collage

 

Collage is a longtime obsession of mine. There’s something in the combination of wildly disparate images and objects to produce a larger truth that seems alchemical to me. A few months ago I happened upon the work of a collage artist who works under the name Madcollage, and within ten minutes I’d ordered a piece from her. Two weeks later she debuted another piece, and I ordered that one as well. (I hope to acquire one of her originals at some point.) That speaks, I think, to a common language that exists in that place before words and beyond feelings. Looking at her work feels to me as though I’m half-remembering an important dream I once had, as though I might yet remember the message it held. Here are the whys and hows , as Madcollage sees them, of collage. — Emma Alvarez Gibson

 

Starting my college education in the Escuela de Bellas Artes of La Universidad Complutense in Madrid was my way of formalizing at seventeen what I already knew all along: I was an artist.

While it is still difficult to put into words what makes someone an artist, I had been timidly identifying as one for years. This moment was my coup de grace. There would be no question mark at the end of the sentence anymore.

Until then, I was unable to assertively show it, but like a subterraneous spring, there were times when the undercurrent would breach the surface. I now realize that I have many lovely art related memories of my childhood. They seem to endure over time, drowning out some of the bleaker realities of that period.

I drew and cut, painted, and built artifacts at all hours of the day. I was constantly on the hunt for materials: boxes, bags, ink, bobby pins, toothbrushes, cardboard, rubber bands, colorful wrappers, tempera, nail polish, twine, cloth snippets and tape. Everything was useful.

I got in trouble many times when my mom found out I had used the last drop of her Elnett hairspray to fix a drawing, or when I had cleaned my oily brushes in the bathroom sink. No scolding, however, seemed to deter me. Instead, my desire to do more would grow greater.

My father, who was a writer, had an extensive collection of books. Many of them were art books with gorgeous reproductions. I was fortunate to have access to all of them, and I would look at every picture, dissecting them, soaking up every inch. I pored over work by Gustav Klimt, Paul Klee, Amadeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso. I would copy their images on construction paper with as much precision as I could muster, and by doing so, I imagined I was absorbing some of their essence by means of a peculiar osmotic process. I was transforming. I was becoming me.

***

Many of my favorite memories revolve around visiting El Museo del Prado with my classmates. It was a compulsory rite of passage for many school children in Madrid. This museum, with its marble floors and wide corridors was breathtaking. I loved the smells, the muffled whispers, the milky light filtering from the skylights. My family never went to church, but this was, I imagined, how it must have felt to be in awe of a sacred space.

Despite our chaperone’s best efforts, I would inevitably break away from the group to go see “my paintings”. I would plan my eventual split every single trip. “I had to go see my paintings” I would explain later to a teacher’s aide on the verge of a nervous collapse. I knew from previous experience that, as elementary students, we would not be shepherd towards the artworks I needed to see. Paintings like Saturn devouring his son by Goya. Rogier Van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross. Patinir’s Charon Crossing the Styx. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. I had seen them in my books, and they were there, looming large and tangible. I was on a secret mission to find them within the vast halls of El Prado.

I was also seeking the freedom to run along those hallways and up and down the staircase at the back of the building on my own. The adventure of meeting the cherubs and naked Rubenesque ladies, the serious men in black with their ruffled collars and piercing eyes, was a terrific thrill that needed to be savored alone. I loved the stunning portraits of royalty and the unsettling battle scenes. I felt sheltered, comfortable within the walls of the museum, and I considered every visit too short for my taste.

***

My first two years of college were grueling. The focus was on long hours of practice and tiresome chores designed to filter out less capable and apathetic students. It was all about competition. The survival of the artistically fittest.

We had a rigorous training period during which we would draw and sculpt from plaster cast models. Emphasis was put solely on technique. We were to acquire a solid base from which to move onto our personal styles. We mixed our own gesso, our own oil paints, and recycled modeling clay. We learned how to build stretchers and made our own canvases. We worked hard to stay on the saddle, and each assignment was, indeed, a final examination of our potential.

Collage, however, was not even a blip on the curriculum radar yet. Although it was an already established visual language championed by artists like Picasso, Braque, Hannah Hoch, or Max Ernst, we never put it into practice in school. I became acquainted with it overtime, through my own readings and explorations.

