Louis-Philippe Côté, Data (1996–2013), collage on paper, 33 x 25.5 cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Galerie Simon Blais
Collage is one of those art forms—like free verse or abstract painting—that always looks deceptively easy. Any scrapbooking housewife can cut and paste magazine pictures together, right? So what makes some collages “art”? The new exhibition, Collages, at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MACM), suggests some intriguing answers.
As the curator, Lesley Johnstone, points out, collage is the ultimate high/low art form; like hip-hop music, it samples popular culture. Of course, so did highbrow literati like James Joyce, as well as artists like Picasso and Warhol. What elevates a collage is smart conceptual thinking. As interior decorators say, it’s all in the mix.
The first thing you notice in the exhibition is how fluid the idea of a collage can be. It can be two dimensions or three. Personal or political. It can be a David Elliott work that looks, from a distance, like a cut-and-paste collage but is actually a painting. It can be Hajra Waheed’s and Paul Butler’s decoupages. Or it can be a sculpture like Prop by Trevor Mahovsky and Rhonda Wheppler. A collage is less defined by the object itself than by the thinking process that goes into it.
Collage is actually one of my favorite art forms, because it’s such a direct way of understanding how an artist sees the world. It uses the kind of visual images with which we’re already familiar, so we “get” the references without needing footnotes, but the overall meaning can still be mysterious. Louis Philippe Coté’s Data, for instance, juxtaposes an image of classically beautiful Greek or Roman statue with a 1940s pin-up girl, a sexually suggestive photo of a tunnel, and, somewhat inexplicably, a goat. It’s strangely familiar, and yet elusive. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
Luanne Martineau, The Lack of it the Dreams (2013), rag paper, handmade paper, archival glue, and archival tape, 266 x 202 cm. Photo: Richard Max-Tremblay. Courtesy of Trépanier Baer, Calgary
It reminded me of a Telefilm seminar I attended a couple of years ago, when the organizers made all the filmmakers take a Myers-Briggs personality test. At first I thought it was touchy-feely nonsense, but the results were startling. One of the four characteristics the test measures is whether someone intuitively makes patterns and connections from seemingly unrelated things. Apparently only about 10 per cent of the population has this characteristic. But the seminar organizers said that in all the years they’d been conducting these seminars, they’d never had a single writer or director who didn’t fall into this rare category. They said, “This is why your audience doesn’t get things you think are totally obvious.”
Indeed, to an undergraduate trying to analyze a painting or poem, a mix of free-association references can seem like some kind of intellectual secret handshake. But for creative people, life is basically one big hip-hop sampler. Artists can’t help seeing connections and patterns. Collages gives us a sense of what that feels like.
Complementing Collages—in video form—is The Clock by Christian Marclay. Featuring thousands of video clips referencing time, The Clock marks every moment in a 24-hour day, and is synched to real time. For more on this award-winning work, see the NGC article here.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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