July 2, 2013

I just saw an exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art that explains how we’re each curators of our own lives on social media. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page….raise your hand if today’s insane, fast-paced culture spams you with too much information, makes too many demands and leaves you overwhelmed.

Oh, I see nearly every hand is up, haha! Now you can put your hand down and reach for a pair of scissors, either virtual or real.

What is collage?

Today’s key word is c-o-l-l-a-g-e, which describes a centuries-old practice of cutting and pasting together unrelated items for a very personal, statement-making mash-up. Collage, quite literally, is about the art of cutting through the crap to share your message.

The power of collage is beautifully explored in “Remix,” an intimate collection of pieces by more than 100 artists. On June 30, their work went on view at the Katonah Museum of Art and will be there through the summer.  The range of stuff glued onto canvasses is a wow — from elaborate arrangements of jigsaw puzzle pieces, meticulously cut out maps and postcards to garment labels, paint globs, beads and jewelry.

Much of the art on display features salvaged printed materials in the continuing love affair between collage, writing and recycling. But like true love, the passion takes many forms. Paper can be torn and ripped to play with rough textural edges or cut with the precision of an X-Acto blade. The edges of scraps can be fitted together so seamlessly that it feels like you’re viewing a painting, or put together in layers that result in a multi-dimensional object.

Here’s one of the works from the show. The elements used in this collage include ink, a waxed book page, black-&-white photos, thread, a Sotheby’s auction catalogue cover and bits of paper money:

Collage at Katonah Museum

The exhibition is curated by International Collage Center director Rachael Lawe and the center founder Pavel Zoubok, who grew up in nearby North Salem. On opening day, they blew me away with a talk for visitors that helped me see my own life as an organic, breathing collage of once-seemingly random components that actually make sense as a whole.

The show covers three galleries in this tiny jewel of a museum located in the affluent, woods-y northern reaches of Westchester County, N.Y., about an hour and 15 minutes from Manhattan. That’s Pavel in the center of the photo on your right:

Facebook, Twitter & iPads: our online collage

I was fascinated to hear about collage, from its early history to its current evolution in the age of the iPad, iPhone and Facebook. Think about it: Anyone who Facebooks is juxtaposing word-blurbed status feeds along with photos and other images. Each of our profiles amounts to a canvas of concepts that might not be assembled together otherwise. This is the heart of collage: Taking a mix of unconnected found items and showing how we relate to them.

The same sort of choice-making also goes on in Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. And let’s not forget video, from the the ever-popular YouTube, to Twitter’s hot, year-old Vine app which makes six-second videos on mobile phones and is one of the top downloaded free apps on the market.

“We’re still figuring out how to live with this stuff, how to integrate it,” the 40-something Pavel told us. “The whole idea of what makes an art life, what makes a collector, we’re rethinking it all.”

Whether we are collaging virtually online or studio artists sifting through materials that we hold in our hands, “it’s all about editing, making choices, which is a very collage sensibility,” added Rachael. “If you have a stream of constant information, you really have to develop and learn the skill of editing and look at how artists are selecting, making choices of materials and juxtapositions.”

If we don’t edit effectively, we risk losing our minds. Just look at the range of social media before us. By the way, I made the instant collage below on and highly recommend it for bloggers or anyone who needs to package images. One caveat: I’ve found that PicMonkey does NOT work well on Chrome but functions fine on Safari:

History of collage

Collage is a wonderfully democratic art form with no hard, strict boundaries. I love the fact that this medium takes us beyond the conventional belief that “real” art has to be a pricey painting or sculpture hanging in a gallery or on a museum wall. Collage also celebrates women artists and has many more of them than you’d find in the still-heavily male art scene.

“The kids get it,” Pavel noted. He said members of the younger generation, with their social media, sampling, streaming of music, as well as comfort level with PhotoShop and technology, have no problem with calling themselves collagists.

What he wants to do now is connect these new fans and the rest of us with a sense of our collage heritage, which has deep. complex roots.

Back in the 1800s, the women of Victorian England made incredible scrapbooks filled with feminine print images. But male-dominated society did not view them as artists, especially since they worked at their kitchen tables rather than studios. (Click here to learn more about “The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” a 2010 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Then in 1912, collage caught the eye of the avant garde through artists like George Braque and Pablo Picasso. Picasso is credited with smashing the fine art taboo against using ordinary, everyday materials with “Still Life with Chair Caning.”  I didn’t think much of his groundbreaking collage until after watching a 13-minute YouTube discussion about the significance of his choice to glue a piece of cheap oil cloth into what would otherwise be a painting. (Click here to watch the video.)

Over the decades since, collage has influenced major movements, from Cubism to Pop Art. In 2008, it received the hipster stamp of approval when the trendy New Museum of Contemporary Art opened its fancy new building on the Bowery in Lower Manhattan with “Unmonumental,” an exhibition all about collage. (The New York Times wrote a sassy review of the show which you can read here.)

More about this show

Pavel, a Chelsea gallery owner, became passionate about collage about 15 years ago. In 2011, he did the paperwork to create an International Collage Center. A first thought was to go the conventional route and find a building somewhere and set up an archive. But in these changing times, he said it has made more sense to explore the options in being a lending collection tied into activities and programs.

So, “Remix” opened in 2011 as an exhibition at the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell University. In 2012, the show went to the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art. After Katonah, it travels to the University of Tennessee this fall and lands in early 2014 at Bates College Museum of Art. With each stop, the exhibition  changes a little, the curators say.

I left the Katonah Museum with a different perspective on myself. Now I know why collage has always interested me. The quilting, recycling, painting, drawing, writing and social media — it’s all makes sense now. I can stop feeling schizo.

If you’d like to check out the exhibition, the International Collage Center website has a list of activities scheduled for the coming months that you can view here. with other details on the Katonah Museum site here. Both websites will give you a good armchair tour too.

Have fun exploring and collaging your life — let’s not put our creativity on hold any longer.  xo