Max Ernst began his career as a surrealist around 1920 with the production of semi-humorous, but somehow disturbing collages. “Ernst took disconnected fragments from old anatomy books and collections of engravings and rearranged them in accordance with the irrational demands of the imagination.” (The Concise Encyclopedia of Surrealism by Rene’ Passeron) Ten years later, Joseph Cornell (see earlier posting) saw these collages and utilized the same techniques before concentrating on production of his boxes.
In 1983, I began experimenting with variations on this surrealistic collage technique to illustrate biblical themes and events. I utilized as my source material illustrations from Nineteenth Century medicine almanacs, trade cards and (especially) black and white engravings from Jules Verne novels. Later I supplemented these sources with old British boy’s magazines from 1850-1910. Most of these early pieces were no larger than 3 1/2″ x 5″ (Max Ernst’s collages were similarly small in size). It soon became obvious to me that the all black-and-white collages, such as Ernst and Cornell produced, were often indistinguishable from simple untouched engravings unless some fantastic element was introduced–which was sometimes, but not always, my intent.
Mostly Monochromatic (2003)
20″ x 16″
The above piece utilizes black-and-white illustrations exclusively as is appropriate for a work showing the utter banality of existence in hell. Because of its relatively larger size, it bcame necessary to find imaginative ways to disguise the seams in the picture (as with the tall pile of tires you can see in the center).
I later found that the most striking visual effects could be obtained by introducing figures from old engravings into modern color photographs as backgrounds, such as in the diptych below picturing, respectively, Jesus’ birth and ascension.
Descent (2005) (16″ x 20″) Ascent (2005) (16″ x 20″)
My largest, and most technically challenging, collage to date, labeled “Successions,” incorporates a decorative strip down the middle mirroring the two Biblical transitions pictured. One is that from King Saul to King David, marked by violence. The other is the peaceful transition of spiritual power from Elijah to Elisha.
4′ x 2′
The first two works of non-representational art that I can remember seeing were during a trip with my parents to the Huntington Library in Southern California in the mid-1950’s. One of the pieces was an all-white, wooden sculpture by Louise Nevelson, and the other was a mixed media assemblage, or “box,” by the great American surrealist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). These two pieces completely redefined for me what shape art could take. About ten years later, I took an old wooden clock case and composed my first box, entitled J.B. (for Judgment Box).
J. B. (1968)
21″ x 11 1/2″ x 3 1/4″
The diverse materials used to construct this piece include a toy car, plastic flower, popsicle sticks, layers of tinted Elmer’s glue, a copy of a medieval church mural done in oils, a commercial greeting card, shards of Indian pottery from Acoma, and a plastic thermometer scale. This was also the first piece I composed with a scriptural reference in mind–in this case, an examination of the various expectations held regarding the end of the world.
It was over thirty years later before I returned to this form of composition, this time with a bookend piece regarding the competing (or complementary?) viewpoints regarding the events surrounding the beginning of the world.
The Great Debate (1999)
8 1/2″ x 8″ x 22″
This piece was constructed from an old scientific demonstration kit from England purchased for me in an antique shop by my wife for this purpose. The most puzzling feature of this assemblage for most people is how the large collaged “dice” were put into the glass bottle on the right. The technique is akin to that involved in putting a ship in a bottle.
Since the year 2000, about half of my artistic output has been in the form of mixed media assemblages constructed in boxes of various sizes and descriptions. One recent example is shown below:
Strike Two (2008)
8 1/4″ x 5 1/4″ x 3 1/4″
The Book of Exodus describes the accelerating conflict between Pharaoh and Moses regarding the request to “let my people go.” This box portrays the second plague visited upon Egypt by God–an innundation of frogs (Exodus 8:1-7).
Although the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch lived from ca. 1450-1516, he had a profound effect on the much later surrealist movement with his incredibly detailed and naturalistic representations of completely fantastic landscapes peopled with even more fantastic creatures. Despite the superficial similarities in their art, there was a wide gulf between their respective philosophies. Bosch viewed the world from a Christian perspective and appears to have begun with (overly) literal representations of well thought-out themes (though many of the original references have been lost through the ages). By contrast, most of the surrealists started out with an atheistic worldview and relied more on random and/or subconscious processes to create their art.
As an experiment, I attempted to mimic the general appearance of a Bosch painting such as Garden of Earthly Delights using only photographed images. The result is shown below. Note that I “cheated” with the image of the woman riding the flying fish. It is taken from a Nineteenth Century lithograph.
Homage to Bosch (2003) (16″ x 20″)
More typical examples of my dependence upon this artist are shown in the paired collages below from 2006 in which I employ the spirit of Bosch more than the actual appearance of his works.
Hard Questions: Job 38 (2′ x 2′)
More Questions: Job 39 (2′ x2′)
In Job 38-39, God gives a “non-answer” to Job’s plaint by enumerating the many mysteries of the universe that He has created. These two collages represent the attempts of explorers and scientists over the ages to “think God’s thoughts after Him” and discover some of these mysteries for themselves.
The Swiss artist Paul Klee is perhaps my favorite. I especially appreciate his expressive lines, sense of humor, and inventive spirit in experimenting with new techniques. While in high school, I made several copies of his famous painting Battle Scene from the Comic Opera ‘Sinbad the Sailor.’ However, instead of duplicating the medium he used (pen-and-ink and watercolor on paper), I glued sand on plywood and then painted over it with oils. The technique is a little painstaking but results in an interesting surface texture.
I later used this same technique to transform the Klee pen-and-ink drawings “The Great Dome” and “The Flood Washes Away Cities” into oil paintings.
At first consideration, “colorizing” a Klee may seem as heretical as colorizing a classic black-and-white movie. However, (a) Klee himself often cannibalized his pen-and-ink drawings by using a transfer technique onto watercolor backgrounds (as in his Sinbad ) and (b) the idea is not that different from the time-honored practice of one composer orchestrating the work of another.
Weltschmerz* (1960) (5′ x 9 1/4″)
One of my early original oil-on-sand paintings created under Klee’s influence is shown above.
*weariness of life