After Vasari

writings on artists and artworks and where they exist

Tag: collage

Manual Realizations

by Paul D'Agostino

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The Safety Net, mixed media collage, 2015

Manual Realizations: Leslie Kerby’s The Laying On of Hands

Working always deftly and fluidly among a full range of image-making techniques, including drawing, painting, printmaking and collage, and recently adding sculpture and animation to her practice as well, Leslie Kerby creates all manner of visual narratives addressing, with a keen critical eye, societal practices, ills, curiosities, complexities, services, interactions and constructs. With palpable sincerity and a sense of humor, she has addressed many facets of our politically circumscribed, socioeconomically determined or determinable lives, from the neighborhoods we live in to the ways in which we attain our goods and services, from the ways in which we communicate with one another to the cemeteries where we might visit or bury our loved ones. Kerby has never shied away from handling even the most controversial or aesthetically challenging themes. Indeed, the most difficult ones sometimes become the greatest conduits for her creative impulses.

This is certainly the case with The Laying On of Hands, one of Kerby’s most recent and materially polyphonic bodies of work. Here, the artist turns her critical eye towards one of the most politically charged, ideologically divisive, societally expansive and, at the very same time, most deeply intimate issues of our time in the United States: our healthcare system. Kerby began contemplating this as subject matter six or seven years ago, having personally experienced, endured or witnessed no shortage of the good and bad of how we insure ourselves for and possibly receive medical care. She knew that, in a few ways, the system worked well enough. She also knew that, in many ways, it was direly inefficient, unnecessarily confusing and, for far too many people, devastatingly lacking. Given the issue’s gravity and complexity, however, Kerby spent several years moving forward with other projects instead, all the while pondering how she might effectively convey her thoughts about the precarious, indeed fundamentally perilous state of our healthcare system in ways that would be both visually engaging and candid in commentary.

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Blanket Coverage, mixed media collage, 2016

Kerby’s solution turned out to be simple and inclusive. She decided that works on paper with graphic immediacy would constitute the body of work, and that each work would itself be constituted by imagery produced via essentially all of her manual skills as a maker of imagery. In a way, just those few decisions are already striking analogs for what our healthcare system is definitively not, and what or how it could or should be: it is neither simple nor inclusive, but it certainly ought to be; aspects of it that might be conceptually plain are presented in ways that confound everyone, from doctors to patients and customer service agents; many of the system’s verbal convolutions are surely intentional, masking fees and exceptions in footnotes and conditional clauses; people at various income levels, especially the lower ones, as well as people who might already be sick are left out of the system entirely, or they are gravely underserved, meaning underinsured; and the system overall feigns personalized service while remaining pitilessly impersonal, removed, uncaring. Unfortunately, these are not new problems at all with regard to how healthcare in our country is provided, nor are they new in terms of how it is presented in our political discourse. Yet they are problems that have never gone away, and that seem to become worse as medical technologies advance, and as masses of data come to define patients and problems in general, statistically, rather than determining an individual patient’s problems specifically. This should seem absolutely paradoxical. It absolutely is.

How, then, do Kerby’s works convey something simpler, more inclusive, more comprehensible and intimate? How are the obvious levels — for they surely are obvious — on which our own lawmakers and doctors should demand — for they surely should demand — improvement from our ‘service providers’ made manifest in The Laying On of Hands? It couldn’t possibly be more genial or straightforward. Kerby conveys her commentary by crafting individually identified or identifiable patients and doctors, sometimes interacting with one another, sometimes only almost, and she does so by doing, as an artist, precisely what doctors have always done, and what so many of them still want and are trained to do: employ their full range of diagnostic reasoning and manual skills to care for one patient at a time, one ailing person at a time, as meaningfully and holistically as they can. Kerby achieves both ideals by tapping into the full extent of her creative skill set, employing several very manually driven processes of drawing, printmaking, collage and image transfers, among other approaches, to create variably pictorial contours and silhouettes of patients now ailing, now under examination, now being medicated, now ostensibly becoming their medications. Visages and figurations, and most certainly the omnipresent motifs of hands and eyes, predominate these engaging compositions in which pills, simplified x-rays and pieces of equipment factor as well, with backgrounds generally left blank or spare. In a formal sense, per her clear sources of inspiration and characteristic treatments, Kerby’s yields are images of great candor and immediacy, aesthetically steeped in various elements of German Expressionism and, with very fitting specificity, Neue Sachlichkeit — indeed, one might even identify in Kerby’s collages a rather seamless merging of the two readily distinguishable traditions, the latter’s germaneness here not incidental given the medical nature of some of its most historically trenchant imagery.

