What is… collage? Art Radar explains

As part of our “What is…?” series, Art Radar looks at collage, an art form emblematic of today’s multicultural, interdisciplinary age.

Art Radar traces the use of collage in modern and contemporary art, and introduces a selection of Asian and African contemporary collage artists.

Yutaka Inagawa, 'PICTORIAL OFFERING: Inhabitable (painful-ema)' (detail), 2014, lambda print on paper, 100x100cm, edition 7. Image courtesy the artist, from yutakainawaga.com.

Yutaka Inagawa, ‘PICTORIAL OFFERING: Inhabitable (painful-ema)’ (detail), 2014, lambda print on paper, 100 x 100 cm, edition of 7. Image courtesy the artist, from yutakainawaga.com.

What is collage?

Collage: A brief history

Collage (from the French: coller, ‘to glue’) is an assemblage of multiple objects, images, and ideas – a union that transforms a selection of parts into a new work in its own right. A book review on Cutting Edges: A Few Reflections on Contemporary Collage at Art Nectar defines the medium thus:

Collage is, by definition, a pastiche of multiple sourced ideas fused to create something new. Collage is a sum greater than its parts. It is a collection of minuscule slices of the whole wide world, chosen randomly or carefully because […] they speak in some way to the artist’s soul. They transform into a brand new statement or aesthetic.

Pablo Picasso‘s Still Life with Cane Chair (1912) is generally regarded as the first collage: the artist pasted a patch of oilcloth onto the canvas of the piece. According to AnOther Magazine the term ‘collage’ was coined by Picasso and Georges Braque. The article states that the medium gained popularity as a reaction to the First World War:

[…] collage allowed artists to interact with existing materials – anything from newsprint and magazines to maps, tickets and propaganda and photographs – to rip them apart and reassemble them, creating visually dynamic hybrids.

Wangechi Mutu, 'Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us' (detail), 2008, blankets, plastic pearls, aluminium foil, animal pelts, clothing, photo collage, packing tape, ink, paint, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Wangechi Mutu, ‘Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us’ (detail), 2008, blankets, plastic pearls, aluminium foil, animal pelts, clothing, photo collage, packing tape, ink, paint, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

Types of collage

Collage was subsequently attached to the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. Cubomania, for example, is a Surrealist method whereby an image is cut into squares, which are then reassembled automatically or at random. Collage was also widely used in Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme. The following are some common categorisations of the medium:

  • Decoupage, which involves decorative paper cut-outs, e.g. Matisse’s Blue Nude II (1952)
  • Collage in painting, e.g. Picasso’s Still Life with Cane Chair (1912)
  • Wood collage, e.g. Kurt Schwitter’s Merz Picture with Candle (c.1920s)
  • Three-dimensional collage, which uses three-dimensional objects
  • Photomontage, which involves combining several photographs into a composite photograph
  • Digital collage, which involves the use of computer tools 

Collage: A contemporary aesthetic

Writing in 1948, Clement Greenberg dubbed the medium “the pasted paper revolution”, describing it as “the most succinct and direct clue to the aesthetic of genuinely modern art”. Arguably, the collage also represents the aesthetic of the contemporary world. Pavel Zoubok, a New York dealer whose gallery deals exclusively with collage works, was quoted by Art News as saying:

We live in the age of not only digital culture but of multiculturalism. […] We live in the age of interdisciplinary theory and studies. Everything about the way we function now is sort of innately collaged.

Dawn Ng, 'Mamashop', 2012, archival inkjet, print collage, 120 x 161 cm, edition of 3 + 1 AP. Image courtesy Chan Hampe Gallery and the artist.

Dawn Ng, ‘Mamashop’, 2012, archival inkjet, print collage, 120 x 161 cm, edition of 3 + 1 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Chan Hampe Gallery.

Thanks to the proliferation of images, mass reproduction technologies and new media, the collage is successfully reinventing itself. Apart from the explosion of raw material to choose from, new methods of digital collaging offer creative possibilities and innovative crossovers that were previously unimaginable. Even artists dedicated to traditional paper collage are starting to include digital elements; curator Charles Wilkin says in a Hyperallergic interview:

Working digitally gives you the ability to manipulate every aspect of the collage. […] Up until recently there seemed to be a strong division among collage artists on the paper vs. digital topic but lately I’m seeing more and more artists mixing the two, which is great. Collage has historically been a medium that embraces technology, I mean where would those Punk Rock flyers of the 1970s and 1980s be without a Xerox machine? So from my perspective the blend of both hand work and digital technology seems like a natural evolution of the medium.

