The word "collage" evokes, at first, the relatively basic concept of arranging bits of paper, found images, pieces of writing, and other clippings onto a surface in an aesthetically pleasing way. This is a disservice to its possibilities. Too often it is relegated to that rather blurry zone of what I like to think of as noncommittal art (I'm invoking art historian license here to make up terminology). It is not, generally and art historically speaking, conceived as a form of "high art," but at the same time it's not firmly grounded in craft like fibers or needlework. Famous artists utilized it brilliantly; Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, and Robert Rauschenberg all found unique methods of putting collage on the gallery walls. Usually, however, it was a supplemental or subsidiary part of their practice -- something experimented with from time to time, or used as studies for larger works. Until Pablo Picasso famously used collage in his work in 1912, it was not even a part of the modern artistic lexicon.
"The Art of Collage," a fantastic show on at Frank Juarez Gallery in Sheboygan, WI through 7 February features collage work by artists working in Wisconsin and beyond. I stopped out for the opening. Many of the artists admitted that collage did not constitute their primary practice; some examples were created specifically for the show despite artists not typically working in collage at all, some collages were evidence of studies or research for paintings or other media, but one artist, Milwaukee-based Calvin Whitehurst, stood out for his dedication to collage as a medium unto itself.
Not only does Whitehurst display a clear passion for juxtaposing and assembling textures, colors and images in an aesthetic way, but he uses the medium to explore to what extent he can stretch its inherent potential, all the while assessing larger themes. One he mentioned during a brief introduction at the Art of Collage opening reception was the comment his current work--mostly digital--made on drug addiction in Milwaukee. City of Secrets (2014), the piece on display at the show, explores ideas of community and substance abuse, and the implications one has for the other. I like how the petrie dishes are held up over a sideways city like magnifying glasses; the bacterial growth gives us a macroscopic suggestion of the contrast between what we may see on the surface and what may really be the case behind closed doors. Collage becomes a method of piecing together, literally and figuratively, relevant issues or themes.
I like to look back at the artist's earlier work and find that the majority of it is straightforward paper assemblages, most of which I appreciate for his interesting use of texture and muted color. But even more interesting is the shift from this sort of "standard" paper collage method to experimentation with sculptural forms, décollage, and digital work as he addresses the medium itself and explores its possibilities.
Whitehurst earned a BFA from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in 2011. More information and work can be found at calvinjwhitehurst.com.