Art, when you get right down to it, is about the old and the new, the created and the borrowed, the planned and the improvised. Nowhere is this more evident than in collage.
“It makes people take a second glance when maybe they otherwise wouldn’t,” says local collage and mixed media artist Beth Hoeckel. “The imagery is rooted in reality, but the bizarre juxtaposition of the images can make you take an extra moment to try to figure it out.”
“Collage” can mean a lot of different things, but for the most part it’s an art form that incorporates materials such as paint, newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs and found objects into a larger assemblage.
Hoeckel’s freelance work in the realm of collage has included prints, CD covers and book covers. Her style draws on vintage themes and old-fashioned advertisements, and often involves casting youth and innocence in the light of unfamiliar landscapes. According to Hoeckel, the inspiration for this work comes from anywhere and anything, including “attractive color combinations, the night sky, travels in the woods and mountains, camping and hiking, exploring cities I’ve never been to.”
“I think [collage] creates a unique environment that people can mentally escape to,” Hoeckel says. “You can invent your own bizarre narratives of what could have happened or what might happen next.”
If you’re thinking that collage might not be all it’s cut out to be (we couldn’t resist), you’re not the only one. Many people are under the impression that collage is just a matter of clipping and pasting old materials and hoping that they turn out well, but this is where they’re wrong.
“Anyone could cut stuff out of old magazines and put them together, but it’s not as simple as that,” Hoeckel says. “For me, it’s about more than just something that looks cool. It’s much more rooted in feeling, and I think that is what people respond to most.”
Local artist and Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) professor Warren Linn has dealt with some of the same misconceptions in his own work. Collage breaks up the picture plane like Jackson Pollock dripping paint on a canvas, Linn says, recalling how revolutionary Pollock was in his approach.
Linn has been creating art continuously since the 1970s, when he got his start doing editorial illustration for clients such as Playboy magazine and then CBS Records in the 1980s. It was at CBS that he met art director Steve Byram.
“He was the best art director,” says Linn. “He took risks with people, he would push you and give you extraordinary freedom at the same time. … My collage started to happen then, too. It was kind of just for the fun of it, just for the inventiveness of it.”
Now, Linn has decades’ worth of artwork behind him. His Mt. Washington studio is filled with both completed and ongoing projects, including larger wooden pieces, smaller pieces based on paper and cardboard and work with scratchboard and letterpress. All of it is different, from a collage made out of money to a group of drawings that Linn describes as being “conceptually collages.”
However, all of it is unique to Linn himself. “The accidents that happen in my work are peculiar, or particular, to my work,” he says, citing previous occasions when he’s torn works in progress in half, only to find that the act of tearing it “really woke the whole thing up.”
“For every one of these drawings that resonates with me, there are probably a dozen that don’t,” he says.
Often, it turns out, accidents are just part of the creative process. Hoeckel’s work is sometimes unpredictable, but rather than harming the work, the unpredictability works to its benefit.
“Any time I have tried to plan or map out a piece, ninety percent of the time it turns out completely different than what I imagined,” Hoeckel says. “Some of my work is the result of what is referred to as happy accidents. But for me, they wouldn’t technically be accidents, more like unexpected opportunities.”
Jan Stinchcomb, a Baltimore artist and MICA faculty member, finds similar opportunities in collage art due to its versatility and re-contextualized appearance.
“I usually like to work with combinations of things. There are always opportunities and possibilities,” Stinchcomb says. “I can tear it up, I can reuse it, my options are always open.”
This past fall, Stinchcomb taught a course at MICA focusing on collage and assemblage. One of her priorities was to make sure students left the course with a strong “historical and critical understanding” of where collage stands in the world of art.
“I think one of the things that is interesting about collage is that … when people started working with it as this idea of bringing the everyday object into the work of art, initially, that was very revolutionary,” Stinchcomb says. “When you bring real objects, whether that’s trash or anything, into a work of art, it opens up all of the avenues of contemporary art that we’ve seen.”
Now, in today’s world, collage artists have found even more ways to expand, thanks to changing styles and to technology, which presents new mechanisms for images to be juxtaposed and reassembled.
“The newest thing is, of course, how technology and digital technology have changed collage,” Stinchcomb says. “With things like Photoshop and the computer, it’s almost second nature. Back with early working technology, they were splicing together negatives and putting together those first early montages. Today … so much of what we see, whether it’s on TV or in photography, is using editing.”
These changes are also apparent to Linn, whose work, in many ways, has been facilitated by the rise of incorporated technology into art.
“You could take a scratchboard drawing at that time, you could take it to a photocopier and say, ‘Can I have a copy of this in red, or blue, or green?’” Linn says, adding that now, collage work is “a way to use technology and to use this hand-drawn endeavor” at the same time.
With its propensity for using “found materials,” as Stinchcomb puts it, and other unlikely forms of mixed media, collage has been guiding the artistic world in new directions since the early 1900s, when its forefathers, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, coined the term. And if recent advancements are anything to go by, that trend isn’t ending anytime soon.
Linn has explored a number of styles since he first became interested in visual art, but he’s still far from being deterred. “What I’m doing now, it’s moving in a certain direction, and I feel like I kind of need to honor that direction,” he says.