Realizing Michael Oatman's Collage to be a Massively Networked Organism by Ray Ogar

>>> COPYRIGHT 2005

Research and analysis of Michael Oatman's collage work. Google Michael Oatman for Examples of his work. (I use endnotes here denoted with numbers in the body of the text) (2011, corrected a few minor mispellings and placed endnotes in parentheses)

When a collage is made, when various images are appropriated and cut and pasted and reassembled to form an image, the final composition can ask one of two questions. Is this composition trying to represent something that already exists? Or, is this image trying to show some alternate reality. In other words does the collage try to represent the real or create a new potential reality? When Braque and Picasso began their collage experiments in the 1910s, their image creations were extensions of their earlier Cubist painting experiments (1). These collages were paintings that were illusionary versions of subjects remade using alternate or extended forms (paper, images, actual wood and paint). In the case of “Still Life with Piano” (1911), Picasso used paint as well as a simulation of printed woodblock letterforms. Whether or not these collages contained paint or even simulated woodgrain (in the case of Braque), the point here is that these early collage artists were using image fragments to “report on nature”. These collages merely simulated (even if removed slightly by abstraction) a subject that already exists (where this simulation simply explicates additional information about the object). The argument unfolds then that Braque and Picasso were extending our knowledge of the world with layers of additional information.

In the big picture, perhaps all image making is “creating a new reality”. But I would argue there is a difference to be made. Braque and Picasso were in a sense stylizing their subjects. These artists were abstracting those subjects, trying to maintain an illusion of the real through the appropriation of other elements that related to their final subjects. Looking forward even to Rauschenberg’s combines, whether sculptural or flat, multimedia silkscreens, his form of collage was still about creating something, representing something that already existed. In Rauschenberg’s work, he suggests a simultaneity of temporal events—certainly not a reality that did not exist. He specifically desired to elucidate in an alternate form, what reality was at that time.

In opposition to this idea of reality representation is the contemporary collage work of Michael Oatman. Oatman uses the manner of cutting and pasting together enormous amounts of imagery into what he calls “maximum collage”. Through this means then, he does not re-present something we already see, but shows us an alternate possibility. Here the artist is using the medium of collage to propose questions and possibilities by, “manipulating the material residue of history (2)”. Make no mistake though, Oatman’s collage technique is at times so well achieved that the audience may well believe that small birds can carry guns (The Birds, 2002). Granted, in a Postmodern sense, because his collage is a form of pastiche, there seems to be a level of parody present. But arguably, because of his conceptual bent, what could be parody evaporates into controlled commentary. With this work, the artist does not say, birds carry guns. Oatman wants the audience to gather a deeper meaning. He wishes us to understand his paintings as a metaphor for what could happen to us if ever nature fought back.

In one respect Oatman looks back to the more allegorical paintings of Heronimous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel. Because Oatman’s images exist as continuous visual fields, they lend themselves to the illusion of landscape and the allusion to narrative similar to Bosch and Brueghel. Each of these works, Oatman included, desire the viewer to enact a “restless looking,” where the eye continuously moves over the image space. It is then through this strategy, via Oatman’s meticulous collage construction, that the viewer might buy into the idea he constructs alternate realities, or potentialities. Here though, the parallel worlds depicted, like Brueghel and Bosch, are definitely more mythical, but similarly explicate various unconsciousness anxieties in our culture. Oatman asks, will nature ever fight back? See birds taking up arms against man in Study for the Birds, (2001). Does nature have hidden insurgents? See insects acting in concert with birds to take down the established human regime in Reenactment, (2004). Now examine fighter jets placed in snowflake patterns to suggest a blanket of protection that melts during a time of need, 9/11. Here Blanket, (2003).

Oatman makes no secret about being influenced by such things as the caricature landscapes of Warner Brothers cartoons or the psychological drama in Hitchcock movies (3). Likewise, he specifically culls his images from books and magazines from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These were decades that appended a specific visual aesthetic to his growing up. And arguably, this is the main reason why he completely avoids digital material. What new narratives he creates are intended to, “challenge the ways we consume institutional versions of history and environmental ‘progress’.” (4)

For Oatman though this process of image collection goes much further. The antiquated source materials have a deeper significance for him, when creating in general. Yes, he uses, old Popular Mechanics magazines, old encyclopedias, mildewed children’s books, piled up newspapers, he even searches through bins of junk from garage sales (5). But Oatman specifically states that he is interested in the sensual nature of the books and papers he cuts from. He argues that the process for him needs to be physical as opposed to the way people search on the internet. He desires the materiality necessary to find these images, whether tracking them down by foot or searching through boxes at a flea market. This is what he calls “dowsing (6) with a knife”. For him everything from the subtleties of paper to the irregularities in the way the image is printed and finished make these cut fragments more human (7). The important difference to Oatman’s manual technique is finding the appropriate piece without manipulating it. For Oatman he does not resample images by taking them to a photocopier, nor does he scan them into a computer for color correction, reduction or enlargement. He is using these found images in their original scales (8). He simply uses file cabinets to store various sizes of fragments he discovers. Some might argue this is very imprecise, and I would argue it fits with his notion of history in the making. As a re-constitutor of history, Oatman does show bias, but not the full fledged bias of someone using digital technology to manipulate history to an extreme degree.

