Collaging is one of the most subjective forms of art, a deeply psychological process, that is at once a conversation with the broader “objective” world, a world of objects and symbolic meanings. It’s our way of talking back to our physical reality, allowing us to make an imprint upon it just as its made an imprint on us.
A collage may be analyzed and broken down by critics like any piece of art. But notice, the artist doesn’t lose their integrity. Nothing feels “missed” or “lost.” The interaction of the components in a collage are a psychic play that is deeply personal to the artist, even if they’re unaware of it. It’s the equivalent of children playing with toys and dolls: they look at the individual parts, customize it to the story they want to tell or aesthetic they want to show, and play. They don’t make the dolls. They don’t make the toys. Most of everything is made for them, but yet, a deeply personal journey unfolds.
Here’s what Rick Poynor, lecturer, writer, critic, and avid collage fan has to say about the accessible nature of collage:
I think we should emphasize the radically open nature of collage. To make collage you do not need expensive tools, or training, or even need the ability to draw. Collage takes the radical availability of texts and images in consumer culture and transforms that material from a demand to consume into an invitation to produce. With only a blade and some paste, absolutely anyone can enter into the practice of art and potentially produce really powerful work. This is not to say there aren’t virtuoso collage artists but rather to emphasize how open the form is.1
Not only is collage accessible to anyone, be they “artists” or “non-artists,” accessible to anyone with basic motor skills and some supplies, it is arguably the most subjectively up for grabs than any other form of art. At a theater, you can see an actor’s wincing face making forced contortions and pray that he’ll emote during his poorly executed Hamlet speech. This speech is, under scrutiniy, a poorly executed performance. When I went to a Día de Los Muertos parade at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, there were spirited dance performances, but as I nodded my head to the drums, once dancer misses a crucial step on the beat. Writing bears the brunt of expert critique, broken now and excavated for necessary components in grammar, style, content, structure, and clarity.
The collage can be presented for view, it can be similarly broken down just as any piece of visual art can. But there’s an element that persists under the intense scrutiny of the critical eye.
The collage is incredibly personal. And aren’t all the other million and one other ways we express ourselves “personal?” The collage reflects our truly uniquue and internalized relationship with our “world of objects:” newspapers, magazines, buttons, plastic remnants, broken necklaces, coupons, cardboard, staples, paper clips, soda bottle labels. These objects have lived a life outside of the artist, and the artist brings them together in a way that satisfies a unique cognitive need on the canvas. In this vein, collages make the strongest statement on the objective world while simultaneously revealing the psychological needs of the artist.
In fact, the origins of what we call a collage today began as a response to a massive shift in the objective world, inspiring a psychological need for people to interpret mass production. This process began with the Cubists who, at the beginning of the 20th century, started pasting cut-out squares onto canvasses. They began dissecting the 3-D cube that artists were intent on mastering to deceive their viewers and laid it out flat.
This came about as mass production was at an all time high and skilled artisans started going out of business. Technology made objects with a uniform production method, treating them with science instead of care, stripping them of “charm” or a sense of life the comes of making something with human hands. The Cubists who flattened the 3-D cube were rehearsing what mass production did to objects: demystifying them. Yet society seemed to compensate through advertising, creating a dogma of false promises; we’ve all seen them: the bright shiny faces beckoning us forth to try this or that new home appliance, shaving cream, radio, and the ilk. Cubists satisfied a cognitive need to dissect the lies that were poisoning society through mass consumption. In their eyes, the 3-D cube was built with product deification and the collage dismantled myth in just a cut, tear, and paste.
It’s very possible this wasn’t their intent. Maybe they were satirizing classical art and its attempts to become stunningly real. Maybe we don’t need to look at a piece of art and be stunned by how “real” it looks. Maybe we should instead be confronted by how false it really is.
In the 21st century, and just as the Cubists did, we return to collage in its original form as a way of processing the mysterious world around and within us. We aren’t always, if almost ever, aware of what drives us to assemble objects on a page. As Carl Jung, a psychologist specializing in the matters of the subconscious, has said: “The hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Carl Jung’s sandplay therapy is strikingly similar to the process of collage-making. For those who are unfamiliar, it’s a therapy where patients select objects off a therapist’s shelf to assemble in a small sandtray, just as one collects scraps to glue onto a canvas. At the end of this sequence, sandtray patients are then asked what these objects mean to them, revealing subconscious themes related to archetypes and early childhood experiences.
Just as the patient may stare with a dumbfound expression at the sandtray objects, when we select items for a collage, we may grasp aimlessly. Maybe that coupon book means nothing to you on the surface. But then when that coupon starts interacting on the page, we’re letting our hidden mind communicate with us, ceasing to use our intellect as a drill to unearth mysteries and allowing the mysteries to reveal themselves.
One evening, I started a collage with a picture of a young girl dawning a large eagle from the newspaper. The girl is actually the subject of the documentary Eagle Huntress and is the first female falconer in Mongolia, breaking a longstanding male-dominated tradition that’s been passed down for millennia.
I did a collage in the heat of the 2016 U.S. election between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, just two or three nights before Trump became the president elect. I didn’t know why I picked a particular picture until I looked at her powerful, resilient stance. This small girl raises her arm to a black eagle with a wingspan that doubles her height swooping down to land on her glove. Thinking about this image in the middle of a disenchanting election, that I viewed as a triumph misogyny, gave me profound joy, because I knew that hope still remained. Women can challenge and redefine any pressure put upon them if they want to. We can defy traditions set down for us for generations before.
