SkyDancers and Concrete Poetry: Scott Zieher at Ampersand
Scott Zieher: Totems & Cantos at Ampersand Bookshop and Gallery
March 19 to April 24, 2016
2916 NE Alberta Street, Suite B (between NE 29th and NE 30th avenues)
Portland, OR, 503 805 5458
Long before it was fashionable to glue clippings of ziggurats (to intimate exotica) from 1970s National Geographic pages, juxtaposed with some modern trope or other (to suggest time-flux), collage had already enjoyed its heyday. The many cute new versions readily found online have the attractive quality of anything else torn out of time, labeled “vintage” and mixed with contemporary imagistic trappings, but like anything novel for the sake of novelty, this kind of juvenile charm wears off pretty fast.
On the other hand, (there’s always another one) there’s “Totems & Cantos,” on view this month at Ampersand Bookshop & Gallery, featuring a selection of collage work by artist and New York gallerist Scott Zieher, created over the past five years. While wildly juxtaposed (e.g. a single glove standing in for legs), these collages aren’t composed of zany connections but diurnal, sometimes totally banal objects displaced, re-contextualized, and distorted to make for something more decorative, puzzling, strange, and often very funny. Actually, these aren’t superimpositions or replacements at all, they’re imaginary constructions. This characterizes their charm. That the figures are composed of disparate parts, giving them almost a readymade quality, makes them more convincing. But of what?
Marvelous robots and occult figurines wear hats made of images of what appear to be bowls, dishes, thimbles, and crucibles, hanging there (so to speak) on toothy white sheets or else found pages in frames, as if to pose their incipient questions from nevertheless mesmerizing appearances. Some of them have toothbrush and bottle bodies or some kind of marble plinth lower situation. Their compositions often appear to have been made up of parts decided on by pulling from a hat. One form, Wave Pattern (2015), is mostly the clipping of a colorful blue, white, and gold waveform filigree ending in a cluster of spheres (flattened, left within borders of white), while another figure in Totem #2 (2012) is made up entirely of those famous helical stripes of a barber shop’s pole.
When Totem #2, the first in this series of 18, makes its appearance near the Ampersand entrance, its four figures stand waiting like deranged poker players and you’re late to the game. But there’s neither hostility nor friendliness in these visages, nothing personal or alien for that matter, and it’s partly because of this that Zieher’s pictures are so enchanting. It’s this kind of magic within the human imagination that Bertrand Russell writes about, describing a force that comes from far off carrying with it the “vastness and fearful passionless force of non-human things.” That’s what these things look like to me anyway. It’s a strange distancing relative to the so-called ordinary that causes the artifice to change a person’s perception with what amounts here to more or less simple cut-up decorations. And there’s always an odd one out. The last in the above-mentioned line of four is caught mid-sway as one of those crazed SkyDancers seen at used car dealerships, only one made of stacked electric hotplates supporting a totemic mask for a head, rather than monochrome nylon. One could posit that this work has something to say about commercial imagery, but should that be done here?
In addition to these dazzling figural compositions, here and there are other forms. Rain Cone (2015) is an ice cream with a kind of hot pink spray paint overlay, and venturing further into the exhibition is a series of multiple forms made up of fragments of type and snippets of collage, aptly called Concretude (2015) (alluding to the shaped language of concrete poetry). Looking long enough at Zieher’s cinematic collages, one begins to consider what that old stage conjurer Georges Méliès was doing when he assembled his magical films a century ago. Through a certain kind of lens, ordinary things (even letters and numbers, not out-and-out strange in their own right straightaway) are put together to make something happen that one didn’t at all expect. In the case of the Concretudes, one can scarcely make out letters at all. These compositions amount to a visual gag, turning the tables on art of the imponderable by way of common objects.
After having seen the exhibition once, a few of these odd little minions paid a visit in two successive nights’ dreams, occasioning my return to them, to guess at the origins of their constituent facets and search for deeper meanings — a totally hopeless task. Seeing this exhibition a second time, Zieher’s works seem, to me at least, to be composed only to delight, taking on the characteristics of dreams. Like some of these compositions, dreams are often cold and at some remove as they occur, but are sometimes unforgettable. Archetypes may be manifested in dreams through familiar and uncanny imagery, and these collages have that same temperament, if such a term can be used for inanimate constructions. Emotions on ice.
Zeiher’s exquisite miniature images are X-Acto’d fragments butted up against larger parts with a scarcity of imperfection, so that when a visual hiccup does appear — such as a white border corner taking a turn to brown or black toward its furthest edge — one has to wonder if it happened by mistake at all. And if not, then are these images, in keeping with their mode of curiosity cabinet on paper, really just here to delight? This is the kind of art that necessitates no further context, history, or other anecdotal information, save for the fact of their creator’s absolute painstaking and considered rendering. This singularly interesting collection of pictures is exactly enough.