***

When I moved to the United States to finish my degree, I had a disheartening experience in school that changed my life trajectory in unfortunate ways. My first semester, I very hesitantly mixed paper cuttings with pencil drawings for an assignment. My drawing professor was much displeased, probably assuming I was trying to take a “shortcut” of sorts. He did not waste any time in dismissing the work in the cruelest of ways. These rudimentary collages were undoubtedly technically inept, but they did not deserve to be mocked. I was trying to find my feet in more than one way, and I had just attempted something new. Instead of weighing in constructively, he simply snickered and proclaimed in a loud voice, “they look like you”. It wasn’t a compliment, clearly, since I had called them my “Monsters”.

I was inexperienced, uncertain of my new surroundings, and young. I was so hurt and so embarrassed that I stopped showing up for class. The incident left me so full of doubt in my abilities, in the choices I’d made, that from there on I drifted away from art school and became susceptible to the influence of people who did not have my best interest at heart.

Life became disorganized and difficult. A career as an artist seemed like a mirage. Going back home was an admission of defeat. I thought myself an utter failure at what I loved most. I punished myself and spiraled down into depression.

***

After years of heartbreak and illness, that little ember of passion for art turned out to be the straw that kept me afloat. Without conscious effort, it slowly grew hotter until I found myself wondering if it might not be possible to reignite it. To my astonishment, collage was waiting for me like a faithful friend. I started making tiny ones on the backs of notebooks. These diminutive collages accepted all my failures, my sadness, and my long absence. They let me start all over, no questions asked.

Collage slowly carved itself a space in my life without judging me and without asking much in return. Soon, I became reliant on collage to placate my anxiety, and to get through the challenges that life had hurled my way, which were many more than I could have anticipated. 

Evidently, to this day, collage does not magically erase my pain. It does not negate any of the hardships, but it has a way of unpacking the suffering. It deconstructs it in ways that I can understand. Collage is a method of reassessment. A creative way of being kind to myself, a skill I was never taught. It has turned out to be a way of finding self-compassion. This period of restoration started twenty years ago, and it is still in progress sparked, in no small part, by collage.

***

During 2020, the year of Covid 19, collage took on an even more essential role in my life. While I always felt somewhat on the fringes and I was an inveterate introvert, the isolation hit me hard. Having collage as an outlet saved my sanity.

I am not being hyperbolic. Many studies show that creative activity dispels rumination, which is a whirlpool of destructive and self-sabotaging thoughts. No matter the magnitude of your fears or the intensity of your worries, research shows quite definitely that engaging in creativity allows you to better mitigate their negative effects. It helps you process the pain, physical or mental, in ways that no other endeavor accomplishes.

I suffer from CPTSD. Getting out of my head is critical to my recovery.  When Covid upended my daily routine, and it reverted to my mental landscape, I found myself witnessing a miserable and terrifying carousel of scary thoughts. Collage was able to diminish my tendency to catastrophize because it requires concentration and redirects imagination outwards. Collage creates an oasis where I can refurbish my mind with more playful, gentle thoughts. I’m still holding onto it with a death grip, lest my mind starts playing tricks on itself. I remember that truism “don’t believe everything you think”, which couldn’t be more suitable in my case. Words to survive by.

In this process, I have understood that creativity requires honesty to be therapeutic. Truth is its currency, and no amount of creativity will yield beneficial results if it is approached from a place of deceit. After all, you can only lie to yourself for so long before your mental health starts unraveling. I know because I have been there. It’s my perennial advice to my students that they create based on their true feelings and beliefs, and not because of trends or the latest news.

When people ask me about my collages and where they come from, it is tricky for me to encapsulate a lifetime of effort, learning and setbacks in a few snappy sentences. In short, they are everything that I know how to be: terribly impatient, candid, intense, persistent, different, chronically worried, unyielding, witty, occasionally pliable, frightened, and secretly hopeful. They remain the most useful tool in my arsenal of coping mechanisms.

So, it is my hope that some of my collages connect with viewers in a way that disables their fears too. If there is a true purpose to all this searching, all this cutting and gluing of paper, linking to other people who feel like I do, is the final, most fulfilling raison d’être.  

 

 

 

 

Find out more about Madcollage here.

Shop her prints here.

Shop her original collages here.

 

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Photo: Gilly Youner

SCIENCE FICTIONAL LIVING

By Jack Womack

 

Jack Womack has written several books, most notably Random Acts Of Senseless Violence.

