Poetic Depth in Collages by Elise Church, Luca Coser and Joe Kupillas: Notes on how abstract shapes suggest movement and a sense of transformation

Gallery Molly Krom
Jan 7, 2014 4:51AM

Sanda Iliescu—Dec. 24, 2013

 Imagine a flat shape, perhaps a shape cut with scissors from a sheet of wallpaper.  Imagine this shape placed next to another shape, perhaps one cut from an old photograph or colorful magazine spread.  Now imagine seeing these two shapes not separately but together: seeing them as parts of a larger whole.  Imagine further that the two shapes have been so precisely and carefully positioned in relation to each other that something in one shape speaks to something in the other.  This is how a collage begins.  And this is also the way we might begin looking at a collage.

As an artistic medium, collage celebrates rather than denies the flatness of cut-out-shapes.  Like a silhouette or a cast shadow, a shape in a collage is and often looks eminently flat—bound to a two-dimensional surface.  Indeed when we consider these recent collages by Elise Church, Luca Coser and Joe Kupillas, this insistence on flatness becomes essential.

A sense of flatness in a collage bespeaks the directness, immediacy, and lucidity of the cutting-and-pasting process.  At the same time, this impression of flatness also makes possible certain very powerful and peculiarly modern depths.  The idea of creating a sense of depth through flatness is counter-intuitive, yet it is both true and indispensable to a sensitive appreciation of collages.

The purpose of these notes is to shed some light into how collages, and specifically these recent works by Church, Coser, and Kupillas, achieve a specific sort of aesthetic depth—a depth, moreover, that is peculiarly modern.  I will call this sort of depth “poetic depth” in contradistinction to what is sometimes known as the “literal depth” of illusionism.  Poetic depth is different from the depth of illusionistic representations in that poetic depth is emphatically not the appearance or illusion of deep space achieved on a two-dimensional surface. 

Illusionistic depth is most often created by artists through techniques such as the linear—or Renaissance—perspective system, as well as other subtler yet equally persuasive methods such as atmospheric perspective.  Illusionistic depth is the powerful sensation of depth that all “realistic” paintings and classical drawings offer us—from Song dynasty 12th century Chinese landscapes to Impressionist compositions.  It is important to realize however that in all successful representational paintings and drawings from any period or style—be it German expressionist paintings or an ancient Roman frescoes at Pompeii—both illusionistic and poetic depth often operate simultaneously, sometimes enhancing each other and other times creating rich oppositions and tensions.

Since illusionistic depth is usually easier to recognize, we are often seduced into its intricacies and virtuosities and may resist going beyond it and thus appreciating other equally important qualities in a work of art.  Yet, with all two-dimensional art of any period, it is important to also go outside illusionism and recognize and indeed delight in qualities that depend on work’s very real flatness.  Once we begin to see also see any drawing or painting as a composition on a two-dimensional plane, new potential perceptions and relationships emerge.  For example, we might see a shape as potentially both near and far: both something small, tactile and near at hand (in the foreground) and something very large and very distant (in the far background).  As we accept the picture’s flatness, we open ourselves to a different sort of depth.  Paradoxically, by means of flatness we expand rather than reduce or “flatten” our appreciation. 

While illusionistic depth makes it possible for us to imagine a deep imaginary space behind the literally flat picture plane, poetic depth urges us to first of all recognize and accept the picture’s very real flatness.  At the same time poetic depth also encourages us to perceive multiple, and sometimes contradictory, simultaneous possibilities.  In other words, poetic depth makes it possible for us to see the depth and complexities of a composition that remains nonetheless emphatically flat.  

Because collage begins with the literal flatness of cut-out-shapes, collage is an especially useful medium for experiencing poetic depth—the sort of depth that acknowledges surface flatness to begin with and then transforms it into a very different poetic depth. Consider an example.  We look at a small circular white shape in a collage.  At first we interpret the shape as a little white button on a woman’s dark blue dress.  But we also see that the bluish-gray darkness surrounding the white shape has a tonal softness and subtle color variations that suggest this might be the dark sky or water seen from a great distance.  We now discover that the small white shape surrounded by darkness is the silvery, white disc of the moon on winter’s eve.  The beauty of poetic depth here is that it allows us to see both interpretations as equally valid: to recognize that the white shape is both a tiny button and the moon, both close at hand and incredibly remote.  We sense here a perceptual oscillation—a sort of dance—between two opposed yet equally valid interpretations.

Poetic depth is the depth that allows for, indeed encourages, the experience of conflicting interpretations and even conflicting feelings.  It is also the depth of multi-sensory experience—of sensing the world not only by sight alone but by sight and other senses: by seeing and imagining textures, sounds, odors, and even tastes.  Poetic depth requires that we experience the world—and a collage—not singularly as an answer to a mathematical puzzle, but openly and in all its contradictions and unresolved complexities.  To appreciate the poetic depth of a masterful collage, we must both sense and make sense of its forms.  In other words, we must seek to comprehend these forms with our rational mind and simultaneously to apprehend them through our senses. 

Poetic depth is the depth that encourages us to perceive multiple associations and diverse, occasionally contradictory meanings.  It is the depth of difficult, and perhaps un-answerable questions.  Apprehending poetic depth can be quite rewarding to the viewer.  Its apprehension and enjoyment unfold quietly and over time. They require patience.  Occasionally, our understanding of a collage may change suddenly and unexpectedly.  Because the collage possesses poetic depth—because its maker has orchestrated certain powerful relationships among its flat shapes—we might suddenly discover an entirely new way to see it.  Appreciating poetic depth in a collage cannot be forced.  Indeed perceiving poetic depth is a sort of testament to freedom—also to the uniqueness and individuality of each viewer and each artist. 

