At The Mayor Gallery is a two person exhibition of work by Jacques Villeglé (b. 1926) and Gil J Wolman (1929 – 1995). Both worked with collage, of which, for some reason or other, there is a lot around at the moment (here, here, here, here). Villeglé cut down sections of advertising posters from the walls of Paris and then ripped them up, creating compositions involving the different images revealed in layer upon layer of superimposed posters; Wolman used sticking-tape to lift the printed surface, and thus images, from newspapers and magazines.
Though various interpretations revolving around the prevalence of the media spring (all too readily) to mind, both sets of works seem limited by their techniques, however revolutionary they may have seemed at the time. This is particularly the case with Wolman’s, which I could not get into at all, and which are all a dull brown (perhaps a little bit browner than they were when they were first made?). However the show is well worth seeing for the simple beauty of the group of works from Villeglé’s ‘Mat’ series.
The Mat series were commissioned in 1965 by Daniel Spoerri, and consists of small rectangular sections cut from layers of posters Villeglé had collected between 1961 and 1964. On the evidence of this show Spoerri’s idea was a good one: Villeglé’s work benefits a lot from the act of selecting the rectangles from his larger pieces. The larger works never quite achieve any convincing kind of structure, or any sustained interplay between the fragments of images on the posters and the total image I would hope would be generated in the act of ripping them up. Indeed the closest these large works come to having effective overall images is when a particularly striking part of a poster is left visible and more or less complete (and so credit is really due to a now uncredited graphic designer of the early 1960s).
In contrast to the large works, many of the Mat series work as clear, direct images. The size has helped the colour – perhaps because within a smaller area colours can be more purposefully isolated and set-off against each other; and perhaps because there are fewer rips, which as they are edged with white (where the top printed layer of a single poster has come off) can be distracting and tend to bleach out the larger works (though Rue de Crecy, above, is both successful and a little bleached out).
In general the Mat series are also more ‘abstract’ than the large works. To make a brief comparison: in a Motherwell collage a single scrap of cigarette packet, envelope, or posh bookshop receipt is generally used whole, decisively imposed on the painted areas of a work; and though there are clear harmonies of tone, colour and shape, Motherwell creates an obvious distinction between the art elements and the non-art element, with the former generally framing or staging the latter. In the Mat series, though all the materials are ‘non-art’, because their origin is somewhat disguised by the close cropping, the relation tends to be more ambiguous, with small fragments of text or image partly interrupting and partly being assimilated into colour compositions. Often it seems as if a fragment of text has simply drifted across, or been revealed within, an otherwise abstract arrangement. The most obvious exception is Rue de Seine (Mat 78) (below), though in Aubervilliers (Mat 93) (above) there is an intriguing relation between the two ‘revealed’ scraps of photographic images, and the abstract area of goldy-yellow which separates them – but on closer inspection the yellow area turns out not to be abstract at all, as it contains an arc of cast shadow.
Writing about the Mat pieces Marion Chanson suggests that Villeglé composed ‘the pictures like a photographer’. There is something in this (Aaron Siskind comes to mind) but it doesn’t completely get at their effect. Partly this is because the surface of a photograph is (in a sense) as opaque as it is transparent, encasing the image in an impenetrable gloss, with little sensuous appeal; in contrast, with the layers of posters we are in contact with the real thing, an actual slice of the world removed and presented, tactile in a way that a photograph cannot be (they feel quite tough, and lose a lot of this toughness when reproduced on a screen). But ‘the real’ is something of a red herring: whatever ‘the real’ is we are surrounded by it all the time: it is what you do with it that counts, and art needs to create its own reality. The best of the Mat works exploit their tactile nature in a much more specific manner. This is not a case of our being able to imagine touching their raised surfaces; nor quite, though this moves closer, an imagining of Villeglé’s hands as he made his various rips. Instead what is involved is a transformation (a word that has sprung up recently on abstract critical) of the torn fragments into the total image, a move from the tactile into the visual, which by creating structure fixes what is transitory and purposeless into something clear and purposeful. The framing reveals a sensitivity to shape (lost in the large works), and allows shifts in scale, so that a tear or fragment of small literal size is imbued with large dimensions. The result is somehow both strong and fragile.
Of course it would have been better if Villeglé had been able to move in the opposite direction, working from the fragile beauty of these smaller works into larger, more developed compositions.
Villegle & Wolman: Collective Dis/Illusions is on at The Mayor Gallery until the 30th of May 2013