 

In the old days, the term science fiction (and here I mean only written English-language science fiction, which has until lately tended to hold sway over how the genre is perceived throughout much of the world) allowed for a wider range of carryings-on beyond those found in the scientific romances of H. G. Wells—there were books where utopias would be found in the form of a gigantic department store, or where dystopias would be presented as places where women wore pants and had the vote, or where lost civilizations had been preserved deep with the earth, or atop mesas in the Andes, and much more. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, the pulp magazine editors of the 1930s who fell into becoming the gatekeepers of science fiction, and later the studio bosses, set the parameters of what was permissible and what was not in order to make believable, i.e. salable, science fiction. In due course everyone agreed upon the basics; that is, 1) Science should nominally be the main character; 2) other characters should be white, male, sexist, possibly xenophobic, and at all times devoid of an inner life (granted, these often seemed to be requirements in much other midcentury fiction); and 3) Science is in practice not necessary to make good science fiction.

Science fiction as it had been known, a sort of pastime for all ages, became something else the moment Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. After ten years of constant attention to the race to the moon, no sooner was it reached than the public made their lack of interest in space, as it was, clear. Instead of the mundane pleasures offered by Skylab, the public turned their attention to the kind of Space they always preferred, the kind where outfits were always impractical, air always easy to find, and where spaceships still made whooshing sounds in a vacuum. And there was much fun to be had with Star Wars and Star Trek, as the unconscious feel that perhaps the earth was offering less and less, seemed to take hold. As the eighties continued on, offering Aliens on the one hand, Blade Runner with another, it was seeming more and more that science fiction was in essence an area in which lay a limitless number of diversified marketing opportunities. There could be no shortage of possibilities in that most frightening of alien worlds, the Media world.

Until, after unending warnings prior to the reality finally beginning to sink in, there was.

The science that is no longer science fiction surrounds us now. There are only so many ways to say that at present we will soon enough be watching our own extinction and while science fiction has suggested this many times in the past, it offers no immediate solutions about what to do when it is actually occurring. Our leaders here and abroad may yet drive us into finality, as if one is trying to outrace the other; as if the certainty of one drives the ones in charge to make it so. Science fiction, as it exists, gives us the imagination and the hope that some of our descendants will be here to see it. That no longer seems a given. There will definitely be a 22nd century, although no one reading this can guess who’ll be here to see it in.

 

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Photo: Michael O’Shea

“THAT’S COOL”

By William Gibson

 

William Gibson is credited with having coined the term “cyberspace” and having envisioned both the Internet and virtual reality before either existed. His first novel, Neuromancer, won the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award, and the Nebula Award in 1984. His most recent novel is  Agency. He lives in Vancouver with his wife. 

 

If I could compare my father’s usage-frequency of the word cool with my own, I know who’d have used it more. He died in 1955, probably only ever having used it as the opposite of warm. He’d have known nothing of the subculture that first introduced it, if not in the way in which I’d come to use it, because he listened to Hank Williams, not to cool jazz.

I use it today a lot less frequently than I have since first hearing it used, myself, in 1959. I probably avoid using it today (to what extent that I can) because it feels to me like a Boomer archaism, but I do still use it, unthinkingly, because it’s so thoroughly imbedded. At this point, for me, it can mean that something is merely okay (or, sarcastically, not okay at all), or it can mean that something’s admirably standing out from the background against which it’s noted. It feels more like a noise I make, in certain situations, than an actual descriptor of anything.

With the help of Wikipedia, I’ve been able to determine that I first heard it used under definitively uncool circumstances: watching the first season of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s aspirationally beat pal, Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver, used it constantly. The thing was, though, Maynard himself wasn’t cool at all, and the show’s writers made sure that even I was able to see that. So I was introduced to the use of the expression by screenwriters working to ensure that their viewers would assume that using it was basically goofy.

In 1959, the beat subculture was peaking. Kerouac’s On The Road had been published in 1957, going viral in its way, and by 1959 there would’ve been quite a few teens acquainted with some version of it (usually literary, I suppose). I was two years away from becoming one of those teens myself, eleven when Maynard introduced me to saying cool.

When the show was new, I suspect, I heard the expression at school for a while, but always with a sort of parroted parodic intent. It certainly never became part of my repertoire, then, and I doubt I watched the show for very long.

Cool, however, kept on going, though not in areas I’d have had access to, where it wasn’t used sarcastically. But by the early mid-‘60s, I’d reencounter it differently: as a crucial distinction.

