After World War I, creative types disillusioned by mainstream society and alienated by worn-out artistic practices gravitated toward Surrealism, a literary and visual arts movement meant to expand the unconscious mind beyond the constraints of the rational world. André Breton, the French poet and anarchist who founded the movement hoping it would lead to total social revolution, had studied medicine and psychology. During the war, he developed a particular interest in dreams and the thought processes of the mentally ill. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, who sought to explain the unknown workings of the human mind. He played occult-inspired parlor games, such as automatic writing and drawing, with his like-minded friends, which allowed them to step directly into the mystery of their unconscious as they let their pencils roam across a page with no force — sort of like a Ouija board, except they weren’t trying to contact the dead, but their own deepest selves. In Exquisite Corpse, typically four people added to a drawing, word, or phrase on paper without being able to see one another’s contributions until it was complete, creating unlikely juxtapositions that could confuse, delight, and inspire.
Collage, another medium that Surrealists used to foster chance and startling combinations of imagery, is the focus of a new exhibition at Nisa Touchon Gallery, Exquisite Corpse: The Surrealist Tendency in Collage, opening on Friday, Nov. 13. The title is sort of a surrealist game all by itself because it is entirely conceptual. There are no Exquisite Corpse projects in the show, yet chance is still at play. The three participating artists — Hope Kroll, Sherry Parker, and Frank Whipple — happen to be from California. They have never met in real life, but they are friends on Facebook. All are interested in vintage illustrations and images of obsolete technology. Kroll and Parker are represented by Nisa Touchon, while on the advice of another Facebook friend, Whipple cold-called a few weeks ago to see if the collage-focused gallery might be interested in his work. Within days, his Token Totems series was selected as part of the upcoming show.
The works in the series are tribal-looking vertical collages made up of gray-scale illustrations cut from obsolete books on industry and machinery that date to the late 19th century. Whipple used to deal in rare books and ephemera, which is when he began stockpiling materials. He also collages in color, fascinated by outdated printing methods that resulted in oversaturation and bleeding lines. At first glance, the Token Totems works appear to be graphite drawings, but the intricate textures and shapes — seashell, stone, steel, engravings, and machine parts — are contoured with scissors.
“I’m interested in what the image suggests to me. What the thing starts out as doesn’t interest me as much as what I can alter it into and create a different object out of what had been depicted,” he said. Many of the antique illustrations he uses contain references to other images, such as when faces are hidden inside machinery in the arrangement of nuts and bolts. He echoes this practice in Token Totems; in the piece Tipping the Point, a loony face goggles out at the viewer from a composition that is ostensibly a collection of arrowheads and engravings pointing to a connection with the divine. In this and other work, he is playing with ideas about the unfixed nature of scientific law, which can change when a new discovery is made, sometimes shifting what we thought of as reality. He also explores the evolution of humans into more machine-like or alien-hybrid creatures. “It’s the suggestions of things that are recognizably human, but more than human. A person might imagine they’re seeing a face in there, and then all those facial features can be deconstructed and turned into something else, something new.”
Kroll has been working in collage for 15 years, utilizing vintage illustration, typography, and old paper. Initially her pieces were the size of books, but they have grown as large as 30 inches square, or tall and skinny, 10 inches wide and 57 inches long. Her images — of isolated children surrounded by medical equipment, of birds perched in twining veins and blood vessels, of disembodied limbs and organs arranged exquisitely among butterflies — are three-dimensional. She uses bits of archival foam core to lift cut-paper objects from the surface and then weaves other objects behind, giving a swarm of multicolored insects swirling about a man’s head, for instance, the appearance of flying off the collage and into the room.
Kroll uses all manner of cuticle scissors — from dime-store deals to the expensive Swiss-made variety — to cut out her images, only taking up an X-Acto knife when an object’s intricacy leaves her no other option. For Kroll, the cutting is a separate step entirely from composing a collage. She enjoys the challenge of cutting with precision. “The more tedious it is to cut out, the more excited I am to cut it out.” She saves the objects in files and drawers, and goes through them later when considering what kind of collage she wants to make. “I couldn’t use them right away, because they would be too precious.”
Unlike her fellow artists, she hesitated when asked if she considers herself a surrealist. “A lot of people do. Disparate elements together are always going to be surreal,” she said, so she fits into the category, but her current work is focused on process and design. In the past, her personal psychological issues were reflected in her collage, such as the repeating image of an isolated child. Kroll’s childhood asthma forced her to find quiet, indoor things to do, which is how she came to drawing and painting. She explained that the birds that recur did at one time represent messengers of the subconscious, attacking from within and without, but they have less emotional significance than they used to. “I still have those elements, because I can’t excise that, but when I go to make a piece now, they’re more about composition and color.”
“I’ve been working in collage since the mid-’80s, and I find it an absolute rush from start to finish,” Parker told Pasatiempo. “I never start with a preconceived idea or an image — that’s the fun of it.” Like the others, she gets her old books, magazines, and papers from estate sales, library sales, eBay, and other troves for discarded collage-making materials. She also takes abstract photographs to use as background. A shadow on the wall behind a sculpture at SITE Santa Fe became the spiral pattern in One Trick Pony, in which a centaur-like creature balances on a beach ball like a circus performer. Parker uses a recurring compositional motif of a figure, centered on the page, displaying a bit of flair and movement, often kicking up one leg.
“Most of my work is very lyrical. It is and isn’t visually challenging — or it is in a positive way, not an ugly way,” she said. “It reflects my irreverent response to and refuge from these times. The Surrealists called the time after World War I a ‘furious folly.’ Everything was in disarray. Comparisons to now are easy to draw.” This stance is manifested in her collage through nonsensical imagery, deconstruction and humanization of machines, and anthropomorphic creatures uniting man, woman, and animal.
“When I come across images I might use in the near future, I cut them out. I wind up with a lot of stuff, kind of like a psychotherapist’s sand tray. You have all these objects and you start putting them together, and at the end you say, ‘Oh, what does that say about me?’ When this new emergence tells me what I didn’t even know I was thinking, that’s when I feel I’ve arrived.” ◀