And he does not just cut out a few images. His works can include hundreds, as well as thousands of individual pieces. He has even said that when he cuts from vintage stock or books he feels he is, “saving these images from total annihilation.” He figures that in contrast to the way images are found on the internet, the images he finds have died in some way in the material world. For Oatman it is important that the material he uses had a life before it got to him (9). This is distinctly different from him purchasing new books or books with readymade images collected in clip-art books. He wants the images’ contextual histories intact and not pre-digested or pre-culled from their original context. For Oatman this is his way of enacting a casting call for a film. Here his desire is to find the actors perfect for a cinematic performance—his collage. Only in his case, the performance is unknown and unknowable. The final painting comes about more from the idea of intuitive drawing, where the artist allows himself to feedback on what has occurred in the composition. This type of intuition continuously drives the image-making in new directions if need be.

In a 2005 interview, MASS MoCA assistant curator Nato Thompson asked Oatman about his relationship to Walter Benjamin’s idea of the collector as a someone who makes personal sense of history (10). Initially Oatman replied with a quote from Bart Simpson, “The pile is the enemy of the hole.” The suggestion here is that the piles of stuff in Oatman’s studio are the tidy messes of history. It is when these collections reach a bursting point that his art begins to take shape—more precisely, Oatman later quotes painter Frank Owen, “mess is lore.” (11) For Oatman building a library (of images) becomes an act of deliberation. Form is discovered, themes emerge. Oatman agrees with Benjamin’s suggestion that the flea market itself is the ultimate work with no beginning nor end. But Oatman adds to that by saying the flea market acts almost as a “coral reef” or “networked cultural organism”. It is here that we begin to see more specifically what is going on in Oatman’s work. Whether in The Birds (2002), Study for the Birds IV (2003) or even Blanket (2003), it is not the individual animals or machines or technologies we are focusing on, but I would argue it is the concert of like images.

In Oatman’s bird vignettes, each animal carries one of several varieties of weapon, usually of a projectile nature. The most basic suggestion is that the hunters will become the hunted (12). This is perhaps a more direct reference to Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. But this alone does not convince Nato. He asks Oatman, why specifically birds? Oatman returns simply, “What if the everyday were made terrifying?” Oatman explains that taxidermy itself has become more artistic and less naturalistic in the last few years. He suggests that these newer bird forms are almost kitsch versions of themselves, collectable, and ultimately more acceptable in the home (13). But Oatman’s birds are doing the opposite. These birds are less inviting, these birds with weapons, I would even argue they are less collectible. They are rogue; they are renegade.

Nato still presses Oatman for a more complete answer. Despite the deliberate reference to Hitchcock, Oatman reveals he has always been fascinated with the 19th century German storybook Struwwelpete, or “Shock-headed Peter”. This is a children’s story that tells the tale of a hunter who falls asleep in the woods. A passing rabbit picks up the hunter’s gun and glasses. The rabbit walks into town (upright) and begins shooting people. Here nature is taking revenge in an urban setting (14). In its most basic form, allegorically, symbolically, the rabbit is nature. It moves from a cute creature to one of power and fear because of its unexpected transformation. This is Oatman’s insinuation, and I would argue then that through his paintings Oatman depicts these potential collective acts more overtly. It is as if Oatman has been searching for years, collecting data and now reveals a secret gathering force against us through his collage. In the case of his bird studies, Oatman suggests the birds are breaking from their traditional position in nature, even from their traditional segregation into species, to join forces. These animals are responding, as one, as a networked collective against man.

With a similar bent, Oatman collages various fighter jets into the forms of snowflakes. Granted these fighter jets are machines, but I would argue that the idea of a collective organism still exists. Here, in Blanket, the audience sees a failure in the totality of the blanket of technology from doing what it was meant specifically to do—act as a barrier of protection during 9/11. In this instance the machine concert fails (snowflakes = snow = melting ice when heated or under attack) and with it Oatman’s commentary is perhaps more pointed. The idea of organism remains (a governmental body un-acting in unison), vast in scale whose potential has either not been seen yet or whose potential failed miserably.

