Articles and Features

5 Contemporary Collage Artists Adding New Layers

By Shira Wolfe

Laslo Antal Collage
Laslo Antal, Visit to the Pyramids, 2018. Courtesy the artist

“Collage is the cut, the tear, the rupture and the overlay of our contemporary culture. It is the hybrid language of urbanity—remixed, re-contextualized, and wholly built from the fragments of daily life.” – Pavel Zoubok

The first collages were made over 100 years ago, when Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, at the height of their artistic exchanges, burst into completely new territory with their papiers collés. Cutting, ripping, pasting, overlaying different textures and materials, the two artists started examining and dissecting objects and life in a radically new way. Since then, collage has been explored by artists from countless different movements, ranging from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Contemporary artists continue to work with the medium in ways that offer us new notions of what collage can be and how it reflects on the world around us. In a conversation with collage specialist Pavel Zoubok, we reflected on the common misconceptions that have been following collage art around for a long time.

For one, collage is often considered as intimate, scaled work. Yet take an artist like Mark Bradford: he defies this notion with his impressive, large-scale works combining standard paints and collage. This brings us to the second common misconception, that collage never encompasses painting. An artist like Bradford shows us this is not the case, as well as David Salle, whose painting in the ‘80s was absolutely guided by a “collage-type-thinking” inspired by film montage. Finally, people often consider collage to be lesser than other art forms, viewing it as a second cousin to painting and sculpting. Rather than considering collage as a pure art form in and of itself, people tend to see it as a step on the way to something else. This strange understanding of collage is easily dismantled when taking a look at the rich, creative and boundary-breaking history of collage. American Pop Artist James Rosenquist, for example, started out by making collages which were studies for his large-scale paintings. Yet the collages started taking on a life of their own, and Rosenquist eventually presented them as powerful standalone artworks.

The following artists each in their own way challenge and dismantle these narrow-minded notions about collage. They show us how powerful, inspiring and relevant the art of collage still is today and continuously explore how they can redefine and reinvent the medium.

“I am interested in preserving the memory of the first, ‘raw version’ of an event, before the process of memory takes over and reshapes, even deforms the actual event over the years." - Laslo Antal

Laslo Antal Art
Laslo Antal. Photo courtesy the artist

1. Laslo Antal's Collage

Visual Diaries

Laslo Antal is a Hungarian artist from Serbia who is based in Berlin. The focus of his artistic practice lies with the collage medium. In 2017, he started the daily art project “Visual Diaries.” Every day, Antal makes one collage, narrating a single event in that day. This results in an incredibly diverse range of topics and themes, at times revealing the artist’s most intimate and emotional moments, at other times presenting seemingly banal situations or bizarre everyday experiences. Moments of shame, pain, frustration or utter simplicity are depicted just as often as moments of beauty and success in the artist’s everyday life.

In his collage Pain Thing (2019), the artist depicts himself in agony – three heads and three oesophagi lead down into a stomach that is burning bright red. In Love – so many times explaining the same same thing (2018), we see a portrait of a screaming man, the top of his head opening up to reveal red smoke escaping. Beneath the portrait, the artist has scrawled the words: “You used to drive me crazy, but now I don’t feel anything.” Loss and death are also processed through the collages. In A ritual in the cemetery, to let things go (2018), we see Antal in the middle of a deeply personal moment, scattering what might be flower petals, snow or soil over the grave of a man. He becomes even more direct in My 70 year old D(e)ad (2018), dedicated to his father who passed away. Other days, he might choose to reflect on a simple night catching up with friends, like in Still a Saturday Still (2019). Each event finds its place in Antal’s collages.

The project aims to raise questions about what happens to intimacy once it enters the public sphere, about the unreliability and fickleness of memory, and about the role of the artist as a witness to and recorder of the world around us. As Antal himself explains, “I am interested in preserving the memory of the first, ‘raw version’ of an event, before the process of memory takes over and reshapes, even deforms the actual event over the years. While some people need a lot of time to pass in order to process and understand life events, I need this immediate form of processing or I feel I lose touch with those experiences. The person I was a year ago, or two years ago, has in many ways changed so much to become the person I am today. If I don’t record my immediate experiences every day, I’m afraid I might never be able to access those parts of myself again.”

Influences and Style

Visually, the artist cites Henry Moore’s monumental sculptures, Jenö Barcsay’s mosaic work, and Marc Chagall’s painting among his many inspirations. Indeed, Antal’s distinctive hands are reminiscent of the large, rough, monolithic hands of Moore’s figures. Elsewhere, the bulky yet sensual figures from Barcsay’s mosaics seem to shine through in Antal’s colourful, dynamic figures.

