This email conversation with artists Elisabeth Horan & Sarah Davidson was conducted by THE BAKERY in October 2016 in preparation for their November exhibition In Line, To Glue
THE BAKERY: Would you both talk about collage in how it became the means to explore your subjects? and describe the subjects you currently are engaged in?
DAVIDSON: Fragmentation and the fragment in relation to ideas of space are ideas which have fascinated me lately. I think collage mirrors this interest, although I wouldn't say I work strictly in collage by any means. I started using collage as a way to explore a fascination with textiles. The relationship between
the history of textiles and that of painting are closely linked, and I wanted to unpack some of those parallels with the idea of troubling the distinction between craft and art. I was also interested in highlighting the gendered associations which go hand in hand with that. I started silk-screening the patterns of Victorian era crazy quilts, or tracing them and painting them in, doing a laborious amount of drawing around those shapes, and then taking the work apart as collage, in reference to how the quilts were made in the first place.
I've moved away from those ideas in some ways, but the method of taking apart my own drawings and scattering the pieces, of systematically organizing a series of bits, represents a sort of logic to me. My work has become more and more sculptural in the past year, and while a consideration of craft is still a thread throughout, I think I've turned more towards thinking about how to deconstruct embodied experience. So in that sense, the collaged parts of my current body of work have come to represent experience, akin to glances or fleeting thoughts. On a larger scale, I mean to use them to talk about the ways in which we understand space. I think collage has also been a gateway into more three dimensional work, so at first I started taking the collages and displaying them like plates, then I shattered those and showed the fragments like insects, and now I'm beginning to think of larger scale things which play with that border between two and three dimensions, like theater sets or false fronts. I don't usually use found material in my work, it starts with my own paintings and drawings, which I then cut apart. This actually makes me curious to hear about how you (Lis) think about the act of collage, since I think cutting up a found image can have very different implications than taking apart one's own work.
HORAN: I came to collage in a roundabout way after moving to Portland in 2010. I received a BFA in Sculpture back in Florida right before so my production mode was very 3D. My sculptures were an amalgamation of materials and found objects which trickled directly into my current collage work. Not only do I agree that collage can be a gateway into three dimensional work, I think it is the intersection of play and exploration between 3D and 2D. I recognize also that there is a fine line between collage as craft and collage as Art. I think that is why my collages tend to be sparse. Sarah I see this in the way you choose to display your work as well. We are both drawn to the word specimen in regard to this medium. In the Dada movement collage was made as protest against colonialism. I keep this spirit alive in my studio practice by specifically using National Geographic Magazine. The magazine’s history is rife with colonialist discourse and prototypical American ideals. I extract and re-contextualize its weighted
historical and influential contents as a gesture of peaceful protest. I am simultaneously interested in non-duality, lucid dreams, and dream journaling. Extant printed media is an analog souvenir or specimen of our collective subconscious and therefore a great way to do waking-life “dream research”. Use of the found image brings psychological potency to the tone in which each artwork is spliced. There is power in meddling with signifier/signified, and exploring the polysemous attributes of the readymade image. In this way my subject matter can vary. I strive to incorporate a sense of integration through the seamless splicing of visual vocabulary. I am constantly working within the boundaries of chance, touching, matching, un-conditioning, and playful cynicism. For the Bakery show my current subject matter is the clothesline. My focus is on the diaphanous, light, transparent quality of this material and its ability to also represent a heaviness. At first a line is weighed down by damp material, then time passes and it transforms. Very simple. Time and transformation are themes I like to explore in my work. In some collages I use chairs to represent waiting, meditation, the passing of time. Blending poetically into the clothesline narrative are a few strings of prayer flags. The images I found to compose this piece are examples from around the world which make clotheslines a unifying familiarity that represent a basic human need. Right now I am working on playing with perspective and layering the lines in a way that suggests something more cyclical and less linear. Again, in an effort to incorporate more of a non-dual outlook on the nature of reality.
DAVIDSON: My focus is on the diaphanous, light, transparent quality of this material and its ability to also represent a heaviness.