It is through these sorts of collective data that Oatman’s other work makes a similar statement. On one point Nato asked about one of Oatman’s newer works, Code of arms (2004). The audience sees what could be called the DNA strand of our culture through collage. The form of the work alludes to the double helix using roman coins, flowers, compact discs, vegetables, clowns and Boy Scout merit badges (15). The question though is why use such eclectic fragments of branding and personal identification? Nato even asks how are these forms operating on the genetic code? It is here that Oatman suggests that our whole manner of relating to the world is sometimes through animal guises. These symbol forms were in the past (and arguably still are) ways we possessed their qualities (e.g. lions = bravery, falcons = speed, bears = strength). In this manner animals were used in symbol form on shields, heraldic signs, armor, even tattoos. Oatman explains that in the 1800s, these animal forms begin to exist as apart of our commercial branding system. In particular he recounts how Purina’s “Checkerboard Square” is a manufacturer of animal feeds. He says this is sort of marker for billions of other media DNA we use to create symbols (16). These sorts of brands collectively signify something greater about us if not something working against our favor.

One true collective act of collage Oatman participated in was the project Long Shadows: Henry Perkins and the Eugenics Survey of Vermont (1995, 2000) at MASS MoCA. Oatman created an installation piece that was the fictitious home of the first director of the Fleming Museum. In this installation, described as a “walk-in diorama (17)”, Oatman used actual objects owned by Henry Perkins, to create what he terms “still films” and “un-environments” from the director’s historical detritus. Here the elaborate “maximum collage” allowed the viewer to enter the working space of one of Vermont’s chief reseachers (18).

It was upon researching the collection of the Fleming Museum Oatman discovered that its first director was a eugenicist. Because eugenics is an irrational scientific bent (that rallies racism, ignorance and anxiety) Oatman chose to fictitiously replicate director Henry Perkin’s office. It is through this data and how it acts as one organism of information that the piece itself challenges science’s claim to objectivity, suggesting, or rather reinforcing the need to understand that science has always been shaped by the personal prejudices and bias’ of its explorers (19).

Ultimately though, with manual collecting and cutting techniques, Oatman culls fragments that are predigested in a specific way. The images come from a place with a history of prior use. Oatman argues for the primacy of his sources. It is the limitations though, whether scale, color, or printing mistakes, he says, that make him work harder (20). Even the books themselves that he cuts from become art. Oatman suggests these books with holes are “corpses (21)”. I would posit then that these holed books are the corpses of the images he uses, the leftovers of a history he is saving. It is perhaps these cut up books then that demonstrate the bias inherent in any act of history telling or narrative making.

Other Data,
Michael Oatman born Burlington, Vermont, 1964.
Worked in collage while pursuing a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1986.
Received MFA, at University at Albany, 1992

1 “Collage.” By Clement Greenberg, 1959.
2 Becoming Animal, Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Edited by Nato Thompson, 2005. Page 84.

3 Decordova Museum: Annual Exhibition 2002, Www.Decordova.Org/Decordova/Exhibit/Annual02/6_02.Html
4 Mary Ryan Gallery, Press Release For *Some Assembly Required, 8 April To 8 May, 2004.
5 Becoming Animal, Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Edited by Nato Thompson, 2005. Page 84.
6 Dowsing is the practice of using a “dowsing stick” to find water in the ground; dowsing is part science, part practice and mostly faith.
7 “Incision: An Interview With Michael Oatman.” By Bree Edwards, Salvage Magazine, January 2003.
8 “Brainspace Narratives: Mind And Matter Meet In Michael Oatman Artwoks At Tang.” By Greg Haymes, Times Union, 21 August 2005.
9 Ibid.
10 Becoming Animal, Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Edited by Nato Thompson, 2005. Page 90.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid. Page 84.
13 Ibid. Page 90.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid. Page 84.
16 Ibid. Page 90.
17 “Art Review; In Their Own Worlds: Giant Hybrids Of Fact And Fantasy.” By Roberta Smith, New York Times, August 11, 2000.
18 Becoming Animal, Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. Edited by Nato Thompson, 2005. Page 84.
19 MASS Moca, Past Exhibitions, 2000, Http:Www.Massmoca.Org (Massachussetts Museum Of Contemporary Art)
20 “Incision: An Interview With Michael Oatman.” By Bree Edwards, Salvage Magazine, January 2003.
21 “Brainspace Narratives: Mind And Matter Meet In Michael Oatman Artwoks At Tang.” By Greg Haymes, Times Union, 21 August 2005.