Currently on view at Gallery 307 at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at UGA in Athens, Ga., is the collage work of Kathy Prescott. I find the collages really beautiful, and in thinking about how artistic identity is voiced through a body of work, LDSoA Assoc. Director and Art Historian Asen Kirin writes: “The introspective and the outward views merge in the act through which the artist bestows meaning on the surrounding world. The awareness of the semantic power that the creative gaze possesses is what made possible the creation of these collages. He continues, “Kathy seems to enjoy reminding us, (her work) is all about artists looking at art. This is why she revisits the pictures that William Henry Fox Talbot took of his own copy of Patroclus’s plaster bust and the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, which are saturated with art-historical references. Like these early photographs many of Kathy’s collages are rendered as portraits—the sitter’s gender aside, these are all the likenesses of one evolving self whose life resembles a clear prism through which centuries of visual culture stream.”
Kirin’s analysis of Prescott’s work is a great read, as he breaks apart Prescott’s process and mines the pieces for their art historical references while also considering the ideas of the female gaze and gender within the work. I have copied it in full, which you can read after the jump.
“Drawing with other people’s marks” is the way Kathy Prescott describes her transfer collages rendered on wood board. They display her reverence for images, whether masterpieces of Western painting, nineteenth-century photographs, examples of pastry tip patterns from Martha Stewart Living or advertisements for Victoria’s Secret lingerie and Spanish cocktail olives. Even though modern technologies might come to mind, Photoshop was never even considered here. In this era of digital manipulation of images Kathy’s work is stubbornly and programmatically manual. She produces unique objects that invite meditative contemplation and capture the sense of old photographs’ melancholy. Their varnished surface gives the impression of softly filtering the light streaming from within the images, containing luminous, superimposed, inner screens. Crisp lines suspended in white space lead one’s gaze to areas of graphic flatness or volumes modeled in shades of gentle grays. Taking away the exuberance of color is a sign of the artist’s preference for understatement and self-effacement, but it is also a way of making things more complex. These essays in white, black and gray emerge as a study of the dynamic between drawing, printmaking and photography.
This contemplation on occasion involves subdued drama as in the collage that uses a 1944 photograph documenting a moment in the Danish anti-Nazi resistance (“Storm/Surge” 2009). That photo’s cityscape turns upward into the low-horizon mountain landscape from two mid-sixteenth century German woodcuts (Hans Glaser, “Blood Rain at Dinkelsbühl” and Matthais Gerung, “The Sounding of the First Trumpet”); in the sky above hover—as if eschatological signs—images of jellyfish taken from a book on aquatic life. In the foreground of another of Kathy’s works is the harshly linear figure of St. Christopher borrowed from a mid-fifteenth century German woodcut (“Idylls of the King” 2007). From the saint’s torso emerges a photographic image in which the dense pattern of chain armor dissolves into the serene visage of a pensive warrior king (“King Arthur” from Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic illustrations to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Other Poems). The radiance of the king’s face, subtle though it might seem, generates a halo. This royal nimbus is in fact the frame of a sunburst mirror, which could be coming straight from the pages of Elle Décor Magazine. Kathy’s iconography delivers at once a jest and an affirmation of Cameron’s Victorian vision of the legendary hero as something less than purely masculine. Thus the collage evokes current portrayals of manhood and urges the viewer to see the king’s quiet masculine allure as the construct of a distinctly feminine gaze.
Although when discussing her work Kathy prefers to talk about textures, patterns, tones of gray and the particular type of sandpaper she uses, deep below the glittering surface of this sea of formal decisions powerful currents are flowing. First there is her own artistic biography in which one lengthy chapter involves surviving the end of Modernism. She says that for years she made large canvases with color and gestural abstractions. Many of them sold, some are with her closest friends, and still others of these engulfing fields of mesmerizing color remain on display in her home in Athens, Georgia. “I would lose myself,” Kathy says, “looking at a Rothko work.” Nevertheless, over time she reached a point when she felt she had “painted herself out on a limb” into a lonely bubble apart from the world. It was impossible to continue making art in the same way.
Slowly images came to matter to her again and the world around her reentered her artistic vision. This happened thanks to the magazine clippings and piles of photocopies that she started gathering way back when she worked as a library cataloger and later during her career as a food stylist in New York City. This set of heterogeneous images begged for attention and kept yielding joy. Mercifully, the daunting barriers in visual culture between high and low, old and new had crumbled. Kathy sought fulfillment in assembling her collages through patient work, which seemed to be the antithesis of abstract expressionists’ grand gestures of creating spiritual universes ex nihilo.
The process of fusing disparate visual quotations encapsulates the experience of the artist not only looking both at images and her self reacting to them, but also looking at the world. The introspective and the outward views merge in the act through which the artist bestows meaning on the surrounding world. The awareness of the semantic power that the creative gaze possesses is what made possible the creation of these collages. Also, this is one of the reasons why Kathy is drawn to nineteenth-century photographs—early examples documenting the exchange between an observer and the physical reality seemingly unobstructed by the dexterity required in drawing, painting and sculpture. Nevertheless, as Kathy seems to enjoy reminding us, it is all about artists looking at art. This is why she revisits the pictures that William Henry Fox Talbot took of his own copy of Patroclus’s plaster bust and the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, which are saturated with art-historical references. Like these early photographs many of Kathy’s collages are rendered as portraits—the sitter’s gender aside, these are all the likenesses of one evolving self whose life resembles a clear prism through which centuries of visual culture stream.