Landscape Vernacular Series
The Landscape Vernacular series is an ongoing body of work I began in the spring of 2011 that explores landscape, terminology and imagery. Culling from a small collection of dictionaries dating from the early 1800s to the present, these collages juxtapose definitions with period ephemera to explore ideas and attitudes about land and land use, while also addressing the history of landscape painting, American identity, and contemporary ecological issues. The austere look of the series emanates from self-imposed limitations with materials and a process to incorporate them: end pages, book engravings and maps, digital technology and puzzle piece collage. While I have an extensive library of paper books for making my collages, I also cull online archives for images and texts that can support the needs of any given work. Regarding digital technology, I am strict about not morphing, inventing or embellishing textual or visual information in the Landscape Vernacular collage series, but I sometimes edit and resize my found materials. I print onto period paper to fabricate source materials that are as close to a facsimile as possible. I make technological hybrid collages using 19th and 20th century materials re-made in the 21st century. The Landscape Vernacular series is an offshoot series of another body of work that also uses the blank pages as a conceptual practice.
Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory)
It took me two years to research and collect materials for Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory), a two-sided collage that explores American and American Indian history. The first piece of information I sought was to enquire about the translation of the title of the magazine: Saranac is an Iroquois word that means “cluster of stars.” The definition of the magazine’s namesake spurred research aimed at understanding the differences in attitudes about land use and land ownership between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy—Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora—and European colonialists and the parallel way they clustered their respective people into democratic societies. I became interested in how the Haudenosaunee Confederation formed out of necessity, banding together to combat advancing Europeans driven by the promise of terra incognita and the new world. According to research by Barbara Mann and Jerry Fields of Toledo University, Ohio, the Haudenosaunee
Confederation is “one of the world’s oldest democracies, at least three centuries older than most previous estimates, dating to 1142.”1 In turn, the Haudenosaunee Confederation inspired founding father Ben Franklin to band the colonies together. The magazine’s namesake takes on a heightened meaning when such history is taken into account. In the early stages of planning the composition for the collage, I used a star motif from an early version of the American flag, but without a thirteenth star in order to parallel a quote by Benjamin Franklin, in which he mentions only twelve colonies—see the collage recto. I made specific use of the magazine’s cover design as a collage element in its own right, knowing that I could communicate something about the interrelated histories noted above. The “cluster of stars” was placed at the exact location in Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory) to conceal half of the star cluster beneath the Saranac Review title once it was loaded into the magazine’s cover template—thus, Saranac Review No. 12 has a collage rebus on its cover, referencing its namesake.
I placed the twelve stars strategically behind the title of the magazine, concealing six stars and revealing six others to denote the Haudenosaunee Confederation, of which there are six tribes that form the Confederation. Interestingly, the Confederation had been established for several hundred years with only five tribes—which is why their “constitution,” the Hiawatha Wampum, was designed with only five groups represented—in 1722 the Tuscarora joined the confederation ten years before Georgia became the thirteenth colony. Having not had the benefit of learning Indian American history until doing this research, I found it interesting to consider that the depth of American appropriation not only involved territory; half the United States are named after Indian American words, and both Americans and Indian Americans revere the Bald Eagle as the National Bird respectively. The greater than ( > ) and less than ( < ) symbols that are embedded in Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory) literally point to the incongruence of respective peoples at odds with their cultural attitudes around land and land use. Iroquois ideas about land conceive of natural resources as gifts that require thanks and stewardship, which abuts European ideas about land as parcels of territory to be purchased and owned by individuals and governments. The intertwined relationship of cultures is punctuated by desperate acts of annihilation on both sides, but it was the genocide of the Huron, the Attiwandaronk, the Erie and other tribes that vaulted the Iroquois to power3—which, in turn, prompted the creation of the Haudenosaunee Confederation, and the eventual Declaration of Independence—and, ultimately, centuries later, the creation of the Ganienkeh Manifesto in 1981, when the Mohawk Nation successfully reclaimed tracts of their original territory. Also of interest to my study was the European utopian push for terra nova, examined on the verso of Promise and Threat (Terror Comes After Territory). Whenever I use maps, I select specific longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates that relate to the places involved. In the case of Promise and Threat, the latitudinal parallels correlate to new world voyages emanating from various European locations. I titled the collage after an art phrase that appears in a quote by William Sturtevant on the face of the collage. The parenthetical part of the collage’s title has a double meaning due to the play on words that acknowledges the alphabetical happenstance of locating the word “terror” after “territory” in the dictionary.
