A small but substantial book bound in beautiful, thick brown paper is filled with almost miniaturist images composed largely in black and white and occupying the chestnut pages like a turn of the century estate sale photo album. But the clippings and photos in this volume have been interfered with, disambiguated, spliced and diced, and transformed into surrealist collages that are smart, creepy, witty, and poetic — not unlike, say, a film by their creator, the director Jim Jarmusch.
Some Collages (Anthology Editions) collects scores of such works, culled from an archive of many hundreds, spanning years of Jarmusch’s collage practice and some 200 years’ worth of printed matter amassed and stored for this purpose. The works are small because they are life-sized, faithful to the original newspapers and magazines. But still the effect of the small scale is to communicate a profound intimacy, the lingering energy of the artist’s hand, and prompt the viewer to lean in closer, as one would toward a whisperer.
“For years now I’ve been constructing these small very minimal collages. I use only newsprint for their sources, and most involve only the removal and/or replacement of heads – possibly the most minimal way of reorganizing visual information,” explains Jarmusch. “Faces and heads become masks for me, and I can change or switch identities, details and even species. The reproduction on newsprint of a drawn or painted head can replace a photographic one, or vice-versa. Sometimes I decide to just remove a head or face completely, leaving only a blank background. Or I replace it with typeface — always with a text that accompanied or pertained to the original image.”
Art history mixed with absurdity is a recurring and cheerful motif throughout the book, as is the lampooning of ridiculous and/or hypocritical politicians and their power posturing. A lot of the individual works are genuinely funny, especially the proliferation of Warhol ones — almost analog memes really — which are never not hilarious. Philip Glass and Salman Rushdie playing golf is pretty good too. You can’t lose with animal heads on fancy people. Most of the works, however, are far more subtle, nuanced and many cleverly function as social critique, while still others are completely unsettled with war and pathos.
The beguiling effect of the works is not only down to Jarmusch’s unassailable compositional eye and wry humor, but also to the evocative qualities of his chosen medium — newsprint. Rife with nostalgia and history, an assertion of accuracy, susceptibility to subsequent interpretations and a unique materiality of its own, as Randy Kennedy writes in his gorgeous essay for the book, “The simultaneous significance and worthlessness of newsprint — a practically negligible distance between knowledge and garbage — has always constituted its chief allure.”
“I remember as a kid, I received a microscope for my birthday,” says Jarmusch. “The first thing I examined through its lenses was a tiny scrap of torn newspaper. I was astounded. Instead of a single, solid sheet-like material, it was in fact a tangled mass of threadlike fibers, a chaotic jungle of microscopic pulp. Ever since, the fragility and inherently temporary nature of this particular (and now nearly obsolete) material has attracted me. Even when watching an old movie and I see the big ‘presses rolling,’ my newsprint neurons fire up immediately.”
The word collage comes from the French verb coller, Jarmusch reminds us, “meaning to paste or glue things together [and it] appears to have been coined by Braque and Picasso in the very early 20th century. Anyone can make them.… But many of the most innovative artists have used this form for well over a century, including the Cubists, Dadaist, Surrealists, Expressionists, Pop artists, minimalists, punk artists, street artists, etc. Now, of course, we also all are familiar with the cut and paste functions we employ daily on our digital devices.”
One interesting subtext running through the works is how the newspapers and magazines themselves change physically over the years. For example, the introduction of color into a mostly black and white world and the appearance of photography into a world of drawings. Even as it tracks the flourishing of early technology, in its resolutely analog form, these works and this book hold the line against a total digital surrender. But then again, there is no better way to describe the essence of our modern visual culture’s hyperactive post-everything dynamic than collage. These are the kinds of poetic paradoxes that Jarmusch’s work sets up, and leaves to the viewer to resolve. ❖