At first glance, collage and photography seem quite different. After all, collage (a word coined by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque from the French coller, meaning "to glue or paste") is a tactile, even messy process of assembling bits and pieces of things to create an image. In comparison, photography is about as hands-off as it gets. However, both artistic mediums utilize and distill that which is already out there.
Found objects, whether material or captured by a camera, are challenging when it comes to realizing a composition that's both unified and unique; the layer cake isn't made entirely from scratch, so to speak. When choosing and combining what already exists in another form, artists less talented than Diane Fox and Deb Shmerler often get lost in the shuffle. That is, the editing of tesserae that collage necessitates is only a beginning step.
Extracting elements from one's environment and transforming them into an integrated and meaningful collage is not unlike the effort involved in photography. But photography relies on physical perspective and split-second timing, whereas collage assumes specific sizes and allows a less time-dependent approach. Either way, the extensive and varied selection of art now on display in Visual Travelogues at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church through Nov. 2 (with an opening reception Friday evening from 6-7:30 p.m.) makes for a remarkably cohesive show.
The 24 archival ink-jet prints by Fox and 45 multimedia constructions by Shmerler could, given their quantity and scope, overwhelm the church's relatively tight gallery space. Yet they've proven to be a good fit. Fellow professors of graphic design at the University Tennessee, Fox and Shmerler are collaborating after teaching together in Florence, Italy—and parallels can be found within their work, as well as their shared experience. It's apparent that the two women are inspired by Italy's panoply of visual wonders and its dolce vita. Yet they've translated into truly exceptional images what they've gleaned from travel to other places, including Austria, Egypt, Peru, Tanzania, and Vietnam.
A senior lecturer in UT's College of Architecture and Design, Fox presents numerous photographs that—aside from functioning much as collage does in the aforementioned ways—actually resemble collage. Among images utilizing reflection to achieve a kind of layering is her "Meat, San Francisco, California"—a shot of a butcher seen through plate glass, framed by skinless, greasy-looking lengths of unidentifiable creatures. Especially striking is a white-haired woman wearing pale silk, mirrored in the scene as she walks by—as pure and alive as the strung-up flesh is dead.
Fox's "Potter, Atlanta, Georgia," a photograph of a glass-enclosed, realistic mannequin modeling lingerie and black stockings inside a mall, exudes a sexy serenity that—being derived from something inanimate—seems perverse. "Eyes, Boston, Massachusetts" features a shapely dress form covered with cut-out words and fashion pictures. Dominating a shop window reflecting upper-crust buildings across the street, it is—in and of itself—collage within a collage-like photograph.
With hair extensions draped over and around a dated image of a woman's face, "Ponytail, Rome, Italy" is also a storefront, but Fox's frontal perspective means the picture is less a matter of reflection than it is a surreal "ready-made" collage. A photograph titled "Trapped, Bern, Switzerland" shows a gilded female figurine tucked behind railing and spikes topping an iron fence; it, too, is collage discovered.
In a different vein, Fox has come up with some amusing images of unexpected finds, like three male mannequins chopped off at the knees and haphazardly propped against a building in "Red Bowties, New Orleans, Louisiana." Painted-on vests adorn the trio of headless and armless figures, suggesting Chippendales strippers. Distinguishing all of her prints is powerful color that "pops" without being distracting or technically enhanced-looking.
The clarity of vision evident in Fox's photographs also informs Shmerler's exquisite small-scale pieces. Despite employing a variety of materials and attending to the slightest of details, Shmerler has made art that seems effortlessly beautiful and somehow uncluttered, much like haiku (she says that the challenge of collage lies in "not overdoing it"). A 2012 UT Chancellors award winner for her multidisciplinary research, the artist presents works —as small as 4 inches square—that require close inspection, lending them a certain intimacy.
Assigning titles such as "Coral Reef 3, Chumbe Island, Tanzania," "Extinction Earth," "Geez, Appalachian Trail," "Via Della Concotta, Florence, Italy," "It's Not What You Say, Gatlinburg, TN," "Delta Son, Mekong Delta, Vietnam," and "Might As Well Be, Mt. Rainier, WA" to her quirky and complex, yet visually rhythmic pieces, Shmerler is not without a sense of humor. And her use of sensuous shapes, aged fabric, and paint-on-paper scraps, among other things, is masterful.
It's obvious that Fox and Shmerler need not reinvent the wheel. They only have to start it rolling, and gathering moss.