And I didn’t realize this until after I put the embossing glue on.
Sometimes, we know what we’re doing with a collage very well. In the world of objects and myths, sometimes they don’t cohere, giving rise to tension and unresolved dissonance. Sometimes we’re merely ripping objects from their contexts and put them in their proper place. Take these two powerful collages that send us some signals about ads, their implicit messages, their false promises, and the cruel realities that commercialism refuses to acknowledge:
These models are pulled from their beach sands, sweeping views, clubs, bar stools, and pasted in the first picture, on a sweeping landscape and in the second, inside of a house with a raging war just outside the window. The model in the first lays on top of the world, her idealized and almost unattainable perfection permeating throughout the natural landscape. In the second, we see a nation of irreconciled paradoxes: glamour and luxury resting on the brutality and terror of war abroad, inextricably tied to the wealth of our America. We’ve drunk the sweet milk of ignorance, strolling on our smooth roads paved with money earned from greed, violence, and imperial control. These collages serve as a medicine for the virus of complacency, which has made us oblivious to the toxic paradoxes of living in a hyper-commercialized, money-driven society. We’ve been assaulted psychologically: so we put these objects and their lies in their proper place, restoring a soundness in ourselves.
A critic might swoop in and criticize the political undertones of these collages. They may argue for or against the messages they seem to purport. But the collage artist has discovered a truth for themselves, and who’s to argue against their subjective truth? Who’s to argue against experience?
Coming back to the Jungian sentiment of collage-making, Susan Levin comments in her work, Art from Dreams: My Jungian Journey in Collage, Assemblage and Poetry, that collages reveal truths in the way that dreams yell to our conscious mind:
Dreams, like collage, assemblage and poetry, derive their form and character from the aesthetics of juxtaposition – the placing of seemingly random images in proximity in a way that elicits a new level of meaning and understanding. In all three there is a role for intuition, a vested relationship to memory, a certainty that things are never only or entirely as they appear, and the presumption that everything carries with it a plurality of meanings. In the technique of assemblage particularly, commonplace, found, deracinated objects remain themselves even as they become something else. Like a dream, a work of art can reveal the hidden treasures of the mind and how it processes our surroundings.2
These random objects enter into our psyches in any number of ways, leaving impressions as they pass through our awareness. The physical world surrounding us forms an architecture of thought that may remain unknown, hiding itself in some dark nook or cranny. In reassembling the physical, we make our own impressions, our own architecture, changing the outside as the outside changes us. We participate in the dynamic, actually listening as the dream-like symbols of the real world speak to us.
What happens when our psyche grasps at an absence in the objective world? Or a presence that can’t be perceived or felt, but just as real? Einstein referred to reality as a persistent and deceptive illusion. During our best moments, we’re just as persistent to discover what’s beyond reality’s facade. In the case of someone wishing to articulate this in a collage, a conundrum presents itself. How does the collage artist satisfy a need to create something that isn’t there with the materials right in front of them? Will a collage only ever be an approximation of the imagined?
For this, I turn towards the film The Truman Show for an example. For those unfortunate few who have not seen the film (make sure you do), it centers around Truman, as portrayed by Jim Carrey, who was the first person adopted at birth by a corporation. The corporation makes his life into a television show and builds a humongous set, a city called “Seahaven Island,” that he believes is his entire world. The fictitious town is full of 50’s tropes, white picket fences, and retro products and designs, and all the sleepy promises of suburbia. Everyone on the set is a paid actor and the only “real” element is Truman–until he falls in love with Sylvia, a woman who finally tries to tell him the truth only to be whisked away abruptly by a mysterious man.
Truman never lets go of her, and while she’s disappeared from his physical reality, he’s desperate to reinvent her image. Every day he buys women’s magazines for his wife, supposedly, only to rip out parts of women’s faces in hopes of reconstructing that of Sylvia’s in a collage. The part he struggles with most is finding the right set of eyes, the embodiment of truth, a truth that he’s been searching for but has been denied to him. As he pieces together her face, the result is at once realistic but distorted, the mismatching colors and skintones an aching reminder that this collage is, indeed, only an approximation at her true visage.
When a collage artist pieces together a vision of a truth, it probably really is, at best, a clunky approximation. But our imaginations must fill in the rest, and just like Truman, inspire us to go beyond our horizons, to find a truth that we don’t just know, but more importantly, feel.
The objects that surround us are taken for granted facts. They are apart of our set of “norms,” subconsciously ingrained rules that, if we thought about them at every moment, would be incredibly exhausting. A commercial ad can be taken for granted: we see a beautiful woman and a piece of lipstick. Classifieds are full of people bartering, selling, looking for employment. Yet there may be a psychic tension between what these objects are communicating under the table and what we may personally believe about them. In collaging, we explore and resolve a dissonance, and won’t allow for “reality” to have the last say.
1. Banash, David. “Collage Culture: Nostalgia and Critique. An Interview with David Banash.” Design Observer. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016
2. Levin, Susan. Art from Dreams: My Jungian Journey in Collage, Assemblage and Poetry. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.