Cut and Taste
"Anyone can cut and paste," I overheard a museumgoer mutter while wandering among the pieces that make up "Bruce Helander: Survey of Collage Works," one of two current shows at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. "Everything here's a jumble." His female companion quickly stepped in to correct his misperception, explaining that collage is a matter of carefully considered juxtapositions. The man didn't seem at all convinced.
Ever since Picasso took a real piece of oilcloth printed with a caning pattern and stuck it to the canvas for his 1912 work Still Life with Chair Caning, collage (which derives from the French verb coller, meaning "to glue") has been the subject of such misunderstandings. Indeed the best collages can appear deceptively simple, as if they've been thrown together with no apparent effort or skill. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Collages, like dreams, have their own internal logic that may not be readily apparent from the outside. For Picasso and his cubist colleagues, collage provided a perfect vehicle for viewing their subject matter from many vantage points simultaneously. Like cubist painting collage shattered the material world and then reassembled the fragments in jarring new ways.
Sometimes the internal logic of collage takes the form of narrative or commentary. The scaldingly political collages and photomontages produced in the aftermath of World War I by some of the Dadaists, including Max Ernst, Hannah Höch, and John Heartfield, are prime examples.
Perhaps the most famous collage in pop art -- the piece credited with launching pop, for that matter -- is Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956). This droll critique of American consumerism prominently features, among many other things, a weightlifter brandishing a barbell-size Tootsie Pop in a living room, a nude woman (with what may be a lampshade on her head) lounging nearby on a sofa next to a canned ham, and another woman diligently vacuuming a staircase in the background.
It's relatively easy to "get" collages of the Dadaist and pop varieties, which usually have a point to make, however directly or obliquely. More difficult are collages that are essentially abstract, which is how I would generally characterize much of the work of Bruce Helander, who works out of West Palm Beach but whose reputation is national in scope.
Whether he's working with easily identifiable elements or with seemingly random snippets of paper, Helander seems less interested in telling a story or making a point than in reveling in a kaleidoscopic array of forms and colors and textures. Occasionally he seems to be on the verge of piecing together a narrative of some sort, only to back away at the last moment. The unresolved ambiguities in so much of his work make it an easy target for comments like the "anyone can cut and paste" one.
The Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes, in his landmark history of modern art, The Shock of the New, defined collage in terms that seem almost tailor-made for Helander: "Before it is anything else, collage is play. The rules of the game are subsumed in what is available -- the mailing paper, matchboxes, cigarette packs, chocolate wrappers, stickers, and other stuff in the unstable flux of messages and signs that pass through a painter's studio. Pushing them around on the paper is pure improvisation, a game with educated guesses played out until the design clicks into some final shape."
Rather than limit himself to the items that pass through his studio, however, Helander embarks on expeditions out into the world of flea markets and thrift stores and junkyards to gather the raw materials for his collages. (Robert Rauschenberg once called him "the second-best junk collector in the world" -- the best, of course, being Rauschenberg himself.) For his moody Palm Beach Suits (1998), for example, Helander has accumulated what look to be very old items of various sorts, including faded book jackets with ragged edges, notebook covers, and scraps of paper.
With Petal Pusher (1999), the artist goes a step further and uses a found object, a cheesy paint-by-numbers landscape, as the backdrop for a whimsical collage he creates by overlaying it with images of a butterfly, a bird, a cartoon bee, a dog, a gigantic snail, a centipede, and flowers with human faces and limbs. He uses the same trick for Woods Walker (1999). And for Fence Fiesta (2000), he takes the Petal Pusher collage and re-creates it in oil on a large stockade fence that's about eight feet wide and six feet high, removing the imagery an additional step from its origins. These are among the Helander pieces that approach narrative but never quite get there.
As you've probably gathered by now, Helander has a penchant for alliterative titles that eventually wears thin, especially since the titles are often only tenuously connected to the collages' subject matter: Kartoon Kapers, Dog Delusion, Lamb Luncheon, Baltimore Bottle, Captive Cowboy, Posing Princess, Head Honcho, Festive Flowers. The list goes on and on and on.
But then he'll hit you with a piece the monumental scale and ambitious scope of which more than compensate. State of the Nations (1997), at maybe three feet high and ten feet wide, is a sweeping attempt to give us a cross-section of American diversity. Its foundation is a horizontally elongated map of the United States, onto which Helander has affixed a dizzying array of images associated with different parts of the country. Some of the images border on trite -- a cactus perches over Texas, the Capitol Records building identifies L.A. -- but the overall effect is exhilarating.
Collage has attracted the attention of amazingly varied artists over the years, from such '20s pioneers as Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, and George Grosz to later experimenters such as Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, and David Hockney. For most artists it's one of many techniques taken up, toyed with, and eventually abandoned.
For the prolific Helander, however, collage has remained central over the long haul (even though the vast majority of the works in this show are from the '90s). The artist's statement for this retrospective of more than 70 collages is revealing: "Collage is an extension of my life. It affects nearly everything that I consider important, not just within the studio, but how I perceive the rest of the world. It affects my living environment, the way I cook, how I dress, and what I collect .
"My pictures come to the viewer by way of an aesthetic curve ball spinning towards home plate, containing every ingredient that I admire: color and texture, line and depth, illusion and contradiction, abstraction, romance and wit."
Not every Helander collage lives up to this last claim. Some of his work-for-hire -- including the posters he has done for the Palm Beach International Film Festival and the limited-edition prints in his Love Letters series, which interpret the alphabet in collage -- strikes me as a little thin and obvious.
But then there are pieces that vividly embody the artist's self-professed aesthetic. Take the small alcove of eight Mona Lisa variations in this show, four in color, four in black and white. Helander has more or less deconstructed the da Vinci painting and then dramatically reassembled the head and face with bits and pieces of other pictures to create an astonishing range of moods and expressions.
These playful pieces are comical but also a bit unnerving at the same time. Not only has Helander pulled off the most brazen tweaking of the Mona Lisa since Marcel Duchamp slapped a mustache and goatee on it for his 1919 piece L.H.O.O.Q., he has also managed to make us do what might have seemed impossible: see -- really see -- one of the most famous paintings in history in a whole new light. Quite an achievement in itself, and only one of Helander's many.
If Helander's collages prove too demanding, you can always take refuge in the adjacent exhibition, "Alexandra Nechita: Sentiments of Art," which sprawls through the museum's large main gallery and several smaller galleries. Nechita, a 14-year-old from Romania, has become a darling in certain corners of the art world because of her precociousness. She reportedly began drawing in pen and ink at age two, then went on to watercolors at five and acrylics and oils at seven. By the ripe old age of eight, she had a solo show in L.A.
Impressive stats, although there's a catch: Nechita's technical proficiency masks a startling lack of originality. She has achieved a facile mastery of her craft, which includes paintings, drawings, etchings, and sculpture. But there's not a single piece on display here that's more than a tired rehash of what Picasso did decades ago.
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