Art Review: Doug Stapleton
by Diane Thodos
September 20 – December 30, 2012
Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington St.
Chicago, IL 60602
When the word “collage” comes to mind it often summons up memories of exercises performed in art class, those exploding mash-ups of cut and pasted images culled from fashion magazines and product catalogs. Often the slick, generic power of contemporary print media easily commands and overwhelms any personal or expressive intentions the artist may have entertained. It can be very difficult to tame it into a personally articulate medium. How to nullify the generic harshness of commercial texture and imbibe it with personal intention.
The collages in Doug Stapleton’s exhibit Optimistic Reconstructions showing from September 29 – December 30 at the Chicago Cultural Center offers work that shows his playful and specific use of the collage medium. He skillfully selects images that are juxtaposed and fitted together as though interwoven, creating a personal and ironical homage to the art of antiquity. He uses the tools of paradox and humor with a gentler edge than his German Dadaist predecessors Hannah Hoch and Raoul Hausmann, but clearly acknowledges the spirit of their innovation and wit. In their day -the nineteen teens through the twenties – commercial print media was new and exciting, ripe for experimentation and sharp social commentary. Today it has aged considerably, a consciousness that Stapleton makes deliberate use of.
Max Ernst chose the engraved reproductions from popular 19th century gothic novels to construct his famous collage series Woman with a Hundred Heads. Stapleton favors the specific look and texture old black and white or sepia toned reproductions centering on the theme of Greek and renaissance sculpture. The powdery printed texture of these older book and magazine reproductions exudes a sense of nostalgia and intimacy avoiding the glossy harshness of contemporary magazine copy. Like his Surrealist forbearers Stapleton enjoys juxtapositions from ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian time periods, using emblematic sculptures to humorously caricaturize specific people. Stony faces are enlivened by pasted over eyes, mouths, hands, and arms with piqued or sly, and campy expressions. Fey Yum Yum, A Long Undressing, and Gladys loves Her Grapes combine female and male into a hermaphroditic mix, while Whoa is Me expressionistically mocks a Gothic Madonna who stares at us with languorous eyes and wears the bare-toothed grin of a petrified mummy. Like Ernst, Stapleton enjoys spoofing art that is held in reverence and creating conundrums of time and space that undercut propriety and pretentiousness.
Stapleton’s collage technique proves the most masterful when he elaborately intertwines parts of active athletic forms from statues with a tangle of writing snakes, particularly in the Laocoon-like Zero to the Bone the mysterious snake covered back in Acretus. There is a similar energy explicit in Optimistic Reconstructions, an erotically charged palimpsest of muscular male torsos that evinces a distinct reverence for the expressive and erotic freedom of ancient Greek sculpture.
In these more complex works the cutout parts are fitted together with the precision of puzzle pieces locking into each other. This illusion of seamlessness brings out the Pygmalion-like contradiction of stone coming alive, giving the work its Surrealist edge. A number of works, like The New Collar and The Herpetologist use parts of old master paintings and drawings to hilarious effect. In Persephone Stapleton indulges a sense of pure lyricism, placing powdery windblown drapes among rapturous enfolding bodies. The delicate and erotic mood is unique in its unmitigated sense of joy and lightness, masterfully fused into an enigmatically seamless surface.
True to the tradition of fantasy-based art that has existed in Chicago since the 1950’s, Stapleton presents individually invented and Surrealistically witty vignettes. His collages express both a lighter and darker ironic spirit that keeps its sense of mystery alive with nostalgia for the erotic and expressive freedom of the body as it existed in ancient times.
Diane Thodos is an artist and art critic who resides in the Chicago area and was a student of art critic Donald Kuspit at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1987 to 1992. She also studied with printmaker Stanley William Hayter and abstractionist Sam Gilliam. She received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2002 and has exhibited most recently at the Kouros Gallery in New York City and the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago and is also represented by the Alex Rivault Gallery in Paris, The Traeger/Pinto Gallery in Mexico City, and the Thomas Masters Gallery in Chicago. Throughout her art and writing career she has held a special interest in Expressionism and its history.
Review by Diane Thodos of the Optimistic Reconstruction exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center