Artists have used collage to gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) unsettle viewers for more than century, exploiting tensions that arise when we're asked to make sense of images whose parts don't "go together" or quite "add up."
The cubists pasted bits of newspaper into their paintings to complicate the illusion of depth and space. The surrealists made oddball juxtapositions to approximate dream imagery, which they thought revealed the workings of the unconscious mind. Dadaist Hannah Hch's frenzied newspaper collages reflected and satirized the political upheaval of interwar Germany, an approach to social critique echoed in later collage works by early pop artists like Richard Hamilton, feminist artists like Martha Rosler, and even in the Xeroxed, ransom-note esthetics of punk-show handbills and Riot Grrrl fanzines.
In each of these cases, viewers understand that they're seeing a patchwork of sources: cut-lines are evident, scale shifts unexpectedly, and subjects that would never coincide in real life appear together.
Unconsciously, though, a part of us still expects these images to be coherent, rational, real. It's off-putting when that expectation isn't met, and that's why some collage works can make us anxious.
Collage can also be used for, say, scrapbooking, but Winnipeg-based artist Bonnie Marin is clearly drawn to its capacity for creepiness. Her show at the School of Art Gallery, What are you scared of?, uses collage to visualize the fears and anxieties we share as a society -- and the ones we'd rather keep to ourselves.
The work -- small-scale paper collages, dollhouse-like mixed-media tableaux, and a series of wall works incorporating wood, wax and found images -- is seldom "graphic." Instead, it menacingly hints at fears ranging from war, genocide and natural disaster to suicide and serial killers, domestic strife, identity crises, noises in the attic, and letting your kids walk to school alone.
Marin draws from a vast library of imagery that includes vintage, mid-century advertising and pulp novel covers, news photographs, medical imagery, and famous artworks by the likes of Goya and Caravaggio (whose respective depictions of cannibalism and beheading are some of the show's only explicitly "gory" passages).
The collages are especially insidious. In several, the cheerful imagery and nostalgic patina of old magazine illustrations belie hidden threats: looking at the group of adults "playfully" tussling on a suburban lawn, you almost miss the upraised hunting knife.
The dioramas are the most self-consciously spooky, with their surreal dream imagery, doll-part chimeras, and undertones ranging from sexual to sadistic -- they're also morbidly funny and inventive in their use of three-dimensional space to create contradictory readings.
The least fanciful pieces (but also the oddest and most disquieting) are the wall works: impacted grids of wax-encrusted wooden boxes papered with only a few, incessantly repeated images. They recall film frames, the disjointed "strobe" effect of acute panic and traumatic memory, the reduplication and "perseveration" of imagery experienced in certain psychoses and manias, and Andy Warhol's silk-screened motifs of car crashes and electric chairs. (Assuming you like that sort of thing, and who doesn't?)
Composed of more than 40 works, each kaleidoscopically dense and multilayered, What are you scared of? rewards long and careful viewing.
Conveniently, the exhibition coincides with the School of Art's ongoing Open House event, which features work by both undergraduate and graduate students and wraps up with public events this Sunday, Feb. 24, from noon to 5 p.m. Bonnie Marin can give you chills, and the ceramics department can sell you a bowl of chili. Fun for the entire family?
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.
What are you scared of? by Bonnie Marin
School of Art Gallery
óè 180 Dafoe Rd.
óè To March 1