I was attending a boys’ boarding school by then, on the outskirts of Tucson, and cool things were not much present. Something was abroad in the world, though: The Beatles, the Stones, Dylan. Something was happening, something I instinctively wanted to understand, and I probably began to hear cool used in earnest then, though not yet by anyone I would have regarded as cool.

At some point, however, I began to notice things that I recognized not so much as cool but as expressions of cool, and these things tended to partake of a certain weird magic of repurposing. They could, I saw, be old things, but used in a new way. I didn’t think about it in those terms, but I understand now that that was what I was noticing.

 

“Something was happening, something I instinctively wanted to understand, and I probably began to hear cool used in earnest then, though not yet by anyone I would have regarded as cool.”

In Tucson, then, blue denim jeans were worn a lot, but not by my classmates. They were worn by working men, and by cowboys, both working and aspirational. We wore Levi’s jeans, but they tended to be cords, or what we called “wheat jeans”. I, however, had noticed, on the campus of the University of Arizona, that some people were wearing blue denim jeans differently. And I saw that this was coded. The guys I noticed were wearing Levi’s, but they were blue denim 501s (something I must have had to go to a store to determine). They had a button fly, something I don’t think I’d known existed before, and their reconceptualization was signaled by one particular choice of belt, itself a reconceptualization, which had (I’d later learn) migrated from London’s Carnaby Street, though its initiators there had borrowed its unreconceptualized form from American army surplus stores. Plain leather, preferably brown. Square brass buckle, either plain or chrome-plated. Of a width that filled the belt-loops of jeans. As did the width of cowboy belts, of course, but cowboy belts were (still, then) the antithesis of the reconceptualization.

You couldn’t, I gathered, wear leather shoes with these, with the exception of suede desert boots (usually sockless) or handmade sandals. This was my first experience of street fashion. And there cool, the expression, was as well, having survived attempted neutering, years before, by the writers of The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis.

Jeans worn this way looked cool. Though it wouldn’t be cool to say as much, I realized, grasping for the first time the central exclusionism of the thing. So I bought a pair, and wore them. But only with the requisite belt.

In 2003, quite a few 501’s later, I put Cayce Pollard, heroine of my novel Pattern Recognition, in black ones, with all of their branding removed or obliterated.

The character was inspired, to some extent, by early reports of coolhunting as a profession. What this consisted of, I gathered, was being paid for walking the street with an eye out for the sort of recontextualization I’d first noticed decades ago in Tucson. The companies paying you, though, would immediately manufacture and market their own version of what you discovered, prematurely closing a loop that might once have taken a couple of seasons to make it from, say, Dogtown to your local skate shop.

This struck me as tragic. For that reason, and because I actually didn’t find it very interesting, beyond the fact that it existed, I gave Cayce a superpower, the ability to immediately know whether a newly-designed logo would be effective or not, and a couple of vaguely related esoteric vulnerabilities: a phobia of Bibendum, the innertube-bodied Michelin mascot, and an intense allergy to anything designed by Tommy Hilfiger.

In the course of finding her a wardrobe she could tolerate, I happened to learn from my friend Hyunsuk, in Seoul, of a label in Tokyo called Buzz Rickson, from whom he’d recently obtained a fanatically obsessive reproduction of an vintage American military jacket, which was their thing. I decided to put Cayce in a Buzz Rickson repro of a USAF MA-1, an iconic jacket unfortunately associated with skinheads. I had no idea whether they made an MA-1 (they did). I specified Cayce’s as black, to fit with her extremely limited personal palette (they’d never made a black one, deeming it historically inauthentic). I eventually received a baffled email from them, asking why I was representing them as making something they didn’t. When I apologized, they cheerfully announced their intention to make one, and asked permission to put my name on the label. I agreed, they did, and they’re still making them today.

Not exactly coolhunting, but an indication of the sort of thing that can result from keeping one’s eye open for an apt recontextualization.

Are they cool, though? Some people think so, others not so much. Cool having come, over my lifetime, to be something as subjective as beauty, though perhaps it always was.

 

 

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COCKTAILS ARE COOL

By Derek Brown

 

Derek Brown is a spirits and cocktail expert, consultant, writer, and owner of 2017 Spirited Award winning “Best American Cocktail Bar” Columbia Room, and author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World, published by Rizzoli in April 2019. His work has earned several James Beard Award nominations, and he was named Imbibe magazine’s “Bartender of the Year” in 2015. He is also Chief Spirits Advisor to the National Archives Foundation and a Distinguished Fellow at Catholic University’s Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship. Brown’s writing on spirits and cocktails has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. In 2019, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema named him one of the fifteen trailblazers since 2000 that have made Washington, D.C. a better place to eat (and drink).

