99, gestalten.com

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