Rather than using newspapers, photographs or other pre-made images and materials like in more conventional collage-work, Antal almost strictly works with his own drawings and prints. Using a personal technique he developed over the years, he imprints sheets of paper with oil and acrylic paint. He then cuts, rips and pastes these, adding his own drawing and painting and often including written words or sentences.

Flux and Grounding

Antal’s collages reveal a unique perspective on all the little scattered moments that make up a human life. A prolific visual storyteller, each moment becomes important – from lonely nights in the city to exhilarating travels and deep connections. “As a Hungarian who grew up in Serbia in the ‘80s and ‘90s and moved to Berlin I have often felt out of place and hovering in-between worlds, so it is important for me to make these connections between the places where I live, have lived, and travel,” says Antal. “Wherever I go, I bring with me my 28cm x 35cm workbook and my materials, so that I can end every day with the practice of making my daily collage. The daily collage then becomes a kind of grounding practice for me, a ritual of home, wherever I am.”

Exhibitions

Antal presented 305 collages in a solo exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Subotica, Serbia in September 2018. This exhibition marked the first 10 months since the start of the project.

The exhibition “Summer Vibes” including 30 of his works covering the month of June opens today at Novembar Gallery in Belgrade, Serbia (25 July – 8 September 2019). He will be featured in a forthcoming solo exhibition at the same gallery. By now, he has made over 600 collages and the project continues.

For more information about Laslo Antal, see:

Laslo Antal Instagram

Novembar Gallery

“I started doing collages because they were quick and I could work through ideas quickly. In an unexpected way it developed into a voice that continues today.” - Lance Letscher

Lance Letscher Art
Lance Letscher. Photo by Todd V. Wolfson, courtesy The Austin Chronicle

2. Lance Letscher's Collage

The Pull Towards Collage

Lance Letscher is a collage artist based in Austin, Texas, whose work speaks to the idea of collage as a quasi-narrative way of working. Letscher started out with drawing and painting, before turning to collage and assemblage full-time in the early 2000s. In an interview, he explains: “I started doing collages because they were quick and I could work through ideas quickly. It’s always been an emphasis in my life to draw. I would use drawing to work myself out of problems. It just blossomed from there. In an unexpected way it developed into a voice that continues today.”

Letscher often finds materials in dumpsters, half-price books, and other discarded objects. He is usually most attracted by the things that people throw away, carrying marks, grime, and signs of wear and tear. He tends to gather his material in piles according to colour or other markers. Then, he starts cutting pieces and assembling the different parts, gluing, pressing and recutting the different parts to create their finished shape. Usually, Letscher assembles his different parts without glue first, trying out different compositions until he is satisfied. This can be a long and laborious process. When he’s happy with the composition, he transfers the parts onto a board and glues them. Due to the scale of his work, the drying time can be around three days. And even then, the artist often decides to alter the works – he might end up cropping or cutting parts of the collage after it has dried and can really see what the finished work looks like.

Trauma and Memory

Memory plays a big role in Letscher’s collages, as well as dealing with his personal psychological traumas. After the suicide of his father in 2010, Letscher explains that his work changed dramatically and become a lot more expressionistic, dealing more with psychiatric issues. At the same time, once Letscher begins an artwork, even though he may start out with a story that continues to develop, the materials he works with are the main actors driving the work. For Letscher, collage provides a language with which to navigate the chaos of life and to find structure, beauty and peace. For as chaotic as his collages may seem, there is a serenity to be found there – like in the many hands encapsulated in blue geometric shapes reaching out to each other, hovering above a rowboat bouncing on the waves in Row Boat (2018).

The Secret Life of Lance Letscher

In recent years, Letscher started working with metal as material for his collages. While working on a public art project in Austin, Texas, for which he created the large mural Big Eye (2015) out of scrap metal, director Sandra Odair filmed his working process, resulting in the documentary The Secret Life of Lance Letscher. From the same period is Letscher’s metal collage Hand (2016), a massive assemblage of cobalt blue and copper metal scraps from India. Letscher’s Black Bird from 2017 is another arresting metal collage. The seemingly sweet imagery of a blackbird with flowers on its feathers is juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the metal material and the staples aggressively covering the work.

“I’m really into color and space and the illusion of space,” explains Letscher. “I enjoy using formal elements to play tricks and to guide the eye through the piece.”

Exhibitions

Letscher’s recent solo exhibitions include Cut & Staple: New Work by Lance Letscher, Pavel Zoubok Gallery, New York, NY (2017); Untroubled Mind, Tayloe Piggott Gallery, Jackson Hole, WY (2017); Lance Letscher, Stephen L. Clark Gallery, Austin, TX (2017). He was also included in the group show “Ordinary Extraordinary – Collage in America” (April 20 – May 13) at The Lore Degenstein Gallery, presented in collaboration with Pavel Zoubok Fine Art.