Poetic depth has nothing—or very little—to do with political and social messages.  Poetic depth is in fact antithetical to propaganda art, which is manipulative and seeks to persuade viewers of certain values by offering us the spectacle of either worthy or deplorable actions.  Poetic depth has no singular and clear-cut message, political or otherwise.  It has everything to do with aesthetic feeling.  It is perhaps best described as a kind of musicality or silent voice—the tender, deep voice of forms in art. 

Elise Church’s collages are populated by figures that may at first glimpse seem unassuming in and of themselves but that exert powerful forces in the larger composition.  In “Plum” it is the shapes that spring from and transgress the right edge of the paper; in “Protogs” the slender line that sweeps across the paper, growing thicker and merging with a photographic fragment; in “Blue” the floating presence near yet not quite at the center of the paper. Often these extraordinary figures in Church’s collages are composite or divided: a few colored shapes painted with ink, adjoining a bit of old torn paper and a fragment from a photograph.  Although they tend to occupy the central area of a blank expansive whiteness, and they often have crisply defined and unambiguous edges, these poignant figures nevertheless seem also paradoxically unbalanced and precarious, as if they were about to fall or drift away from the center.  They have a forlorn, lost feeling, like characters who find themselves in a play in which they do not belong. The magic of these collages is how subtly and well these lost characters, these tentative yet also so well-defined players, gain and sustain the viewer’s attention.  We find ourselves drawn to them and enchanted by the larger play around them, by the peculiarly contradictory and thus modern situation in which they find themselves.

Joe Kupillas’ collages strike a very different tone.  They are not tragic but thrillingly humorous, soft and subtle but simultaneously vivid and highly pitched. They are also more obviously and literally narrative.  The sense of movement and transformation is equally powerful, the difference being that the transformation is musical.  In Kupillas’ collages we hear melodies and songs, cacophonies of notes, wild choruses of irreverent sounds.  The collages do, as one of Joe Kupillas’ titles suggests, “make noise.” 

   There are also jokes in Kupillas’ collages.  Consider the collage titled “Piano,” in which a photographic fragment shows a piano tuner gently plucking the inner strings of a piano.  Out of the piano tuner’s hands, as if flowing from them, we see the opulent bosom of a woman.  The line of her cleavage leads downwards, like another string.  There is obviously a joke here.  The man plays the woman, tunes her up, and perhaps seeks to give her pleasure.  Perhaps she screams, or perhaps she sings like a well-tuned instrument.  What makes such collages more than one-off jokes, however, are the interesting formal questions they ask. Why does the creamy soft off-white paper so clearly establish a bridge, a link between two different colors: the brilliant yellow and the neutral white?  Perhaps this suggests a relationship between man and woman, or between physical pleasure and intellectual delight.  And why, in this narratively suggestive collage, do the piano’s keys refer us to a cool modernist series, the hyper-rational boxes of Donald Judd?  Perhaps this question is itself an answer to another question: why are Judd’s boxes turned sideways?  We might also notice that the piano tuner’s white cuff completes the central white rhombus shape.  Why is this man’s white cuff so important after all?  Is this an added sound, the topmost note, the thing that while not quite at the center does in fact play a central role?  Clearly, this small white shape is both important and rather inconsequential—it is after all just a white cuff.  This kind of purposeful ambiguity is most lyrical and is what makes Kupillas’ collages successful, something that transcends the one line sexual jokes that might at first catch our attention.

Luca Coser’s collages recall the primitive and more difficult domain of touch.  Like Kupillas, Coser can be funny and sometimes tragicomic.  Look for example at the two dots in “A Bit of White.”  The white here is obviously white flesh covered by the bikini on the body of the woman pictured. Below this white dot, however, is another dot of the same shape and size yet colored in dark purple. Together they form an abstract relationship, one dot seen light against dark, the other dark against light.  But the relationship is uneven: one partner is the white flesh of a woman’s bottom, and the other remains ambiguous.  What are we to make of this other lower shape?  Is it just a dot?  Or does its dark purple color suggest something that one might want to touch, a berry or grape for instance?  Or is this its opposite, a piece of trash or excrement?  Or might this dark dot be something very different: the round pupil of an eye, the voyeuristic eye of someone unseen who looks and perhaps very much wishes to touch the woman’s body?

Such questions embedded in Luca Coser’s compositions concern both sense of sight and touch.  These collages are so compelling precisely because they make us ask such questions. Yet, along with these questions, there is another subtler and gentler side to Coser’s collages.  He invites us to look not only at the figures and shapes but also at the materials and textures of the collages: to imagine ourselves almost touching the physical surfaces we see.  This invitation is sometimes made obvious by the presence of hands, our main instruments for touching, or the silhouettes of hands.  Often the most abstracted collages by Coser suggest the sensory delight of making a collage: they are made of surfaces on top of surfaces touching one another, painted over, scribbled, erased, torn, and stained.  The shapes themselves often touch each other, as if caressing and holding each other.  Yet at the same time the dark cutouts of silhouetted figures that are so often present in his work suggest frustration, the frustration of not being able to touch. What are these shadowy abstractions after all but a rejection of the tactile world?  They are remote, simplified presences that seem to reject closeness and intimacy.  At times they suggest a peculiar sort of answer to the problems of touch, a unique contradiction at the heart of every collage, the contrast between sensual pleasure and aesthetic delight of all kinds and the remoteness of all art—its disembodied and often perplexing presence in our imagination.  

Gallery Molly Krom