"The Best Art In The World"
Bruce Helander: New Collages and 'Erased de Rizzie'
July 31 through August 15, 2021
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, August 2021
Fashion illustrations were pasted onto screens in Victorian times but the first collage to be created as an artwork was made either by Georges Braque when he stuck a piece of wallpaper onto one of his canvases in September, 1912, or by Picasso who, by his account, had affixed a slice of fabric onto one of his at the end of the previous year. The actions were seen as force-feeding the abstracted pictorial space of Cubism with the shock of the real. “Once an object has been incorporated into a picture it accepts a new destiny,” observed Braque.
Jacob Epstein sculpted Rock Drill, a plaster figure gripping a black power drill in 1913. The Brit had planned to power up the piece in a later show, but not wishing to reference the mechanized carnage underway in World War I, he scrapped the drill. Detritus of that war became art material in the collages and assemblages of Kurt Schwitters, who set out to demonstrate that art could remake a shattered culture. The Surrealists used the technique for their own purposes. Max Ernst, whose 1934 novel, Une Semaine de Bonté, A Week of Kindness, consisted of 182 images made from cut-up illustrations, described collage as “the meeting of two distant realities on a plane foreign to them both.”
Bruce Helander would not, I think, accept the Ernst diktat. Helander, a Palm Beach-based collage artist, who has taken the technique into his own distinct direction, has a show up at MM Fine Art in Southampton (New York). He found his raw material for this show in Paris flea markets. “I used vintage magazines of the late 1800s,” he said. “Like adventure magazines. The latest is 1911. Magazines that have the richness I’m looking for no longer exist. If magazines have a shiny surface, which is coated, like Vanity Fair, well, first there’s a newness to the paper that I’m not interested in, but also that surface immediately takes away the ability to collage it, to weld it together.”
So, to the snippety-snip.
“It’s kind of a whirlwind of papers,” Helander says. “I cut with scissors or pinking shears. In some cases, I use children’s scissors because they make these curious little cuts. The challenge is to take these pieces of paper and cut them up randomly, you know, like puzzle parts. Except there isn’t a puzzle to solve. These are compositions that are carefully and lovingly brought together. They all start with one small piece of paper, usually in the middle, and usually without a plan. Oftentimes I just dance around with one piece of paper that I’m trying to connect. And finally, you say this piece of paper looks good next to the blue piece of paper that I just put down. So little by little it happens.”
Each collage is made from forty to fifty papercuts and averages fourteen to fifteen inches in height. “The reason they are so small is that I have always felt a collage should be a one-to-one exercise with the viewer coming in for a great close-up view of the way it’s put together,” Helander says. “The way it’s sanded, the way it’s cut, the different color combinations, and the idiosyncratic beauty in a vintage piece of paper.” And the making of each collage is a kind of fastidious double whammy. When he assembles the papercuts on the chosen surface Helander is aiming for the all-over compositional energy of the Ab Exes but at the same time knitting in elements of figuration and narrative scissored from the same illustrations, charging the image with suggested story.
Every piece has a distinct genesis. “Lady Mandolin was an experiment to see if I could make a hybrid because Picasso and Lichtenstein are my two favorite artists,” Helander says. “The Picasso was a 1919 painting. I took off the lady that was playing the mandolin and started carefully adding the Ben-Day dots. So, it was the Lichtenstein hands from The Crying Girl on Picasso’s Mandolin Player. But it was an equal balance.” He made Sleight of Hands from lithographic paper. “It’s beautiful even before you cut it up. You can’t make that patina, it’s a hundred-year patina,” Helander says. The story was a natural growth. “Once it’s glued down, I go back with a very light sandpaper to give it a consistency of flatness. Then I take out my gouache and touch up certain areas.”
Two collages memorialize a long-gone adventure magazine, L’Intrepide, which Helander also found in a Paris flea market, but twenty years ago. “I was looking for posters. And I came across those magazines. I hit the pot of gold. The reason I had them so long was that I couldn’t cut them up. I kept looking at them.” Hello, Covid. “I had time to look through all these magazines. I said now is the time. I’m still not going to cut them up, I’m going to collage material on top of them.”
A Small Questionable Identity began as an ad for hair color with copy which slyly read: Only Your Hairdresser Will Know for Sure. “There was a question mark in the ad. And I thought this was interesting,” he says. “Spies change their identity by dyeing their hair. I didn’t have a plan. I started cutting up the hair at the top that was wavy and interesting. Then I realized—maybe I could make a head out of this. And then I made the question mark a component.”
So, the story was integral?
“Absolutely!” Helander said. “The ultimate goal is to make magic by putting a spirit into pieces of paper.”
The exhibition continues through August 15, 2021 at MM Fine Art in Southampton, New York. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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