I like this idea, that a work can be simple and playful in its appeal, but present seemingly contradictory ideas. I think my own use of 'specimens' is a reflection of an interest in Western, Victorian era ideas of accumulation, of organizing of things. That particular period is fascinating to me for its relationship to the birth of conspicuous consumption as we know it. It's totally unremarkable now, to decorate one's domestic surroundings with objects of disparate origin, to make reference to conflicting ideas within an outfit, for the only organizing logic in curating one's surroundings to be one's own sense of taste. Victorians loved to collect things as aspirational social status symbols, and were being introduced to a barrage of everyday items with forgotten or unseen ties to other cultures and ideas. I'm interested in thinking about what is unseen in that relationship to everyday surroundings, the hidden labour or environmental consequence. Maybe this is in line with how you're thinking about the untold stories beyond what National Geographic represents? I think dream logic is an interesting analogy for the sort of artistic thinking one engages in in piecing together a work out of scraps. I'm not much interested in dreams, in particular, but I've been thinking lately about how a reclamation of abstraction through the lens of craft might be in some ways a feminist act in line with Helene Cixous' ideas around re-imagining language. Maybe this is also somewhat in line with your dream logic ideas, specifically in that Cixous' 'écriture féminine' stresses cyclical, non-linear writing. I'm not interested in simply uncritically reclaiming her perspective, but I think that parts of it still resonate.
THE BAKERY: You’ve both commented that collage is a gate way to three dimensional work. Would you both talk about this relationship and how it has
informed your practice? DAVIDSON: I think collage is a good way of taking things apart and moving them around, but that the more three dimensional work I've started making has come out of the realization of the limitations of the medium. I think for me, collage suggests a number of things, as a medium. It relates to print ephemera, and has a provisional quality. That said, if you want to make art about space, it makes sense to use space as a material, and a relationship to space is something I've been thinking about more lately.
HORAN: Sarah, it's interesting to point out Helene Cixous' work of transgressing
language by using language. I feel that is part of my mission as I use visual language. I am significantly inspired by the Situationist's dérive, or goal-less
drifting and observing. This is akin to her cyclical writing perhaps.
To answer the most recent question of how and why 3D work lead to collage in my case is, I move between mediums. For the last three years I have been working on three different bodies of work: concentric circles, small traffic cone paper sculptures, and collage. Drawing, sculpture, and collage, respectively. Each medium imparts a different message, and in collage's case, the medium can be the message quite often. I share this with blunt honesty because I have had critical feedback that it looks like I make the work of three different people, and that I should really stick with one thing. I understand the notion of mastering a skill through endless practice. However, my fluid approach enables me to experiment quite a bit. Eventually I see the three bodies of work coming together, though I am not sure when that will be!
DAVIDSON: Well I suppose there's a common thread there, as far as a prioritization of embodied experience. I think the political perspectives differ between those two reference points, but I like the situationists too. I read a lot of
fiction written from a sort of collagist (is that even a word?) perspective. I guess W.G Sebald would be the most situationist of that, with his focus on walking. I've been enjoying Renata Adler's novels too, recently, which are I think captivating for their ruthlessness.
I wonder if a common thread in your work isn't the fragility of it. Paper has that
quality, and I noticed that your miniatures are very delicate as well. I'm not really
familiar with your concentric circles. I think that idea of mastery, and actually of
'endless practice' are interesting. I make pretty repetitive work, filled with lots of
cross hatching. I think that idea of endless practice has both an appeal and a pathos to it, a beautiful representation of somebody's hidden labour, though it's not usually presented as such. People seem really captivated by the mark making, but it's also a mindless thing. In practice, it's me drawing line after line for hours on end (and, actually, throwing a lot of those lines away after I salvage the scraps I decide are usable).
HORAN: I support the word 'collagist'. I'm not familiar with Adler's writing, I'll check it out. Glad you bring up Sebald. I took two courses 7-8 years ago based on the act of walking. Sifting through printed matter parallels the physical act of walking. It feels like research and maybe this is where the word specimen comes into play. Fragility! Repetition! Tracing! Right now I think collage is a very strong medium because we live it. Our daily lives are more of a collage than ever: fashion, cars, food, language, spirituality, advertisement. Globalization. A celebrity wearing vintage haute couture and Yeezies. A palimpsest of the last century. Sarah, I'm curious about your process with Red, Blue, And Yellow Color. Did you have plans for those three pieces and set out to make the colored bits for each particular collection, or are they the leftover bits from previously made work that you happened to find homes for in these three works?