8 contemporary collagists from Asia and Africa

Below is a selection of eight contemporary artists from Asia and Africa who work across different forms of collage to create striking visual narratives.

Kara Walker, 'Darkytown Rebellion', 2001, cut paper & projection on wall, 180 x 396 inches. Installation view at Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York, 2001. Photo by Erma Estwick. Image courtesy the artist, from sikkemajenkinsco.com.

Kara Walker, ‘Darkytown Rebellion’, 2001, cut paper and projection on wall, 180 x 396 in. Installation view at Brent Sikkema Gallery, New York, 2001. Photo by Erma Estwick. Image courtesy the artist, from sikkemajenkinsco.com.

1. Kara Walker

With her signature black cut-paper silhouettes, which fill entire rooms, acclaimed African-American artist Kara Walker (b. 1969, California) is one of the most well-known artists working with collage today. For Walker, the simplified human silhouettes in the cut-outs resonate with racial stereotypes; she employs primitive decoupage to create powerful, provocative explorations of race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity. Walker says of her art, quoted in her website:

I was really searching for a format to sort of encapsulate, to simplify complicated things… And some of it spoke to me as: ‘it’s a medium…historically, it’s a craft…and it’s very middle-class.’ […] and because the shadow also speaks about so much of our psyche.

Wangechi Mutu, ‘The End of Eating Everything’, 2013, animated video, 8’10”, edition of 6. Image courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery New York and Dak’Art 2014.

Wangechi Mutu, ‘The End of Eating Everything’, 2013, animated video, 8 min 10 sec, edition of 6. Image courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery New York and Dak’Art 2014.

2. Wangechi Mutu

Dubbed “the queen of wild collage”, Wangechi Mutu (b. 1972, Kenya) is another renowned African collage artist. Her large, lush creations feature everything from plants to packing tape and magazine photographs, and the resultant works are stunning yet confrontational reflections on consumerism, colonisation, gender, race and war. The singer Santigold, who collaborated with Mutu in an animated short entitled The End of Eating Everything, praised the artist in an interview for her “explosive renewal” of artistic expression at a time of vapid materialism. Speaking about her creative process in an interview, Mutu said:

In most cases I start off with a sketch. But I’m also thinking about real images: out of National Geographic, out of fashion magazines, out of The Economist, out of Time. I’m making a sketch, but I’m using the existing images that have been put out in the world. I love magazines because they’re so dispensable, and they’re so quickly consumed. In that way they’re quite honest. They’re unashamed about how small an amount of time they’re trying to keep our attention. They’re the fecal matter of culture.

Aboudia, 'Untitled', 2013, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 125 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the artist, from saatchigallery.com.

Aboudia, ‘Untitled’, 2013, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 125 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the artist, from saatchigallery.com.

3. Aboudia

Hailing from the Ivory Coast, Aboudia (b. 1983, Côte d’Ivoire) creates massive, richly layered paintings with fascinating collage elements. Using photographs, street graphics, comic strips, newspaper cut-outs and advertising leaflets to adorn his canvases, Aboudia’s urban landscapes and portraits are vividly enriched by “Basquiat-like faces and Abstract Expressionist graffiti trails”. The disparate fragments come together to form a “claustrophobic and oppressive yet brutally energetic” aesthetic that corresponds to the artist’s experience of trauma and violence in his own city. Aboudia’s Saatchi profile reads:

Cars and skyscrapers, working TV sets, pasted photographs of traditional African sculptures and written sentences reminiscent of street art deliver a visual symphony whose beat is the rhythm of contemporary urban life. The rich synthesis of various painting traditions such as North American Pop and Abstract Expressionism sit comfortably next to graffiti on mural size canvases that fervently demand the viewer’s attention.

Alfred Tarazi, 'A Nation's Inflation 5 Ll (Arabic)', 2011, digital pigment print mounted on Dibond. Image courtesy the artist and The Running Horse, Beirut.

Alfred Tarazi, ‘A Nation’s Inflation 5 Ll (Arabic)’, 2011, digital pigment print mounted on Dibond. Image courtesy the artist and The Running Horse, Beirut.