 

When I think about cocktails, I’m often reminded of the famous writers, artists, characters, and actors associated with them. You can close your eyes and picture a man’s man or rebellious woman with drink in hand setting their own path, surrounded by onlookers who marvel at their class and sophistication. James Bond walks up to the bar, tugs on his French cuffs, and orders a Martini shaken, not stirred. Madonna sips on a devilishly red drink in a designer dress with perfectly coiffed hair. Is this what makes a cocktail cool? No, not at all.

James Bond is, honestly, kind of a chauvinist, and Madonna was cool, wasn’t cool, and is/isn’t cool again. There’s nothing cool about the alcoholic writers who were chugging whiskey and gin to an untimely death, and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. are as much a parody as pioneers. I can’t imagine putting on Frank Sinatra for my son when he grows older and him thinking it’s cool. What was cool fades, subject to the fads of the time. They were just where they were supposed to be and, though live long in our memory, are ultimately dated. Sorry to all the cocktail drinking sophisticates who bought a tux or gown and are awaiting the revival of yesteryear. You may be waiting a long time.

What about the cocktail? It’s blameless. The cocktail didn’t ask to be cool. It shouldn’t go in and out of style like last year’s wide-legged jeans. The cocktail is just what it purports to be—the Martini is a measure of gin and vermouth with orange bitters; the Old Fashioned whiskey, sugar, and aromatic bitters. Perhaps that’s the cocktail’s secret to coolness. It never elected to be cool. It’s just good, and what followed was the recognition. And that recognition followed across time.

The cocktail was cool in 1803 when it was first mentioned in the U.S., listed as a morning hangover remedy in theFarmer’s Cabinet. The cocktail was cool when it was first defined in the the Balance, and Columbian Repository in 1806. The cocktail was cool when Jerry Thomas hoisted two white rats on each shoulder of his prim jacket with a diamond stickpin and twirled his waxy moustache in the 1860s. The cocktail was still cool in Cuba when servicemen discovered the Daiquiri in 1909. The cocktail was not just cool but contraband during prohibition in the roaring ‘20s. It was cool again when prohibition ended and, in the late 1930s, Tiki was born by the hand of faux-Polynesian enthusiasts. When the Mad Men era came along, cocktails were cool too; then again in the 1980s with theatrical bottle flipping known as flair. Obviously they’re cool today, since they made it into this book. In fact, the only time cocktails weren’t cool since their debut might be around the 1970s when it turns out drugs were just considered much cooler.

You get my point? Cocktails have been cool longer than that little black dress, rock ‘n roll, and James Dean combined. What’s purportedly cool for the time and what remains cool throughout time are two different things.

 

“What’s purportedly cool for the time and what remains cool throughout time are two different things.”

The cocktail has lasted so long on the cool list because its DNA is the perfect foil for experimentation. The original definition of the cocktail, mentioned above, was spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. That magic combination would start life as something resembling the Old Fashioned and end up being vaporized and experienced as a walk-in cloud of breathable cocktail. In between there have been many thousands of variations. Sometimes it was just a tweak, as with the Oaxacan Old Fashioned created by bartender Phil Ward. The standard rye whiskey that most bartenders use for an Old Fashioned is replaced with Tequila and Mezcal, the sugar with agave syrup. Other times, the change was more artful and sought to reinterpret the entire presentation of a cocktail, such as when avant-garde chef Grant Achatz of Alinea created edible balloons to accompany his cocktails.

I expect the cocktail will continue this trajectory. Spacemen will pour powdered Gimlets into their gravity resistant mugs and my son, though he’ll likely eschew crooners, will happily down a digitally enhanced Collins variation while listening to music that grinds my elderly ears.

The secret to being cool all this time wasn’t acting like an asshole and wearing a nice suit. It wasn’t sitting in a low-lit corner and brooding. It wasn’t perfectly styling your hair, singing, dancing, or drinking to excess. Nope, all those things will pass, and rightfully so. The secret to coolness is something the cocktail has mastered, and few others have. The secret is to be good. The secret is to have substance. And to have that substance be transferable, to be something that can change with the times while keeping its core intact. Spirits, sugar, water, bitters—it’s such a simple combination. Some genius invented it over 200 years ago. And, right after I finish this essay, I intend to make myself one. 

 

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