End Pages, Whiteness, Blank Slates
Around 2001, after more than a decade of noticing my thoughts returning, time and time again, to works such as Kazimir Malevich’s White on White, Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings and Erasedde Kooning Drawing, John Cage’s 4’33,’’ the Beatles’ White Album, and the essay, The Whiteness of the Whale–chapter 42 of Melville’s Moby Dick—I began to collect blank endpapers from 19th and 20th century books in an extended effort to work with blankness. I had the idea to make collages of landscapes using nothing but white paper as early as 1999, but it took me until about 2004 before I had collected enough end-pages to begin my first actual constructions. The idea spurred several related works, a series entitled Blank Slates—laser cut collages tracing the related histories of landscape painting and collage—and a number of works that incorporate “blank paper collages.”
The work commissioned for the cover of Saranac Review No. 12 is a work that incorporates a blank paper collage—an interpretation of a painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder (American, 1847-1917), The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), 1895-1910. Ryder’s The Race Track was painted after the death of a close friend of his from New York—who bet on a horse race, lost, and took his own life. The symbolism of the painting and the fact that it was painted about an event that transpired in New York State was of great interest to me regarding this collage project, which was largely made to explore the Iroquois Confederacy, New York State history and the Mohawk people.
Visual Notes on the Works
Detail pages for some of the works are provided to allow viewers to inspect and read the definitions and terminology—the small size of the text when reproduced in the publication was rendered illegible. David Powell is a respected collage artist; I admire his design capabilities and his work. I invited David to create a series of digital collages to highlight elements from each collage at a scale that would be easily accessible for viewers to read. David created six beautiful “end note collages” that correspond to all of the collages except the self-portrait and the cover piece. The cover piece is left unadorned like scattered cuttings on a worktable, ready for inclusion and context.
Burnished, Puzzle-piece Collage
I use a special method of collage I have evolved over time, similar to how jigsaw puzzles are made in which the pieces are all cut to fit together; the end result is much the same as the technique of inlaid veneer in fine woodworking. Cut pieces are burnished on the front and back of the collage to force the paper fibers to join into a seamless union. It is crucial that I cut the pieces exactly. The process forces that I either separately cut the object and the background where it will fit—most challenging—or stack papers to cut simultaneously both the object and its receiving background. I have to be extremely careful to not let the object move out of place while cutting. When I layer three pieces of paper and cut through all the pages simultaneously, I end up with three separate collages by mixing and matching the parts. Such was the case in the Ryder collage and The Artist and Collage in the Field of Landscape No. 2. For those projects, I ended up with three works each, where the shapes of the collages are identical, but the paper color shifts from one work to the next because of the exchanging and sharing of the pieces between each respective collage. The paper I use is not able to withstand tape being pulling off the surface without resulting in severe tearing due to its age. Thus, all the pieces that are being cut in a given moment are held in place by hand for the entire process of cutting. Burnished, puzzle-piece collages are obviously challenging and very time consuming to make, but the metaphor provided by the method is conceptually complimentary for this particular body of work: all cut elements play a vital role in the exploration of the subject for each individual collage, which incorporates many wide and disparate but literally connected materials. A subject’s interconnectivity of ideas, events, portraits and symbols drives the selection of imagery, and the puzzle-piece collage process echoes the delicate interdependence between elements.
—Todd Bartel, Watertown, MA, April 17, 2016