4. Alfred Tarazi

Celebrated Lebanese artist Alfred Tarazi (b. 1980, Beirut) uses collage as a tool to outwit time and re-create narratives of the Lebanese civil war. His digital collages of superimposed pre- and post-war images, which include personal and collective memories, re-enact past situations in an attempt to make sense of conflict and trauma. Working across a variety of media, including photography, sculpture, mixed media installation as well as digital collage, Tarazi forces the viewer to confront the past and re-evaluate his or her relationship with it.

Maitree Siriboon, "Lotus Disco", 2014, installation view at Whitespace Gallery. Image courtesy Whitespace Gallery Bangkok.

Maitree Siriboon, “Lotus Disco”, 2014, installation view at Whitespace Gallery. Image courtesy Whitespace Gallery Bangkok.

5. Maitree Siriboon

Thai artist and founder of Whitespace Gallery Bangkok Maitree Siriboon (b. 1983, Ubon Ratchatani) creates stunning, ethereal mirror mosaics that are beautiful examples of the three-dimensional collage. Born and raised in Isarn, located in the north-eastern region of Thailand, Siriboon was inspired by the rural and pastoral landscapes from his childhood. By combining personal memory with a unique imagination along with the traditional mirror collage technique, the artist creates mesmerising structures with a singular aesthetic.

Yutaka Inagawa, 'PRINT-CLUB2' (photo manipulation booth), 2014, lambda print on paper, 100x160cm, edition 7. Image courtesy the artist, from yutakainawaga.com.

Yutaka Inagawa, ‘PRINT-CLUB2’ (photo manipulation booth), 2014, Lambda print on paper, 100 x 160 cm, edition of 7. Image courtesy the artist, from yutakainawaga.com.

6. Yutaka Inagawa

Japanese multimedia artist Yutaka Inawaga (b. 1974, Tokyo) is the author of a diverse body of work encompassing photomontage and digital collages. His unique visual language stems from his fascination with the notion of deceptiveness and integrity in digital photo manipulation. Digital cut-outs are transformed into intricate montages, and sprawling wall-based installations feature materials as diverse as personal snapshots, screen-print, felt, Lambda prints, fabrics and everyday objects. The press release for his London recent exhibition, entitled “The Invasion of Cyberspace”, explains:

Snapshots are used to epitomise the real, photo manipulation becoming the embodiment of forgery, whilst his paintings function as credible fiction. The so-called real world gains deceptiveness as a fake, the end product a unique paradoxical juxtaposition.

Paul Chan '1st Light', 2005, projected digital animation; artist-authenticated computer, software, and animation. 14 min, color, silent. Installation view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Image by Art Radar.

Paul Chan, ‘1st Light’, 2005, projected digital animation; artist-authenticated computer, software and animation. 14 min, colour, silent. Installation view at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Image by Art Radar.

7. Paul Chan

US-based artist Paul Chan (b. 1973, Hong Kong), recent winner of the 10th Hugo Boss Prize, combines collage with light projection and digital manipulation to create sophisticated, immersive multimedia works. His defining series The 7 Lights (2005-07) takes the medium of the collage to new dimensions: the poetic play on light and shadows, silence and sound transforms the animated collage into enigmatic encounters with absence and presence. Chan’s Guggenheim profile reads:

In his series The 7 Lights (2005–07), Chan transforms entire rooms with his large-scale projections of animated paper silhouettes, inviting the viewer into progressively hallucinatory, apocalyptic worlds.

San Zaw Htway, 'Blue Moon on the Highway - Recycling Myanmar's Dignity', coffee-mix bags, shopping bags. Image from artraker.org.

San Zaw Htway, ‘Blue Moon on the Highway – Recycling Myanmar’s Dignity’, coffee-mix bags, shopping bags. Image from artraker.org.

8. San Zaw Htway

Returning to the basics of the collage, Burmese collage artist and former political prisoner San Zaw Htway (b. 1974, Burma) employs only the most humble materials. He started making art while in prison on political grounds; with no access to paints, brushes, canvas or paper, the artist created collages from recycled materials and garbage, including food wrappers, cake boxes and plastic bags, among others. Speaking about his work when he won the 2014 Artraker Award for Impactful Conflict Art, Zaw Htway said:

I created collages using materials from the prison’s garbage, and exchanged food rations with guards to obtain prohibited items like scissors and glue. I want [my work] to raise awareness about the lives of political prisoners in Burma, and to prove that torture, violence and oppression can break a person’s body but cannot take away the spirit within.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: African artists, Thai artistsJapanese artists, Hong Kong artists, Lebanese artists, Burmese artists, collage, mixed media, definitions

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