Cutting Through Consciousness: The Cathartic Collages of Wayne Duffy
"The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises." – Sigmund Freud
Collage art is a demanding mistress. It requires not only sharp instruments but also a sharp and analytical mind. It demands patience, perseverance and imagination. The process of cutting, sorting and selecting images for a collage is a precise and somewhat meditative act. Collage artists work with pre-existing images, rearranging them into a new format and, in the process, they instil them with an entirely new meaning. This new meaning does not replace but rather adds to any meaning the original clippings already held. Therein lies the strength, and challenge, of this medium. The end product might be whimsical, political, quizzical or beautiful. It might be all of these things at once, or something entirely different again. But common to all collage art is an element of rejuvenation, reinvention and reconfiguration.
In the work of Massachusetts artist Wayne Duffy, this sense of regeneration is taken to a whole new level. In 2002 and 2003, Duffy created a series of 50 hand-cut collages titled 9:30 World. The images in these works were sourced exclusively from issues of National Geographic Magazine, a collection of which Wayne inherited after his grandmother's death in 2002. "As a child…", Duffy recalls,"… I enjoyed looking at the strange people and places that could be found in the issues scattered around their house." For Duffy, the production of 9:30 World was not just an artistic process but also a cathartic act, a way of dealing with his grief, and a tribute to the memory of his grandparents. Hence the original clippings were already instilled with an intensely personal meaning. They were a record of childhood memories. Add to this the new meaning of the re-arranged imagery and you have one very powerful series of pictures indeed. Though unique, the images in this collection share similar characteristics. Almost all feature a grandiose panoramic backdrop. Tall mountains, sheer cliffs, long sandy beaches and underwater scenes predominate. Filling out the foreground is an assortment of animals, birds, people and objects. A giant glass of beer hovers in mid air above a mountain. A woman sits underwater, casually reading a book. The rules of scale and perspective do not apply here, and the clippings clearly originate from disparate pictures. Yet they are bonded together by the creative process, assuming a collective identity outside our usual appreciation of reality. As a series, these images imply a universe similar to our own yet slightly, and significantly, different.
Duffy has confessed to a passion for analysis, codes and symbolism, and evidence of this abounds within his work. Each cutting is assigned a specific role within the scene. There are no accidents here. His hand is deliberate and assured. Images within the collages are inter-connected; sometimes by theme, sometimes by colour, sometimes by something more abstract, but the link is always there. "Montage" in German means "fitting", and the art of successful collage is finding images that fit together in just the right way. Each of Duffy's pictures is like a puzzle waiting to be solved, a series of symbols waiting to be decoded. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both maintained that symbols are not the creations of the mind, but rather that they demonstrate the capacity of our minds to hold a distinct piece of information, where it can find free association with any number of other symbols, be organized in any number of ways, and form connected meanings between symbols as symbols in themselves. Duffy's work often contains images of floating and flying. Birds soar, people float, flags flap, fish glide and hands reach for the sky. This makes one think of liberation, ambition, advancement and achievement. Even when the subject matter is dark, these pieces have a positive, uplifting feel. On a broader scale, the exclusive use of National Geographic imagery infuses the series with a unique global scope and conveys the ideal of an inclusive, Utopian world in which different races of people, animals and objects all co-exist. It is an example of what Duffy himself refers to as "social surrealism". Intended as a modern-day equivalent to the Dada collages of the early 20th century, these social surrealist images convey random glimpses of life in the late 20th century. They show familiar objects, arranged in an unfamiliar way. In the same manner as dreams, they make sense and yet, at the same time, they make no sense at all. This dreamlike aspect points directly to the influence of surrealism. The surrealists sought to liberate the individual by developing and privileging the imaginative, subconscious mind. They wanted to attain a dreamlike state which, they believed, was superior to, or "realer" than, reality. Wayne Duffy has taken this notion further still, describing his manner of art production as an attempt to be conscious of his unconscious thought processes. "I access these…" he writes, "…through chance, intuition, free association and listening to my internal dialogue". It appears Duffy is trying to create a waking dream, one in which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming, and are able to influence the course of events. Anyone who has experienced this phenomenon will be aware that it is a very powerful feeling. One wonders if art production is, for Duffy, a way of exercising control over a world in which it is all too easy to feel powerless. This would make sense since, historically, collage and montage were used most effectively by the German Dada movement of the early 20th century, a time during which the First World War made most people feel powerless and frightened. Many of their early works were used as covers for magazines and manifestos, to promote the artist's anti-war agenda and attack the status quo. The medium enjoyed a revival in the 1950s and 60s, with pop art images such as Richard Hamilton's Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) capitalizing on the superficial popular imagery of the day. The style then faded into the background until the 1980s, when adopted by the anti-nuclear movement, with some success. In the current era, digital imagery has rendered the art of manual collage an endangered species. In a world where Photoshop allows the user to cut and paste without lifting a single blade or stick of glue, artists like Wayne Duffy are to be commended for keeping the art of true collage alive. And, in the process, producing some brilliant and thought-provoking works of art.
Karen B Swallow (BA BVA Grad Cert Arts) December 2006.
Karen is a freelance editor, proofreader and arts writer living in Adelaide, Australia.