Nebraska Arts Council’s Fred Simon Gallery is currently featuring a dual exhibit with work by artists Sophie Newell and Cheryl Dyer. The artists, both with a background in the graphic arts, work in the medium of collage, but with divergent styles, delivering results that complement each other and provide the viewer with a taste of the extensive possibilities of the medium.
Already immersed in Cubism and the surreal, the pioneers of collage – most notably George Braque and Pablo Picasso – embraced this new, inexpensive, and reproducible medium that provided ready-made patterns and images, from wallpaper and fabrics, to newspaper, and of course, photographs.
Newell works in the traditional collage style of cutting and pasting, reorganizing photos, appropriated material, and objects. Her work is nostalgic regarding most of the source material, and it provides a glimpse into the history of collage as an art form. It’s a look back to the medium’s golden-age, exhibiting influence from the Dada and Bauhaus artists like László Maholy-Nagy and Hannah Hoch, and it touches on the ‘50s and ‘60s, with more than a nod to Pop-Art and advertising.
Collage, additionally, was perfectly suited to political and social commentary, allowing artists to include printed type and photos from current sources like magazines and newspapers. Several of Newell’s works pay homage to this early era of graphic commentary.
Of note is the “Dude Outfit” series, where she cuts, pastes, sews, and weaves a mid-century, black and white, Life magazine cover from April 22nd, 1940. The series features four versions of the same cover – a female model in period “cowgirl” attire, perched on a wooden fence. Newell puts each work through a different “treatment,” for example, cutting out concentric discs and sewing them back into place askew.
Newell is not bound to one method of collage, as the variety in her work shows. In some, she cuts intricate small holes in the cover image, allowing a backing image, usually colorful in contrast, to show through the holes. Others have her cutting the photo into strips and weaving them back together. The most successful images using this type of treatment are those where the image is cut into small triangles and then reassembled out of order, resulting in a chaotic jumble of facets, a crystallization of a portion of the original photo.
Some are simpler works, like “Bug,” a found black and white portrait featuring a ubiquitous “guy” with a butterfly wing as a mask. Is this wry commentary about our recent pandemic, or maybe something suggesting (some) men should just shut up?
Two more complex works using overlapping postcards and photos and found objects, one incorporating oil and colored pencil. “Looks Like PA Will Be Next” and “When Know How” are fine examples of the more traditional collage, with the latter doubling as an example of Mondrian-ish abstraction.
Interestingly, some work uses actual found images and “real” objects, where others are labelled “Archival pigment print collage,” the current accepted, “art speak” term for a digital print. This is only for the source material, and not the final collage work. It did not diminish the work at all, as Newell seems to use this only when necessary.
In strong contrast to Newell’s work, Dyer lets the collage element fall to the background, making her painting to come to the fore. These mixed media paintings still have one foot firmly in the collage camp, though it is not her primary visual tool. That honor falls to her skills in calligraphy, and a bold use of letterform aesthetics is apparent in most of her work.
Many of her images feature bold strokes of black or dark grey line ala Keith Haring, strongly suggesting letterforms and indistinguishable words. Most are layered in the traditional collage fashion of overlapping cut and paste, but this is secondary. Much of the layering effect is enhanced through the heavy use of translucent washes. Most also feature some examples of her prowess as an advanced calligrapher, a service in which she also works professionally.
“Untangle,” with its strong letterform element, is especially notable, as are the two, tiny works measuring an intimate 2.5 inches by 5 and 6 inches, “Live News” and “Dead Vine.” A close look at these small works is recommended. Dyer also includes two book-form pieces, “Rule Number Seven” and “Usurper.”
The 31 works are from 2020 through 2022. Both artists frame primarily in white, which serves them well in making the show more cohesive. The entire show was a welcome example of professional presentation. The two artists are subtly mixed throughout the gallery, and both were represented equitably. These are smaller, intimate works of art and they fit well in this space.
How to Feel at Home runs through May 4th. Follow on their Facebook page, Nebraska Arts Council for information about a Facebook Live Artist Talk. At the time of this writing, appointments and masks are required for viewing. With the fluid nature of these requirements, you are urged to check the website or contact the gallery at 402-595-2122. Appointments can made through a link available on the website, https://www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov/news/nebraska-arts-council-fred-simon-gallery/