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The Dispensary, mixed media collage, 2015

On that note, Kerby, with perhaps a knowing nod to Christian Schad’s The Operation, makes her doctors, nurses and medical settings very easy for us to recognize. But how to recognize a student or a journalist, a chef or a plumber? Kerby identifies her protagonists in her very own handwriting, their facial features often well delineated, their attire or other accoutrements pointing to their trades or occupations. What do we know of their ailments? We see where they are ailing by way of where she places their pills within their figurative contours, with their medications sometimes taking the shape of objects relative to their professions: the librarian’s pills are spread across two pages of an open book; the banker’s are arrayed in a way that suggests coins; the musician’s are shaped like a guitar; the lawyer’s medications quite meaningfully sit atop the plates of a dramatically unbalanced scale of justice. How to keep viewers engaged in a suite of societally critical, even perhaps thematically somber works might seem an additional concern, but Kerby has cleverly foreseen that, undercutting the potentially overwhelming gravity of her subject matter — who will listen if it’s all pain and trauma, or keep looking if it’s all shock and awe? — by intermittently cartoony renderings, exaggerated embellishments, caricatured features and physiques, and even a certain kind of mirthful array in her arrangements.

Seriousness and humor come into most succinct and critically significant confluence in works like The Dispensary, in which a doctor and two nurses are portrayed as busts atop Pez candy dispensers, and in Candyland, in which the artist reconfigures many of the characters and formal tropes from her entire body of work into a loosely rendered representation of the eponymous board game for kids. Kerby’s critique here is at once precise and expansive: while the game is intentionally structurally misleading, so to speak, and indirect and obfuscatory in the sweet, felicitous interest of childish fun, our healthcare system is all of the same, and then some, in the bitterly sickening interest of corporate greed; and while the composition and visuals indicate a game for kids, they also suggest the hardly outlandish notion that insurance providers and pharmaceutical companies, assuming that we’re all manipulable and naïve, are playing a game with our bodies and minds. A form of casual entertainment for children, here, is simultaneously legible as a system of physical and psychological entrapment for adults.

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Candyland, mixed media collage, 2015

This kind of duality is also present in Kerby’s ultimate addition to The Laying On of Hands, a video animation, made in collaboration with designer Lianne Arnold, in which the full set of collages undergoes, or even performs on itself, a kind of surgery, autopsy or anatomical investigation. Here, by laying her hands back onto or into her body of work, she quite literally quickens it, sets it into motion. Now her compositions come alive and interact with one another, and pieces from one wander about from one spot to the next, from one collage to the next. In this animated context, however, the child/adult duality Kerby implies in Candyland is essentially inverted. Now, a system that is often entrapment for adults becomes, in a delightfully rendered ‘cartoon,’ something that could readily entertain children. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Kerby’s dual modes, or even dual moods, in this thoroughly considered body of work. On the one hand, they help her engage viewers more broadly and permit certain aesthetic freedoms, from ‘fun’ images like candy dispensers to a rather graphically lighthearted animation. On the other hand, Kerby’s dualities also relate quite plainly to the great paradox of our healthcare system overall — that the very form of ideally pathos-driven, human-to-human interaction that should be most intimate, personalized and hands-on so often seems, thanks to corporate avarice and legislative apathy, as insensitive and impersonal as can be.