For more about Lance Letscher, see:

Pavel Zoubok Fine Art

Lance Letscher Website

Lance Letscher Documentary

Lance Letscher Collage
Lance Letscher, Big Eye, 2016. Courtesy Austin Chronicle
Lance Letscher Collage
Lance Letscher, Hand, 2016. Courtesy Tayloe Piggott Gallery
Pavel Zoubok Collage
Lance Letscher, Little Row Boat, 2018. Courtesy Pavel Zoubok Fine Art

"For me, a big part of this work is about technique. It’s about figuring out how to manipulate your materials in such a way that it can get really thick and layered and contain the colours." - Raquel van Haver

Raquel van Haver Art
Raquel van Haver. Photo by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, courtesy Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

3. Raquel van Haver's Collage

Raquel van Haver’s Collage Mindset

Spending time with the large-scale, layered paintings by Colombian-born Dutch artist Raquel van Haver, it quickly becomes clear that there is something of a collage mindset at play here. Van Haver started exploring her by now signature style, employing thick layers of paint and often adding found objects and different materials, back when she was in art academy in Utrecht. Over the years she started investigating more and more how far she could take it. “For me, a big part of this work is about technique. It’s about figuring out how to manipulate your materials in such a way that it can get really thick and layered and contain the colours,” explains Van Haver.

Van Haver starts with drawing on the canvas, then works with a thick-to-thin approach. First she’ll paint a thick layer, next a thin one, and so forth. The objects she adds to her canvases often contain some symbolic meaning for the artist. Anything from cigarette butts to fake hair, drumsticks, mobile phones, bead eyes and Nollywood posters have ended up in her paintings.

Themes

Van Haver’s work explores people from all walks of life and all layers of society across the world. She is particularly passionate about showing glimpses of people’s lives who might usually be overlooked in society, or pushed to the side – people who live on the fringes, people who are stigmatised and marginalised. As such, she’s spent time cultivating relationships with young men hanging out on the streets of her neighbourhood in Amsterdam Southeast and in London, with gangs of teenagers in Lagos, Nigeria and with people in the ‘favelas’ of South America. She gets to know people, in a sense starts living with them, and starts taking their photographs. These photographs, she later uses as studies for her paintings, where she weaves together different faces and places to create assemblage-type works of the people she’s met on her travels and in her daily life.

Collage Work

Beyond her main method of painting, Van Haver is also a more pure collage-artist in her own right. In her recent solo-exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Van Haver not only showed her monumental paintings – including the magnum opus We do not sleep as we parade all through the night, which is modelled after The Last Supper – but also dedicated one room to her bright collage work. The collages are mainly made up of photographs she took during her research trips in Lagos. One collage usually contains around 15 layers – she works thickly in each medium she tackles. She also adds found objects like chains and beads. The collage-work allows her to play, to make spontaneous connections in a dream-like state. Countless characters from the streets and bars and rooftop-hangouts of Lagos are cut and pasted together in a wild visual spectacle.

Exhibitions

Van Haver’s solo show at the Stedelijk was on till 7 April 2019. She is represented by Jack Bell Gallery in London and her solo show “Delirium” is currently on view there until 26 July 2019.

For more on Raquel van Haver, see:

Jack Bell Gallery

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Raquel van Haver Collage
Raquel van Haver, One Drop, Your Heart Might Skip a Beat for Many Reasons, 2018. Photo by Wim Hanenberg, courtesy the artist and Stedelijk Museum

“A shard of glass looks worthless. But when you put those shards together you can create an entirely new picture.” - Vanessa German

Vanessa German Art
Vanessa German. Photo courtesy Flint Institute of Arts

4. Vanessa German's Collage

From Found Objects Towards Assemblage

Pittsburgh-based artist Vanessa German grew up in LA in the ‘80s and ‘90s, where her mother, who was a quilter, taught her at an early age to create her own worlds through artistic expression. During a particularly difficult period in her adult life, German started collecting objects she found on the streets of Pittsburgh while walking her dog. She would take the objects, ranging from glass to cans, buttons, fabric, bottles and scraps of paper, to her basement and start assembling them into works of art. Speaking to Harold C. Ford of East Village Magazine, German notes: “A shard of glass looks worthless. But when you put those shards together you can create an entirely new picture.”

German’s mixed-media assemblage practice fluctuates between the layering of different materials on large boards and a real three-dimensional, sculptural exploration of assemblage. These are the works that she is perhaps most known for – her powerful female bodies bulging with found objects and symbolic elements. They are power figures akin to the Central African tradition of nkisi, composed of empowered objects (shells, bottles, keys, fabric pouches, string, beads, rhinestones etc.) and are meant to heal, to protect, and to ward off evil.

