Collages and Assemblages:
Ruth Oisteanu “Illuminated Landscapes”
Valery Oisteanu “Lighter Than Air”
Tompkins Square Library
March 16 - May 31, 2022
By MARK BLOCH, November 2022
I was mindlessly scrolling through my social media feed this morning when I was abruptly jolted from grazing mode by a pair of glowing golden sages reaching out to me from The Afterlife through my computer screen. It was a rare photo of Andy Warhol and Ray Johnson together. I found out later it was from 1977, taken at the Windows of the World, a swanky eatery once atop the World Trade Center--a striking image of them in a striking location as it turns out-- that had been posted by yet another post-Surrealist sage: their friend and mine, the collagist and poet Valery Oisteanu.
Not only was the glowing yellow visage of the two pre-Pop artists together rarefied, strange and deliciously effervescent but it reminded me that I had wanted to review Valery's similarly apparitional little collage show at the Tompkins Square Library last Spring--by him and his wife Ruth Oisteanu--but alas, I never did. Let me correct that now! It was an otherworldy, fanciful and chimeric exhibition I am so glad I saw and that deserves a nod.
Over the years I have seen many fine exhibits and attended many terrific events at the Tompkins Square Library. They never fail to “represent” from their unique position as a funkified institution of higher consciousness in the depths of Manhattan’s most legendary neighborhood just off Tompkins Square Park, around the corner from where the Life Cafe used to be.
Meanwhile, two of their biggest fans, Valery and Ruth, have also shown up often for this library and for this, their ‘hood, with flying colors. Married for 49 years now, the creative couple met first in Israel—she born to Holocaust survivors in a German Displaced Persons camp and he having then recently escaped Communist Romania, via Italy. The year was 1972 and as they now inch toward their golden wedding anniversary, many hundreds of exhibits, spoken word readings and glamorous soirees later, Ruth describes being, “constantly bombarded by images and slogans that inform our daily existence,” while Valery adds that their artistic output “represents daydreams and fantasies inspired by run-amok brain cells.”
Indeed, Ruth lured Valery back after their initial Israel meeting to New York, where she had grown up in the 1950s and ‘60s. Eventually they found their digs on lower Second Avenue, where the couple stayed put and has attentively watched the idiosyncratic neighborhood slowly transform as they weave their own quirky magic out of found objects in multiple dimensions— separately and together. This show was two mash ups in one: Ruth’s collages and transformed boxes and notebooks called “Illuminated Landscapes” met Valery’s pasteups, accordion-folded Mona Lisa-zine and found object assemblages, collectively titled, “Lighter Than Air.”
The East Village sidewalks, curbs and gutters where the couple live near East Tenth Street are always sprinkled with an abundance of little objects, screws, washers, coins, mini-widgets, tchotchkes, lost jewelry, beads and baubles. Valery learned from a mentor, the late John Evans, a master collagist and found object recycler, to collect these treasures in unique found glass bottles. A showcase in the library featured twenty of these bottles, see-through vessels packed with tiny bric-a-brac, much of it glistening or gold colored and with only one container actually cylindrical.The rest, tapering in or widening out at the bottom, formed an array of tall and short, skinny and fat hallucinatory receptacles, surrounded by an amusing, snaking accordion-folded “zine” by Valery, containing “one thousand Mona Lisas:” actually thirty-seven two-sided panels of pasted images of the Gioconda’s grin gathered from magazines, their covers, newspapers and advertisements. One sports a Duchampian mustache, presenting the method behind Valery’s obvious madness for Mona, while other Monas show censored or uncensored breasts, blocked out eyes or peepers peeking out from behind bars. A sign announced “East Village ephemera, collected objects, 1980-2020.”
