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Collage Aesthetic Informs Gallery Shows

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Cutting, mixing and assemblage are powerful techniques in art, from visual art to music and literature. Each new arrangement of sound, text or image alters our experience of the material. When does an image have meaning, and in what way? And how does what you already know affect your experience? Such are the questions inspired by two exhibits at North Side galleries.

Hand to Hand, at moxie DaDA gallery (a recent transplant to the North Side), is what artists David Wallace and Rebecca Trawick call a "collaborative collage." Trawick is a Los Angeles-based collage artist and calligrapher; Wallace, a collage artist with a background in graphic design and performance, is based in Pittsburgh. The two exchanged artwork via the U.S. Postal Service, adding elements with each mailing until they considered the work finished. They've never met in person.

As with many finely tuned collaborations, it's difficult to tell where he ends and she begins. One can see a mix of aesthetic ideas, a delicate sensibility -- a use of printed text, carefully placed along a grid, broken by bold, jagged cutouts, color or shape. The pieces play with perspective and orientation.

The 20 images are exhibited alongside prints depicting each piece's evolution. The artists took turns starting. Trawick began "Whirlpool" with a page of definitions, in text; a strip of '50s striped wallpaper; a chopsticks wrapper; and an image of two women on a beach. Then Wallace covered part of the page with a strip of orange material and two vintage ticket stubs marked "Oriental Theatre" (Rochester, Pa.). Trawick contributed an image of a woman's face, to which Wallace added a flower to her hair, a piece of fruit, and a clipping of a woman holding what looks like an early smoke detector.

Despite some visual points of connection -- e.g., a tropical flower with an image of a beach -- this beautiful collection of collages holds no specific thematic intentions; there are no hidden messages to interpret. Each piece offers its own vocabulary, images for which viewers can create their own meanings. Or one can simply appreciate the image for its aesthetic value as a beautiful work of art.

By contrast, several blocks away, at Artists Image Resource, the collages in Yours and Mine: Talking Our History are meant to investigate cultural meaning.

The work in progress is part of an ongoing collaboration between artist and collector Emory Biko and printmaker Maritza Mosquera. It includes silkscreen and digital prints derived from photographs of objects in Biko's collection, The Museum of the African's Experience in America.

Biko's extensive collection includes a range of historic material dating back to the 1860s, from slavery artifacts and civil-rights material to racist memorabilia and such pop-culture ephemera as a Fat Albert lunchbox. In the context of black American history and culture, each of these images carries its own shorthand -- with any of them, an idea-association game would produce responses both multilayered and complex.

Moreover, fully appreciating this exhibition requires some knowledge; you'd have to know that Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress in order to recognize the significance of juxtaposing her image with others in the installation.

Yours and Mine includes sets of prints experimenting with these images. As in Hand to Hand, knowing the process helps you appreciate the show. One set of prints began with Biko's collage of portraits of African-American males. While some viewers might not recognize all the faces, they'd certainly know the names: Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Dubois, Jackie Robinson and Medgar Evers. Mosquera and Biko alter the images, layering, altering colors and shadowing. Each new print renders the original figures less recognizable.

Mosquera creates beautiful images with Biko. Yet -- perhaps because they are familiar as historical record, or perhaps because they are part of a collection existing in part to write historical wrongs -- changing these images seems counterintuitive. Can we ignore the abstracted shape of slave shackles and experience this work as an aesthetic exercise?

In months to come, Mosquera and Biko plan to continue creating prints that will eventually lead to wallpaper -- a perhaps ironic use of the images. Through the process, they will host a series of facilitated public dialogues where participants will be invited to bring their personal objects and share their experiences with race. (Contact maritza.mosquera@gmail for more information.) These discussions will inform the process and lead to a collaborative final installation.

Hand to Hand (moxie DaDA, 1416 Arch St., North Side, 412-682-0348) and Yours and Mine (AIR Gallery, 518 Foreland St., North Side, 412-321-8664). Both shows continue through Sat., Jan 27.

Giving pictures: "Whirlpool," by Rebecca Trawick and David Wallace
  • Giving pictures: "Whirlpool," by Rebecca Trawick and David Wallace

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