Assemblage Rules in Santa Cruz
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

In February and March of ’09, the considerable art scene of Santa Cruz put together a coordinated effort to bring out many the manifestations of construction, assemblage and collage in art. Solo exhibitions, and groups shows presented the work of dozens of artists – mostly from the South Bay area – in an exhaustive array. The great celebration of collections, found objects, and art making from a combination of un-arty sources and artistic impulse was led by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History where all three floors were dedicated to this show. Such important artistic contributors as veteran assemblage masters Bev Rayner, Robert Larson, Stan Welsh and Philo Northrup were shown alongside some stunning work by newcomers such as Genevieve Hastings.

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Philo Northrup’s Basic Religous Piece


The Museum led the way in organizing this county-wide effort to bring the Santa Cruz art scene into a single focus and explore a single theme. Thirteen other venues participated — UCSC’s Porter Sesnon Gallery, the Cabrillo Gallery, Chocolate, SCICA at the Dead Cow Gallery & the Mill Gallery, Felix Kulpa Gallery, Louden Nelson Gallery, Micheangelo Gallery, Pajaro Valley Arts Council, Santa Cruz Art League, Santa Cruz Bank Arts Collaborative, and the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center — and admission was free for the duration of the exhibitions.

The whole history of assemblage and collage is very Modern, and partially rooted in early 20th C desire to flaunt the new, reflect the contemporary, and embrace the anti-salon aesthetics of artists working in Russia and Europe. After taking permission to create artworks, in two or three dimensions, that were not all made by the artist’s hand, nor all from a single source of “artist’s” materials, nor representational of a single subject (if representational, at all), Pandora’s box was open. Kinetic art, installation, performance were all part of the continuum that carried the movement from rigid rules of orthodoxy in materials and approach to its contemporary Postmodern state of affairs.

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Joseph Cornell’s Two Artists Talking

From the Modern period, such greats as Picasso, Gris and Braque among the cubists, working in collage, all found newspaper an irresistible source of material to add to their surfaces. Duchamp was a giant in the construction of enigmatic sexually charged assemblies of metaphorical and suggestive objects. Joseph Cornell and Louise Nevelson had different ways of incorporating the “found” wooden box into their wall reliefs. Cornell filled his boxes with relatively simple found cultural objects that seemed to equally address formal relationships and the odd dream like juxtapositions of the surrealists. Nevelson was all about form, filling her wall reliefs with repetitive elements out of wood, joining multiple assemblies to fill whole walls, and painting them a monochromatic black or white. Robert Motherwell liked to collage the “neutral” cigarette package into his otherwise abstract graphic works.

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Ed Kienholz’ Back Seat Dodge

Seen as a Pop artist, John Chamberlain’s metal sculpture, made from compressed smashed cars from the wrecking yard, evoked emotions from shock and empathy, to outrage. Also on the edge of Postmodernism, Ed Kienholz constructed complex dark narratives of the human condition within his large tableaus from found materials. Among the most contemporary, stars like Anselm Kiefer have used old books as objects that hold the mysteries of history and somehow represent the passage of time as well. Kiefer’s mentor — Beuys, in his performances and installations — used carefully selected iconic objects such a piano, a shepherd’s staff, a gurney, and live and dead animals to lecture to his followers and promulgate an artistic philosophy of life.

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Philo Norhtrup’s Toy Boxes

At Cabrillo College, just one site in the Santa Cruz project, the Gallery was brimming with the contemporary examples of Philo Northrup, Jack Howe and Ruth Boerfijn. Boerfijn’s delicate installations, where small punched pieces of collage paper were suspended at intervals in webs of wire, was austere and ethereal in contrast to the baroque collections of objects and wry commentary inherent in many of the assemblages by Howe and Northrup.

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Installation by Ruth Boerfijn at Cabrillo College

Boerfijn’s work, regardless of scale seems intimate, idiosychratic and personal.

Jack Howe’s installation at the Cabrillo Gallery was in part a recreation of his living space, jammed with objects, collected stories and long individual object-life histories. Much of the detritus of human invention attractive to assemblage artists is inevitably old and qualifies as collectable antiquity. And so Howe’s space is as much a museum of history (a lot of it looked to speak to true Santa Cruz mountain lore), as an exhibition of his assemblage art in varied stages of assembly.

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Good & Evil by Jack Howe

For Both Howe and Northrup, as in the works of Cornell, small figures and dolls are often a point of departure for a mini-tableau. The interaction between these referential figures gives us glimpses into the world view of each artist. For Cornell there was a faith in the intuitive and the unconscious. For Howe there seems to be an appreciation for dark humor and a love of something (even someone, perhaps) that has truly lived well and been well weathered in the process. In the work of Philo Northrup, I see the artist embracing the human comedy with exuberance, while he simultaneously asks existential questions.

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Jack Howe’s I Offered Him Light at Cabrillo College Gallery

Among the individual works of both Northrup and Howe, I was particularly drawn to pieces that address one of my favorite themes – the struggle between good and evil. Jack Howe’s I Offered Him Light is delightfully irreverent. Northrup really gets into the question of eternal salvation in his Basic Religious Piece. Will the mightily struggling little green man escape being nothing more than an archeological artifact if his superstitious tug of war with the wishbone is successful?

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Enigmatic Attempt to Cheer Up a Clown by Philo Northrup

Philo Northrup uses a lot of figurines, and brightly colored plastic toys along with older used toys, as in Enigmatic Attempt to Cheer Up a Clown. A red plastic Sponge Bob, in the glow of a red caution light, hails a sad clown. Again, Northrup asks questions about mores, values and changing stereotypes in this simple juxtaposition. His vibrant collections of monochromatic toys all crammed into a little box delight the eye, but at some level offend our sensibilities over consumerism gone awry.

All in all, there was an awful lot to see and even more to wrap your mind around in this countywide exploration of assemblage, collage and construction.

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