Magazine Collages on Card


Ed Krčma, Summer 2011.

Flappers and Philosophers, extract from Moves, Throws, Plays

The title of her series of photo-collages, Flappers and Philosophers (2010-11), is borrowed from a collection of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald published in 1920. The aesthetic of the series also recalls the Russian avant-garde, and by 1919 Varvara Stepanova and Aleksandr Rodchenko had both started working with photo-collage and photomontage. In 1920 Hannah Höch was included in the First International Dada Fair in Berlin, where she exhibited her Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic (1919-20). The exhibition did not feature work by another artist of specific interest for Sánchez, however: Kurt Schwitters was deemed lacking in sufficiently radical political convictions by Richard Hulsenbeck and others. Nevertheless, in 1920 Schwitters held his first exhibition of Merzbilder in Hanover, having coined the term Merz a year before.

At the heart of these developments were crucial points of contestation concerning what constituted a politically, aesthetically and intellectually viable avant-garde. Could a purely abstract language be rescued from the status of ‘mere decoration’, and if so by what means? Would the new modes of photomontage, photography and film consign painting to history? What would the role of aesthetic pleasure be with respect to politically subversive intentions? Would indignance toward instrumental capitalism and technological mass murder be best articulated by enlisting chance procedures over human intention as such, by the formulation of explicit leftist messages, or perhaps by asserting art as an affirmative counter-model to the banalities of capitalist production? Should the new modern consumer culture be engaged with or rejected?

Many of these tensions are renegotiated in Lizi Sánchez’s work, and in her series Flappers and Philosophers in particular. The title itself neatly signals related terms of opposition: on the one hand the fashionable, irreverent, hedonistic and paradigmatically modern young woman, and on the other the cerebral avatar of a revered and ancient male intellectual heritage. The former would seem to stand for frivolity and lightness, while the latter for seriousness and rigour. But is that right? Were the philosophers of the day dealing more daringly with the problems of modern life than this disruptive generation of young women? And are these worlds necessarily distinct – can we not imagine a flapper-philosopher, or a philosopher-flapper?

Modest in scale, each work in Sánchez’s series is comprised of fragments precisely clipped from the pages of glossy fashion magazines such as Vogue and art magazines such as Frieze. Cut into crisp quadrilateral and triangular forms, these shards are then articulated into kinking, snaking, ribbon-like forms that glance across the page, actively advancing and receding in space. The preponderance of diagonals keeps the compositions mobile and energetic, as if thrown through the air, catching the light with a metallic sheen, and crackling like electrical current. The sequence of cut fragments is patterned by repetitions of colours, forms and textures, which reappear across the form’s extension. In Number 8 of the series, for example, the ribbon structure begins with a long parallelogram of decorative wood grain at the right-hand side of the sheet (shades of Cubism here). Kinking upwards to display a faux-underside of leather, the form continues to turn in and back upon itself, revealing elegantly juxtaposed flesh tones, greys and beiges. These flat shapes are interspersed with triangles of leather and snakeskin textures, presumably derived from images of designer accessories, but shorn of their branding. The forms buckle and unwind unpredictably, tempting the viewer to read them as three-dimensional objects turning in space, an illusionism which is frustrated by certain impossible, Mobius-like passages, or by the emphatic re-instatement of the opaque flatness of the picture surface.

Occasionally, the fragments reveal their translucency as text from the verso becomes faintly legible: in this instance, the reversed and upturned word VOGUE appears through a beige triangle to the top left. Or a fragment from an article might be inserted – a lozenge of language in which words are splintered and cut apparently at random, guided instead by the logic of specific aesthetic or ‘superficial’ decisions, as the artist says. It is difficult not to regard some of these chance arrivals as telling, however, as names such as Dorian Grey and Mina Loy trigger associations that have specific purchase upon the constellation of elements involved here: feminine cultural ambition within a man’s world; experimental languages meeting the culture of commodities; narcissistic consumption seduced by the metaphysical capers of luxurious high fashion.

What of the accusation of cynicism as the dynamic language of Constructivism is re-played, divested of its revolutionary threat and filtered through the slick surfaces of commercial advertising? Is this another statement of post-Pop irony: an embrace of superficiality, complicit pleasures and blank affirmation? Certainly the way in which the work evokes such questions is not arbitrary or unconscious: it courts them very explicitly. No doubt the claims of the historical avant-gardes have become unsupportable, at least in object-based visual production. Art objects operate as commodities (although not only as such), and art struggles to find a coherent place within broader radical social and political movements. Given this situation we might ask whether the re-playing of avant-garde visual languages refers to tragedy or farce: is this melancholic regret or manic celebration of the death of those utopian programmes? Or is it closer to the work of mourning, of the continuing necessity to work through? But again this affective atmosphere does not quite fit: there is more lightness, even frivolity, in Sánchez’s comportment here. It is also sincere rather than ironic (although minus the rhetoric of sincerity), and is sustained most powerfully by a dedicated enthusiasm for the materials and production processes involved.

Both the absorption and the comedic dimension of play are at work here. From its arrival in the early 1910s, collage has been a conducive support for experimental play, and made contemporaneous forms of painting, with their bluster and competitiveness, seem very heavy by comparison. Picasso’s first experiments with collage abounded with references to games: take the very first term, Still Life with Chair Caning (1912), with its imitation oilcloth and its word-fragment ‘JOU’ (signaling journal, ‘newspaper’, but also jouer, ‘to play’, amongst other possibilities). The combination of play and mass media continues throughout the Cubist experiment and beyond. The models of Höch and Schwitters, both increasingly close after Höch’s break from Raoul Hausmann in 1922, are crucial in that story. Sánchez’s collages, although cleaner formally, are perhaps closest to those of Schwitters in their production of an elegance crafted out of a throwaway paper world. Like him, she operates a kind of retrieval method, giving new vivacity to the waste products of commercial culture.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Flappers and Philosophers, Pennsylvania State University, 2009

‘Whereas Dadaism merely poses antithesis, Merz reconciles antithesis by assigning relative values to every element in the work of art. Pure Merz is art, pure Dadaism is non-art; in both cases deliberately so.’ Kurt Schwitters in Brandon Taylor: Collage, The Making of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 2004, p.44

For a sense of the critical battles that attended developments in art practice, and concerning collage in particular, compare Louis Aragon: ‘The Challenge to Painting’ (1930) in Pontus Hultén (ed.): The Surrealists Look at Art, Lappis Press, 1990, p.50, and Clement Greenberg: ‘The Pasted Paper Revolution’, ArtNews LVII, September 1958, 46-9.

‘That the primary concern is with surface and superficiality is conscious and intended’. Interview with the artist, 28 June 2011.