DAVIDSON: The fragments came first! Some of them I had used for other works, and all of them came out of a process of drawing and painting and editing. My studio has been filled with the scraps of my own drawings all year (really,
hundreds of them), and I had been searching for ways to present them which added something to the work. Red Colour, Blue Colour, and Yellow Colour are a sort of art pun actually, I'm referencing Rodchenko's monochromes (of the same
name, but I've spelled my titles the Canadian way). I figured that out in the process of making them, as I was laying out the fragments.
THE BAKERY: What challenges do you both face in your work? Or pose?
HORAN: One of the biggest challenges for me is committing to a specific arrangement of magazine clippings by gluing them down. I have the mentality of a hoarder at times (I swear it's hereditary). I collect and rearrange things incessantly ("this will be of use in the future!" "there will be a perfect fit sooner or later!"). I dance around the actual gluing-down of an arrangement with excitement and nervousness. In an attempt to confront this obstacle over the last few months I made myself do more collage sketches. This is where I find all new things and glue them down in one sitting. No saving, no overthinking. The challenge that most artists face, I think, is that we have to be willing to commit to a daily practice and understand that some of that work might be complete shit. I'm always learning to accept that.
DAVIDSON: I struggle with that same commitment to glue things down. I usually
cut up my work and re- glue it multiple times before I commit to a composition. I
think sometimes it makes sense, too, for things to float free of that obligation to be glued down. I thought it was an appealing reversal to make works (Red Colour, Yellow Colour, Blue Colour specifically) which reminded me of pinning down butterflies, but to make them out of abstract shapes which are (in a more metaphorical sense) hard to pin down. Collage has a certain inherent violence, what with all the cutting. I think there's something to that, actually; it's paper's delicate nature that allows it to be so mistreated. It's a pretty ruthless form of editing. The first good class I took in art school was a studio with David Korty. He basically said as much; if the composition isn't working, why not just cut it up? The whole class hung out and made collaborative collages. It was great. I realized that the editing process of making work could be a form of thinking, and that it could be generative not be overly precious about ideas.
I guess to return to your question, Ahbyah, I think a challenge I've been facing is how to maintain that I am presenting a critical perspective while making work that appeals in very basic way. I like colour, ornament, and repetitive mark making. I also like drawing. I make no apologies. I think the challenges that my work presents are very much tied up in the discourses which devalue those things. Many of the visual things which appeal to me have functioned as a sort of visual filler: the backgrounds of comics, the stitching on quilts. All of these things represent hidden labour. Beyond that, I'd like to highlight how we're implicated in the environments we exist in as bodies. In my more recent work I've been returning to representation more and more, and to landscape. I think this connects to what Lis mentioned about a collage existence: experience feels more immaterial than ever. On the other hand, we're living in the midst of global, catastrophic environmental collapse. With that in mind, I'm curious as to how an economy of visual scraps might function in relation to the natural world. HORAN: Living in a global environmental catastrophic collapse.
This resonates with me, especially in my collages that deal with the edited human figure. There is an ominous feeling. Foreboding even. These malformed characters exist in a void where anything is possible, and the lack of background content often emphasizes the viewer's personal experiences/ projections. I feel safe and happy with this medium because of its...."eco" nature of sourcing material. I'm not sure how long I'll hold onto that ideal, but it does keep me strictly working with paper and extant media for the time being.
