artwork > Essays

Interview with Doug Stapleton by Kieran Donnan.

from: 22 Magazine, Volume 4, Collage, Fall-Winter 2013.

Kieran Donnan: What ignited your interest in collage work in particular, and are their specific literary or philosophical influences for your work? It is clear that your interest is also historical, so are there influences from the past for your work?

Doug Stapleton: Immediacy and possibility. At the heart of my process is permission to upset visual categories and meanings. Doing collage also helps me understand and comprehend the world around me. My collages are a response then, my declaration of convictions and desires. I also want the work to have broader currency, which is one reason I work with art historical images. I choose a gesture, a moment, a physical attitude and smash that historic episode into my current obsessions. While the process seems spontaneous, my internal librarian is cross-checking references as I shuffle and fumble around a pile of images. I have a series of statements and cautions that I use to keep me engaged: What is the original meaning of the images? What do they remind of me of now? What else can they stand for? How do they sync up and how do they collide? This may not be a philosophy, but it is a kind of working algorithm.

I look at lots of other collage work and I look for precedents before Picasso glued some newspaper to one of his paintings. I'm interested in an assemblage or collage view of image-making: Arcimboldo's composite figures through early photo-montage, Dutch Still Life and tromp-l’oeil painting. I find early navigation and star maps fascinating in how fact and fiction collide in orderly systems. Among modern and contemporary artists, I admire those chance driven collagists like Jacque de Villegle, ripping and tearing bold compositions, or quiet formalist like Ann Ryan. I also admire the blatantly political, satirical, sexual work of artists like John O'Reilly, Genesis P'orridge, Ralph Arnold or Martha Rosler (to name a few that I’ve been looking at recently).

What has had impact on my working process are authors such as Annie Lamott, Mark Doty and Annie Dillard in their writings on writing. I think of my collages as a form of writing—bookish creatures full of descriptive and narrative troubles. Additionally, my years working with dancers and choreographers has shown me a way to construct a visual vocabulary that is physically motivated. I find that thinking from another discipline challenges me to break out of visual strategies that are too familiar and reliable.

KD: Is collage evocative in a way you could describe, such as the way the image makes an impact by coming into contact with another image?

DS: Evocation is a great word—summonsing of a supernatural entity or of a memory of a time past. I love how images carry around their history like old lies and secrets, partially intact and heavily coded. I want to make my own secrets and codes with my collage.

The power in collage is how images collide. My collisions tend towards a more seamless, studied approach. I try to blur the boundaries of different images to create a strange new whole. I think it is most successful when images jolt and startle us without really trying. It's a delicate form of restraint that allows the eye to complete and accept the image while possibly churning up some discontent.

KD: It is clear that their is classical imagery throughout your work. Is there a particular message that you are trying to evoke by using these images in particular?

DS: I started using classical imagery by happenstance—I found a book on Greek sculptures along with a book of photographs of Australian truckers. One summer evening, I started cutting and combining and they fit wonderfully. I had shied away from using Greek, Roman and later Renaissance and Revival-style images; their classical beauty left me cold. Additionally I equated them as part of a complacent, knee-jerk gay aesthetic of muscled beauty. As a man who came of age during the AIDS epidemic, the fiction of perfection of the diseased-free body was everywhere—coffee table books, magazine, movies—inspired directly from classical sculpture. Working with the trucker photos and combining the weather-worn greasy truckers with time-worn and scarred sculptures was a revelation. It shifted my long-brewing discontent around objectification into praises of imperfection.

KD: You mention in your website the religious and literary dimensions of your work. Is there a message within your work that aims to clarify how you feel on the subjects, whether your work developed because of these, or is it independent of political messages.

DS: In Costantine Cavafy's poem “What I Bring to Art,” he writes how he submits to poetry his desires and perceptions, indistinct and half-glimpsed, to become something nearly whole and imperceptibly complete. That poem really resonates with me—desires, half-glimpsed, indistinct, unfulfilled, imperceptible—a perpetual condition of longing. What I'm interested in is how images portray mystery and power, rapture and abandon. I think then about my own negotiation with ontological understanding. What does mystery and power look like to me? I bring my own struggle to my work table and, like Cavafy, sit in a mood of reverie.

KD: And what of the absurd? The message of your work that reveals both clearness and absurdity, an articulation that is also joyful. How important is meaning forming in your work as opposed to the more slippery sense of humor that is put across?

DS: Humor and absurdity are very important to me—it is part of the reverie—something joyful. Sometimes I just crack myself up in my studio. Humor keeps me in check from pompousness and over intellectualizing. Also, in answer to part of the previous question, humor is one way I address social and political critique. Absurdity helps me funnel personal convictions, outrages and sorrows into something public and shared. Finally, I think that absurdity jolts us out of day to day reality, a trickster spark into a different perception of what we are as humans.

KD: Do you feel responsible for your images, how you dismantle figures and re-arrange their identities? Or is this a more playful range of concepts? It appears that sometimes the image is stark and at others delirious with absurdity. Is this intentional?

DS: The starker, simpler images seem to arrive without much effort. Those are blissful moments for me. The more complex images take greater intention; teasing apart how I want the images to perform. No matter how busy and over-wrought, I still require some underlying clarity, balancing formal composition with convoluted baroque imagery. Regarding responsibility to the image, I am interested in their original meaning and significance and try to bring some of that along into the work. I have to be cautious about getting too attached to an original image—I tend to squander them, waiting for that 'perfect moment' to use them. That often never comes. I follow Annie Dillard's advice in The Writing Life—that is to use the idea in the moment and not squirrel it to become stagnant. I agree. I get such a back log of images sometimes that I find it suffocating. I have tricks, chance operations, that I use to bypass my seduction with original images, and hopefully, override my attachment.

KD: Finally, it seems that your art is deeply philosophical yet has a playful, pop culture texture to it. Is this an important aspect of the future of your medium?

DS: I hope to find a balance between the thoughtful and the absurd. What I strive for is a condition of between-ness that skitters between opposites without taking sides. I want the work to be serious and irreverent, queer and strange, unsettling, comforting, hermetic, alluring and jolting. Trickster work! In answering these questions I'm aware of how much I reference myself, which I hope is less about ego and more about how I try to give the collages something of my own being.

22 magazine interview

interview from 22 Magazine