In a previous post, I wrote about the postmodern bricolage of reworking history, and playing, in both form and content, with old photographs, but photo-collage can and does make use of the present, and this excites me too: consider artists such as Serge Mendzhiyskogo, who takes hundreds of photographs of familiar views and cuts them into multiple strips and combines them. This is a strong example of the trope that Russian Formalist, Oscar Shklovsky termed остранение (ostranenie) or defamiliarisation, where what we know is represented to us from a new angle so that we can see it anew. This is a device in literary works of art, but I find its use applicable to photographic artists such as Mendzhiyskogo. Shklovsky began his famous essay ‘Art as Device’ in Theory of Prose (1925), with the phrase: ‘Art is thinking in images’. And the essay ends discussing rhythm, and the disrupted rhythms of prose and poetry. Here in Mendzhiyskogo’s images we see disrupted rhythms, which are, nevertheless, because they create patterns, visually satisfying. These disruptions and patterns are a form of thinking about the subject because they defamiliarise, they make us, the viewer, reconstruct the image, whilst we simultaneously enjoy the patterned deconstruction we have been given. If this image were a text (and we are reading it, so why not?), then there is a pleasure in the text, to take Barthes’s phrase.
Not all Mendzhiyskogo’s work is monochromatic: his colour collages are equally stunning, but I prefer the stark patterns that emerge in the monochromatic pieces. Work like this cannot be mentioned without reference to Hockney. His collage work is sometimes built in chaotic, sprays of images, foregrounding with the white frames of the polaroids, the ‘composite-ness’ in the picture. Mother Bradford Yorkshire 4th May 1982 and Sun On The Pool Los Angeles April 13th 1982 are examples of this. Some however, such as Paint Trolley, L.A. (1985) or Pearblossom Highway (1986), seem initially to be one image, but here the differing shades of colour in the photographs that make up the whole mottle the total image, slowly breaking the totality of the image apart. In the Polaroid Composites and Photographic Composites, he exploits the camera’s eye and how it reads the light, shifting the colour to expose correctly. They are fascinating images to look at: it’s as if he’s captured each micro image the eye sees which make up in the brain the total image of the scene we see.
The other contemporary artist using photo collage whose work I admire greatly is David Mach. I first encountered his work when I was asked to write a Christmas play by the 2011 King James Bible Trust to be staged in Hampton Court Palace. Mach was commissioned by the Trust to make Precious Light, a series of sculptures and collages, which included the head of the devil constructed out of match heads and epic, colourful scenes from the King James Bible ripped into the present day with brilliant colour and roiling movement, so that they seem like stills from a film. His collages are often crowded with people, and of almost apocalyptic sensibilities… Something in them always seems about to explode: in one image it already has, for in The Plague of Frogs, a car bomb goes off outside Belfast City Hall. They are immense. They are historical subjects given a massive contemporary twist and they are superb.
A few years ago, I discovered how to use the Photoshop pen tool effectively, and I’ve been making digital collages and composites, and shooting pictures of buildings and things ever since. Things. Things are park benches, telephone boxes, flowers, clocks, lamp posts, people, birds, clouds, skies, streets, things. I never know what kind of things I might need… I’ve been conservative in the collages I’ve made so far. I think, having looked again at Mach’s work, I need to let my hair down a little bit and go large… I have made some epic collages in terms of time: A Secret Scented Garden was made using a Flickr friend’s flowers, each one laboriously cut out digitally in Photoshop (this was probably the project that helped me conquer the notoriously quirky pen tool).
Little Cute Dance Puppets was a speculative piece, again to explore Photoshop more than to make a collage, but it showed me what a little of what the software could do. Now, I need to start looking at the narratives in the collages. Mendzhiyskogo’s work is fantastic, but Mach’s work is stunning, and, I think, it is the implied narrative within the image which is the key…
Mach, D. (2011) Precious Light: http://www.davidmach.com: http://www.davidmach.com/photo-collage/; Transpositions: http://www.transpositions.co.uk/2011/09/featured-artist-david-mach/ Royal Academy: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/academicians/sculptors/david-mach-ra,114,AR.html (accessed Dec 2013; Jan 2014)