THE BAKERY: Elisabeth, you went to the University of South Florida, Tampa. Sarah you went to Emily Carr University here in Vancouver. I'm interested to hear from you both what were the prominent attitudes from these institutions that have influenced your practice? DAVIDSON: I think Emily Carr has a reputation as being more focused on ideas above material practice. I would say that in many ways that holds true; there was always a strong focus on thinking about art at the school. I think in Vancouver, in general, the attitude is that artists should be held accountable for their ideas. There's quite a focus on talking about art at Emily Carr. I loved the intellectual rigor of the critical theory classes. That said, I didn't have many friends at school who worked in the same mediums as I did, and I felt a little out of place making work on paper and seeking out critical theory, like a bit of a fraud. I've since realized that's ridiculous. But the feeling of really having to justify using any particular medium remains. HORAN: I had quite a few teachers who were successful international artists and as a result they would be gone for chunks of time throughout the term. This was bothersome at first, but when they came back they offered a highly concentrated and first-hand version of their experiences that was quite inspiring. There was a heavy emphasis on professional practices, maintaining a portfolio complete with analog slides, public speaking, and overall encouragement to experiment with materials. All of the departments mingled with one another and it was easy for me to build my focus in multimedia art. I took several experiential classes that emphasized phenomenological
approaches to sculpture and installation. The USF campus had two different galleries that accepted applications for shows year round and a contemporary art museum with exhibitions from international artists. The student galleries offered opportunities for students to practice professional display of their work and the museum kept us privy to the art world at large. Gregory Green was my main sculpture instructor, and he was the first to introduce me to Guy DeBord's "Society of the Spectacle". I remember a significant lecture about successful grant writing from Wendy Babcox, who was also the first person to show me the ins and outs of the darkroom. It happened to
be the last year USF would offer analog photography. Heather Vinson's lectures on modernism and Postmodernism left a strong impression. Rozalinda Borcila taught a class called "Sight, Installation, and Performance," which sounded like a great idea for a sculpture student. I was surprised to find her class was very much about moving out into the world to uncover hidden paths and patterns, and how walking was a meditative and artistic practice. She simultaneously lectured us about the evolution of bipedalism and political activism while encouraging us to make maps of under-explored parts of Tampa. However, my first exposure to walking as artistic practice came from Louis Marcus, who taught the dérive on our trip abroad in Paris. This method of spontaneous information-gathering still resonates through my art making now. During that same trip, my professor Leslie Elsasser was working on a fulbright about the Hindu deity Kali and I became more interested in the artwork of Eastern religions. Elisabeth Condon was my senior thesis professor. Her large and vibrant paintings are like looking closely at a Japanese landscape scroll while under the influence of psilocybin. Two more folks I must mention are Richard Olinger and the late Bradley Nichols. These guys combined sharp wit, perfect cynicism, honesty and appreciation for
beauty. Their classes were also really challenging!
THE BAKERY: Which artists do you look at?
DAVIDSON: I look at a lot of painting. I've got a soft spot for big bombastic stuff
that deals in ornament and mark making; Lari Pittman, Julie Mehretu. I like Sue Williams for her sense of humour, and Laura Owens' experiments with depth. I'm
definitely interested as well in the wave of painters like them who've revisited and
reframed abstraction in feminist terms. I'm interested in Öyvind Fahlström, and
Alighiero e Boetti for their un-categorizable working methods and mediums, and
for making work that was both playful and political. I also look at a lot of early comics, especially from right around the time the medium was coming together as a vocabulary, and I keep buying books on Victorian design and craft. I look at a lot of art historical drawing too, Rembrandt, Durer, etc. There are others too, but that's what comes to mind right now. I just bought a book about Claudia and Julia Müller, and I'm reading a collection of Per Kirkeby's writing. I'm specifically interested in his early writing about landscape as scenery. HORAN: I guess artistic inspiration is a cumulative and somewhat spontaneous
thing. I can go back to my earliest attraction to Hieronymus Bosch for his grotesque rendering of the figure in fantastic landscapes with an acute attention to detail. I visited my sister's dorm room when I was nine and remember staying awake at night fascinated by a poster of his work. She had a Salvador Dali poster as well, whose work would surface again when I lived in Florida as a teen. St Petersburg has one of the largest collections of Dali's work and a museum dedicated to him. I know Dali is so commercialized and mainstream, but through studying his work I began to value the subconscious dream state as part of the artistic practice. A big shout out of course to Hannah Hoch, the mother of photomontage. Not so much "Cut with a Kitchen Knife", although I do think the title is fun, but I like her figurative and portrait photomontage the most. Again, things that touch the edge, where beauty meets grotesque. As for contemporary artists who spark my interest in this way, I have followed Wangechi Mutu's collage work for 8 years or so. Recently, Mutu had a show of her latest work at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. Her work investigates themes of gender, colonialism and race. I love how Mutu's work can be messy in a very
methodical way; she pushes the limits of materials and even gets away with glitter. Inka Essenhigh's paintings from the late 90s and early aughts are visually striking for me. She captures spontaneous and deliberate mark making effortlessly within one painting and her colors always pop. Her subject matter is also very dreamy. While working in my studio over the years I listen to Alan Watts which has a tremendous impact on my thought process. His and other books on the subject of Zen influence my work deeply as I search for balance in composition and subject matter. I am inspired by simple things, like road cones, construction and everyday objects just slightly out of the ordinary or out of place. I have an affinity for miniatures and black and white checkered floors.