Miracles and Glory Abound

In a recent exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts (which ran through 20 April 2019), the centerpiece was a mixed-media installation entitled Miracles and Glory Abound (2018). This impressive sculptural assemblage is a life-sized representation of Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), the iconic painting by Emanuel Leutze. Leutze’s art is one representation of a foundational story about the birth of America, depicting George Washington leading Continental soldiers across the Delaware River in 1776. German’s piece directly challenges Leutze’s narrative and asks her viewers to consider who are the actors that get to decide on and shape history. Miracles and Glory Abound is a boat filled with human figures, all of whom are African American. As noted by Holly Bass, a writer and performance artist, “She (German) inserts and asserts her Blackness, her womanness, her multivalent queerness, into this ongoing American narrative and asks us to consider the birth of this nation, a mythology of chopped cherry trees and founding fathers lying through wooden teeth.” German’s elaborately embellished assemblage-works call for communal transformation, healing through art, and a reassessment of grand narratives.

Exhibitions

Vanessa German recently had her first solo show in Los Angeles at Gavlak Gallery (22 March – 25 May 2019), and her exhibition Miracles and Glory Abound was on show at Flint Institute of Arts through 20 April 2019. The exhibition has since travelled to Figge Art Museum, where it will be on view until 1 September 2019.

For more information about Vanessa Germans, see:

Pavel Zoubok Fine Art

Vanessa German Instagram

Vanessa German Collage
Vanessa German, Miracles and Glory Abound, 2018. Courtesy East Village Magazine

“To make things make sense, I have to make things up." - Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu Art
Wangechi Mutu. Photo by J Caldwell / Nasher, courtesy Museum of Art at Duke University

5. Wangechi Mutu's Collage

Wangechi Mutu’s Female Motives

Wangetchi Mutu is a Kenyan artist based in New York who is known for her work in collage, video, sculpture and performance. Her work explores issues of gender, race, and personal identity while crossing through the history of art. Recurring motives in Mutu’s works are masked women and snake-like tendrils, creating a sense that the artist is engaging in her own form of myth-making.

In her 2014 exhibition Nguva na Nyoka (which translates to “Sirens and Serpents” in Kiswahili) at Victoria Miro Gallery, Mutu presented a body of collage, video and sculptural works. She drew on references ranging from the East African coastal mythology of nguvas (“water women”), gender and racial politics, Western popular culture, Eastern and ancient philosophy, and autobiography. All throughout Mutu’s art, her powerful hybrid female figures reign.

Materials and Forms in Collage

Mutu is known for using Mylar in her collage-paintings, but has started shifting towards vinyl and linoleum as the basis for her works over the years. Mutu’s forms are deftly cut out and assembled together, to which she adds her stylised, sensual painting. All kinds of unexpected materials enter into her collage works, including tea, synthetic hair, batik materials, Kenyan soil, feathers, and sand. Mutu here imbues her pieces with their own, specific cultural signifiers. In her sculptural work, she also makes use of smell and sound. One might encounter dripping bottles, fermenting wine, and rotting milk oozing from the mixed-media pieces.

Influences and Inspiration

Mutu is influenced by collage-artists like Dadaist Hannah Höch and Pop Artist Richard Hamilton. Like Höch, Mutu’s collages explore gender roles, politics and violence. Through her collage-work, she started out exploring how state violence shows up on people’s bodies. Later, Mutu started making collages from ethnographic photography, 19th-century medical illustrations, and magazine pornography. Her collages reveal the female body as a measuring device of any society’s health.

At times, her women protagonists are influenced by real women, (Sarah Baartman, Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones and Tina Turner to name but a few), at other times they are amalgamations of her imagination. They are often muscular, erotic, powerful, even dangerous.

Mutu, who was born and raised in Nairobi, then lived in Wales and finally settled in the US, has always explored her state of in-betweenness. In her words, it was her American experience (along with all the exhaustion surrounding having to avoid people’s ignorant stereotypes) that allowed her to find her way to incorporate African imagery in her work. As a result, Mutu’s images present a collision of worlds. They are visually seductive and thematically challenging, at times bordering on the grotesque. “To make things make sense, I have to make things up,” Mutu explains.

Exhibitions

The artist is included in the Whitney Biennial (17 May – 22 September 2019) and in the travelling exhibition Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem, which is currently on view at the Gibbes Museum (through 18 August 2019).

Find out more about Wangechi Mutu here:

Victoria Miro Gallery

Gladstone Gallery

Wangechi Mutu Collage
Wangechi Mutu, a dragon kiss always ends in ashes, 2007. Courtesy Victoria Miro
Wangechi Mutu Collage
Wangechi Mutu, beneath lies the power, 2014. Courtesy Victoria Miro
Wangechi Mutu Collage
Wangechi Mutu, Madam Repeateat, 2010 (detail). Courtesy Victoria Miro

Relevant sources to learn more: