Artist Michael Lacey on collage
When I was 15, my Mum gave me a big cardboard box full of old magazines and torn-out pages. There were fragile yellow newspapers in there, faded supplements. All pictures, barely any words. Images of glaciers, gargoyles and grand pianos; seahorses, jungles, aquaducts, and a complete set of Walter Hutcheson's "Britain Beautiful" printed in strange shades of purple and lime green. It was all visual reference material my Mum used in the large, intimidatingly detailed drawings that filled her art school portfolio (up in the attic, under a thick layer of dust).
This was around the same time as Peter Blake's ‘About Collage’ exhibition at Tate Liverpool, which had ignited my interest in the process. Works by Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and other luminaries from Tate's archive were presented alongside works by lesser-known artists like Raoul Hausman and Nigel Henderson, and anonymous works by school-children or shopkeepers Blake had picked up over the years. These bodies of work seeped into each other easily, indistinguishably, finding commonality in the ineffable desire to assemble colours and forms despite a paucity of means. There was a tangible thrill in the medium's possibilities and unpredictability. The assemblage of fantastical and bizarre images from seemingly dull postcards and banal magazine pages located the surreal in the roar of the everyday. ‘About Collage’ gave me images that were in the lineage of Magritte and Di Chirico, but smelled like train stations and pubs.
I started making my own collages from the box. I first appreciated the speed of the process, the ease of colliding ideas and concepts. Later I grew interested inthe opportunity for ideas to evolve based on serendipitous connections and material limitations. I've still got that box, in a sense, even though itself and its contents have by now been refreshed many times over. I'm also still fascinated by the process of trying to communicate an idea by sorting through and subverting existing material. Each element in a collage carries its own set of associations, and when those weights are balanced, a good collage can feel like a shared dream. These are three very good collages:
When I was 23 I was in the art section of Waterstone's on Sauciehall Street, looking for a present to buy myself when my Dad phoned and started offering suggestions. Had I ever read Max Ernst's Une Semaine De Bonté, he asked. No, but I was holding a copy that I'd just taken off the shelf - too big a coincidence to ignore. I bought it. The book consists of 182 images divided into seven sections - one for each day, and each exploring an element (defined in surreal fashion as Mud, Water, Fire, Blood, Blackness, Sight and Unknown). Where many of the other works listed here celebrate the tactile disparity of their contents, Ernst took great pains to hide the seams of his collage and take advantage of his source material's stylistic consistency. The works in Une Semaine De Bonté have the same completeness, precision and fidelity as the richly detailed, Victorian-era wood engraving illustrations that they are comprised of. Heavy with surreal portent, Ernst's pages resemble Gustave Doré's illustrations for The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost updated for the late 19th Century.
John Stezaker's work, deceptively simple and utterly inimitable, attests to a questioning, philosophical approach. His deft interventions and juxtapositions probe images for hidden meanings, consistently finding fresh angles on ideas relating to the deconstruction of identity, the tension between truth and memory, and sublimation into nature as an alluring, awkward impossibility in the modern age. A deep and elegant melancholy haunts these lyrical, elliptical works, particularly in the use of ‘virgins' (to use the artist's parlance) as subjects - actors whose careers failed to progress beyond the promotional headshots used as the basis for these works.
Richard Hamilton is an artist crucial to the development of British art in the 20th Century. His stated desire to include ‘all of living’ in his work led to the production of collages that have become iconic images of British Pop Art despite prefiguring its rise by several years. Perhaps collage was more integral to British Pop than American - the former much more fascinated with the quotidian - as so much of the culture was experienced second-hand, at a distance. ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ developed from a list of desired inclusions (namely ‘Man, Woman, Food, History, Newpapers, Cinema, Domestic Appliances, Cars, Space, Comics, TV, Telephone, Information’) into a busy allegorical interior scene that allow the viewer to assess various factors shaping post-war society. Each element is rich with significance, and balances against each other in dense harmony.
Michael Lacey is an artist with a collage-led practice.
For more information, please see www.michael-lacey.co.uk