By tapping into so many of her artistic skills, sources of inspiration and critical modes in the creation of The Laying On of Hands, Leslie Kerby has crafted one of her most fully realized, conceptually seamless bodies of work to date. As you follow the trajectories of figures and forms from one mixed media collage to the next, and from the suite of collages to her video animation, you can’t help but find yourself in agreement with both sides of her implicit claim: staying alive and well truly should not be a roll of the dice, yet what our ailing healthcare system has let it become is a baffling game that toys with our lives.

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This essay was composed for the catalogue accompanying The Laying On of Hands, Leslie Kerby’s solo exhibition at Project ARTspace, located at 99 Madison Avenue in New York City. The show will be on view from 16 May to 15 June, 2018. More information about the show can be found here. Images courtesy the artist.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

 

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Themselves Productive

by Paul D'Agostino


Themselves Productive: New Paintings by Liv Mette Larsen

The more you become acquainted with the foundational forms and material underpinnings of Liv Mette Larsen’s works, the more you come to realize the generally uninterrupted extent to which they are all procedurally interlinked, conceptually interconnected, holistically and harmoniously cross-informed. The nature of this realization is perhaps ultimately the most abstract product of Larsen’s hand-pedaled, factory-like process that is itself generative, manually fabricational, iteratively productive.

One should not mistake any of the above as a suggestion that this now Brooklyn-based painter—Norwegian-born, then eventually NYC-bound by way of a period of teaching and artistic activity in Germany—presents her viewers with compositions full of visual convolution, nor that her pictorial processes and products register as even remotely mechanical. On the contrary, Larsen’s essentially representationally-driven forms are dimensionally simplified distillations of at times complex, at times relatively basic structures that stand as variably recognizable markers of place—localized neighborhood skylines, for instance, or readily distinguishable factories, as is the case in her series Concrete Factory / Slemmestad Fabrikker. Working from photographs or observation, Larsen breaks up, breaks down and flattens her chosen structures’ aspects and facets into a series of characteristic shapes, then carries them into so many lightly, almost happily handled compositional arrangements that serve as her platform to explore the chromatic richness and occasional quirks of her long-standing materials of choice—egg tempera on linen treated with rabbit skin glue.

Larsen’s largely earth-tone colors run a full yet quiescent range. She’s not shy at all about employing purples, yellows, oranges and greens to depict objects that might actually be just grey, in other words, but not even the brightest reaches of her palette shout or cry out. Rather, her colors murmur and hum like the low din of machinery, or like a calm flow of traffic along an urban block, maintaining nonetheless all the chromatic lushness and toothsome textures of the powdered pigments and egg mediums she uses to mix them into life. Backgrounds are sometimes the areas where Larsen allows colors to visually intermingle and bleed through one another, especially in her larger works. Consequently, her montages of middle- and foregrounded forms, often filled in with more uniformly viscous admixtures, begin to come across as depth-creating, footprint-stamping, colorful shadow-puppet-like characters—a troupe of implicitly post-industrial, meta-structural actors, let’s say, playing stop-motion roles of form-holders, chroma-bearers and spatial dwellers on some outdoor stage on a forsaken, extra-urban stretch of land, on a fall or spring afternoon in which mild temperatures and overcast skies cooperate to make the setting that much simpler to enthuse.

In Larsen’s creative landscape, some of the forms, colors, compositions and ‘characters’ she develops will then reemerge in kindred bodies of work. Shapes appear in different proportions in other paintings and collages; collages take color cues from paintings and watercolors; watercolors and collages inform compositional and chromatic choices in paintings. And of course, Larsen keeps an ever-sharp eye on how subtle shifts or surprises in one productive mode might lead her to insights in another. All this from regarding very closely and formally dismantling a building or two, then turning constituent parts into inputs for serialized processes made manifest in interconnectedly generative ways. A landmark fabrikk in Norway, as it were, becomes a manufacturer and remanufacturer of itself. And Larsen’s creative factory just keeps on humming. The characters in her plays keep doing their happy thing.