Nearby, another sign on another vitrine contained Ruth’s “Collage journals, 2016-2021.” One, bursting with mushroom heads, a shell-symbol evoking the golden mean and a Venus of Willendorf, I found particularly compelling. Whether a 30 or 40 page spiral bound horizontally-formatted diary log or a vertically-orientated 25 pager covered with a leggy insect and Native American imagery all pointing to one enigmatic word: “Catalina,” I wished I could peek inside. Nearby a scrapbook goddess was playing a lute with the head of a camel and with a ribbon that tied it shut. The announcement of a “mystery valise” was in fact a beautiful little suitcase with a blue handle covered meticulously with a mesmerizing array of postage stamps that pulled me closer.
But the real attraction here were the couple’s full blown collages. Ruth’s contributions were smaller and more graceful than Valery’s and countered their preciousness by presentation in inexpensive but effective store bought frames. His, a little larger and more formal at about 16 x 20 inches, showed more white space, with most of the elements giving the impression of existing on or near the same plane. They come across as whimsical paper Surrealist “totem pole”-like constructions, extending in multiple directions, upside down, rotated, and with many depicting a somewhat, but not entirely, humanoid world.
Ruth’s bold but delicate works are indeed landscapes, and indeed illuminated but this is urban topography that creates imaginary spaces I felt were possible to enter, despite their lush, cozy density. Many words packed and overlapping guided my eyes on a paper cab ride through a 2-D Times Square with lots of info competing for my attention. Packed with beautiful colors, they created timeless terrariums. For both of these artists, there is no where to look that doesn’t offer visual information, even if it is staring into the Void.
While both artists’ work contain anatomical figures, Ruth’s are more hidden—populating temples and shelters and invitingly feminine— Asian looking here or perhaps Arabic there, with Japanese geishas easily identifiable in a piece called Tea Time in Tokyo from 2021. Each are intriguing examples of Ruth’s aptly named “illuminated landscapes.”
Near the entrance, rows of work in fours and threes present fish, frogs, crowns and water lilies by Ruth. Birds fly through a self portrait. Pangolins, scaly anteaters from Asia or sub-Saharan Africa have fuzzy origins, just like the humans in these images. Lady Liberty weeps for America, crying in a chair.
“In my collages, I take these common visuals and juxtapose them with others that would never appear together,” Ruth said. “They come together in my subliminal, intuitive mind forming new and exciting surreal scenarios.”
On the stairwell, where they were indeed “lighter than air,” Valery’s years of work in the collage medium and work with a number of visionary teachers and mentors reveal an arcane and apparent inscrutability. As mentioned, lots of anthropomorphic figures dominate—writhing nude bodies, sexy women and girls, esoteric odalisques, aliens, headshots, devil’s kisses, embodiments anatomically stripped or headless or downright skeletal with large googly Ray Johnson eyes glued on, Victorian and Max Ernst-like torsos poised romantically, decoding sunsets in front of Yiddish theaters, a Studio 54 logo or a furtive sea vessel or a high heel. Valery is a dyed in the wool Surrealist so a recondite dog, mask, phone dial, or house covered with or surrounded by people in various states of undress turning a fish into a man with scales can prove quite disarming.
“This particular series,” he said “is a complex composition of sixty Visual Poetry collages that began as an original, handmade book published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2017, and then evolved into prints on canvas.” His last book of poetry was called In The Blink Of A Third Eye and as an editor, with Allan Graubard and Paul McRandle, Phasm Press recently published Nigredo, a book of new Surrealist writings.
When I asked him about the Ray Johnson- Andy Warhol photo, he explained, “It was June 19, 1977 at the World Trade Center. At that time I was part of Charlotte Moorman's 13th Avant Garde Festival and had a tabledownstairs. Ruth was managing it." Valery continmued. “Andy invited me for lunch at the Windows of the World. When I arrived, Ray was already there."
“Neither Ray nor I had a jacket or a tie and so they wouldn’t let us in. So we cornered a waiter. He gave Ray his jacket and tie but I still needed one so basically I said to Ray and Andy, ‘Go and have lunch without me.’ But before Ray put on the tie and they went in, I snapped a picture. I'm glad I did. I said goodbye. They were old friends.”
I'm glad he did too. And I am glad the photo reminded me of this fabulous collage show by Valery and Ruth Oisteanu, another formidable pair of ace creators. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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