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Juxtaposed in Its Essence: Collages by Doug Stapleton and Alexis Mackenzie Ed Krantz Curator

Catalog essay in conjunction with Juxtaposed in Its Essence exhibition at Elgin Community College, Elgin Illinois, February 8 through March 5, 2011

The history of collage stretches further than Picasso and Braque. Their early twentieth- century collages confronted simulation and appropriation with the surface of paint, subtly blurring the boundaries of reality and art.

“Over a thousand years ago, Japanese calligraphers copied poems onto sheets pasted up from pre-torn assembled pieces of delicately tinted paper, which might be arranged in the configurations of landscapes and rivers, and sprinkled with other tiny cut-out profiles of animals and birds.” (“The History of Collage” by Eddie Wolfram)

Hanna Hoch’s bold collages questioned the logic of the Weimar Republic and elevated women’s rights. During and after World War I and II, collage artists responded to cultural changes and global challenges. Collage played an important role in Pop Art. Artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi used magazines, comic books and other pop imagery to celebrate, reduce and condemn art to platitudes of materialism, inviting the general public to become participants. The population was familiar with everyday iconic images and the packaging of celebrity, yet most misunderstood Pop’s conceptual ironies.

While contemporary collage artists still engage in questioning cultural directions and political pronouncements, the two artists within this show, Doug Stapleton and Alexis Mackenzie have subtler environmental, social, historical and psychological motives linked more closely to the inherent associative bond between surrealism and its relationship to conscious and unconscious image systems.

Stapleton’s work originates out of a formalist eye and a need to create suggestive narratives. He has an intense appreciation for the seductive beauty of the objects themselves, yet creates compromised spectacles that hang on the edge of being ludicrous. Stapleton plays on the reflexive tendency for meaningful juxtapositions to spin toward absurdity and for the illogically inane to embrace the contemplative. Other works are loaded with both symbolic elements of contrast and unifying chaos.

This quality can be seen in “Maximilian.” The collage depicts an enormous dog on a picnic being covered in a robe of nobility. His eyes have a depth and intensity suggesting wisdom and understanding. Those who dote upon him are of too low a status to possess such regal bearing. The dog has a human ear and a multicolored-pompadour, giving him added importance and a sense of fashion reserved for the wealthy and adored. The painterly nature of the collage elements and their historic origins make the ridiculously-sized dogand his accoutrements somehow believable. Other paintings of this era have the same royal bearing, yet without a remarkably large dog. The veneer of reality is kept intact because of the work’s similarity in tone to others of its era.

Collages such as “From the Heavens” have a more serious mood. Tied to a deeper logic and more unconscious realms of interpretation, the work plays on continuity of form, color and symbolic compositional devices to create multi-layered interpretive associations. The “split” head is a portrait of Ginevra de Benci, painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Her expression, like the Mona Lisa’s, has a unique ambiguous veil depicting a woman deep in thought. Her inner turmoil is expressed by the tumultuous sea and sky behind her. The left side of her head flutters away from the steadier right side, bound to the boat’s orange sails and the gentle drafts made by several pairs of butterfly wings. The contrast between her staid look and the negative space, which flips to become a positive psychic force, addresses the balance of chaos and control that Ginevra’s gifted intellectual state represents. The strength of such an upheaval is given further context by the butterfly wings. They imply that life is often on the cusp of catastrophe; even something as light and delicate as the breeze of a butterfly’s wings can bring tempests of change. Above Ginevra’s right half is the profile of another woman. This figure resembles the angel from da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” creating yet another layer of meaning and context.

While our breadth of knowledge and perceptual awareness is related to our interpretative capacity, Stapleton’s use of specific forms does not always increase our ability to identify them. Even if the bright red form in “From the Heavens” was a piece of coral, it equally resembles aortic tributaries as well as red roots. The work becomes an independent entity, diverging in many different directions and meanings. Other collages by Stapleton make use of image systems and an inclusive, symbolic range of specific motifs. The use of birds and religious imagery provides interpretive leeway to discover biblical symbolism related to various birds such as sparrows, ravens, eagles and doves. In “Ascension, What Remains,” Stapleton juxtaposes the same two images of the Crucifixion, coupled with numerous birds, bird eggs, and wings, as he encourages multiple associations to be cross referenced while not laying claim to one single interpretive perspective. “Harbinger” has a more pronounced religious tone as Mary’s hooded robe is entirely woven out of birds. Since Stapleton has studied anthropology, he has an awareness of mythologies beyond those of the bible.
“Birds assume a number of roles including that of messengers, oracles, and play a major part in some creation myths. They are often associated with the journey of the human soul after death and serve as mediators between humans and the supernatural world.”

Stapleton’s juxtapositions suggest a multiplicity of potential meanings. For some, the placement of Mary next to Elizabeth ignites a deeper story of Christ, John the Baptist and the Annunciation. By giving the viewer cues, the artist initiates movement toward more comprehensive historical, biblical and formal relationships. While there are intentions, they are open-ended enough for the collages to reveal meanings beyond those we are guided toward by the artist, allowing the creative impulse to continually enlarge the scopeof the work.
In contrast to Doug Stapleton’s work, the collages of Alexis Mackenzie are stark Victorian ensembles making use of negative space to form words and phrases. The many botanical flowers, paraphernalia and other organic forms are isolated yet interconnected through various vines, branches and other materials. Our ability to see each word changes with every collage. Some letters hide cryptically behind the complexity of form and texture, while others suggest a wealth of characteristics and are easily identified.

A source being the word, phrase or primary object(s) is always what initiates the relationship of sequences and metaphors. Botanical symbols and objects embody the spirit of each particular letter, accumulating until the essence of the word becomes indivisible from the experiences and feelings connected to it. The interactions between shadows and tones of reality are more actively engaged as we move closer to the concept of the essence of our existence is everything and everything is the essence of our existence. Contained within such a profound awareness of being is a pattern or archetype.

In “Lovers,” each plant and bone constitutes a portion of the unfolding narrative, an aspect of the essence and the experiences that comprise the journey of two lovers. Collage’s dimensionality allows forms like the thorny “R” to assert their particular character and context within the parameters of the word’s experiential and associative properties. Other botanical forms and letters represent dominance and unbalance, their soft and hard aspects related to the flowering, and eventual, decay of love. The bony cross implies dissolution, yet its size and stability address the foundation of love and its possible life beyond death. The spirit of this bond is expressed through the nobility of the stony faces as if they, like other artifacts from thousands of years ago, will still attest to love’s eternal spirit. Above, are those organic soulless forms that cannot transcend death but must return to their earthly cycles.
“All the Colors of the Dark” references the existence of the world beyond. Each element is distinct, yet the eye becomes like the sun—the source from which everything revolves or can be seen. Just like the roots and interconnectedness of life, our vision enables us to acquire opportunities for distinction and relatedness. The letters themselves are individualized objects and evolutionary examples of possibility or the cause and effect of mutation.

Mackenzie’s work fosters an observational discourse, as experience and understanding are bound to our awareness, other senses are invested and exhumed from the work’s total breadth. The process parallels humanist ideals of alchemical transmutation, enhancing and accelerating our perceptual abilities and the capacity for objects to communicate and transmit their essence and totality. Her work does not represent a simulacrum as much as a covenant of related earthly, spiritual questions and experiences.

Ed Krantz Gallery Curator Elgin Community College

Juxtaposed in Its Essence:
Collages by Doug Stapleton and Alexis Mackenzie
Ed Krantz Curator

Catalog essay in conjunction with Juxtaposed in Its Essence exhibition at Elgin Community College, Elgin Illinois, February 8 through March 5, 2011