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This essay was composed for Liv Mette Larsen’s exhibition catalogue for Concrete Factory / Slemmestad Fabrikker, the artist’s solo show at Trafo Kunsthall in Trafo, Norway. Her show is on view from 6 May to 17 June, 2017. More information about the exhibit and Trafo Kunsthall can be found here. More information about Liv Mette Larsen is on her website, here. Installation image courtesy the artist and Trafo Kunsthall.

Paul D’Agostino, Ph.D. is an artist, writer, translator, curator and professor living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. More information about him is available here, and you can find him as @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

Studio Visit: Austin Thomas

by A.L. McMichael

After an open studio in October, Austin Thomas left a number of collages pinned to the wall.

Saturday, 29 October 2011: Garment District, Manhattan

As I drank hot tea in Austin Thomas’ studio in the midst of a blustery freak October snowstorm, dozens of colorful paper collages transformed the artificially-lit, windowless Manhattan space into a cozy nook with the warmth and optimism of a clever gingerbread house. I knew before meeting her that Thomas once ran the gallery Pocket Utopia and its summer camp, and that she also works on sculptural, site-specific pieces. I wondered whether this small space had lead her creative output toward smaller-scale projects.

Alongside the collages hung an inspiration board, a real-life Pinterest of photos, sketches, objects and architectural renderings under plexiglass. All of these were the driving force behind her in-process Plaza Perch, a gazebo of stainless steel. After receiving the commission from the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Thomas commissioned renderings, built a prototype in wood, and hired a team near Gowanus to form the steel. It will be installed on Humbolt Street in Brooklyn, a gathering space–one that acts as a touchstone for interactions and departures–a community spot.

Although paper is a unifying material, many of her collages include a variety of media: Thomas’ own drawings, some found objects and figurative collages, old books, graph paper. Thomas finds materials, such as sketches or photos, and makes art, including drawings and geometric designs. Many of these also come from her own “travel diaries,” little Moleskine notebooks that she carries around. These works might be made on a trip or in a café, on the fly as “anywhere, anytime art” that can be cut or ripped up and repurposed. Then she meticulously incorporates those pieces of art into collages, essentially incorporating the ‘great wide world’ into each object. In doing that, she embraces the studio as a place for assembly while the actual creation takes place in myriad locations.

Mandala, a collage on paper (left), and an assortment of paper sketches and materials awaiting a second life as a collage (right).

Thomas spoke of sending these objects back out into the world—by selling them, a topic that is often uncomfortable for artists to discuss but a necessary dialogue she undertakes—and of letting other ideas come back in their place. One of the pieces with a price tag was Mandala, a collage anchored by a piece of green-lined graph paper. Like a firework or a burst of confetti, bold organic paper shapes culminate in a mandala that swells into a paper rosette. Spinning into a vortex of red, blue, and black, the paper cut-outs rest on the stark green lines with delirious tension, breaking the grid and reaching off the page, lifelike, radiating energy.

Thomas approaches these pieces ontologically, thinking about the life of the objects, about the kind of world she wants her art to go out into and about making it that kind of world. In taking this approach, a sense of community drives the work. Reflecting on the roles artists play in communities, we touched on the “DIY aspect” of the current era, which often incorporates the artist as “writer, curator, maker.” Thomas embraces these roles with a determined lack of boundaries between projects—the scale, medium, field, and audience are all wildly divergent—and she insists that all aspects of the works inform one another.

I felt no compulsion to ask if there was a unifying message in all the works. In fact, I forgot to. The intimate nature of her collages reveals an artist who is comfortable with ideas of writing, making, and connecting, and the public works reveal a sense of fellowship and camaraderie with all those who encounter them. The underlying theme is personal yet public, gracious and inviting. Even the inspiration wall has an eclectic gracefulness, an assured nature of also being part of the work. From collages, perches, and sculptures to blog entries and Tweets, the facets of Thomas’ work operate like beams of the mandala—radiating in many directions, yet anchored and integrated as necessary elements of a lovingly curated career.

A table in the center of the space allows Thomas to work surrounded by finished projects (left wall) and inspiration for Plaza Perch (back wall under plexiglass).

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