March is a journal of art & strategy.

Collage as a Way of Living

Regan Golden

January 2021

Since the start of the pandemic, my life has turned into a sprawling mash-up of online teaching, childcare, home repairs, waiting for packages to arrive, and zoom meetings. Sifting through fragments of cut-up photographs and drawings scattered across my studio desk, I realize that collage is now a way of living. Each day the fragments of my work life, family life and life as an artist are sucked up into a vortex of uncertainty and deposited in a new arrangement: job search canceled, child plays drums, credit card bills soar, grant comes through, neighborhood struggles – and a new collage is made. As an artist, I have been working in collage for more than twenty years, but only now has my daily life come to mirror my multi-layered compositions.

To be more specific, collage is a way of living during troubled times. Collage is the medium of the makeshift moment, a form for the fractured present. Collage arises when there is both limited materials and excessive information. When materials are sparse, artists make do with whatever newspaper clippings or scraps of fabric are available. Meanwhile, we are flooded with information by the twenty-four hour news cycle. Faced with this heap of information, only an artist armed with a scissors can cut and paste it down to size, winnowing out what is most important in this time of crisis. Now is the time we need collage to make art from minimal means and make meaning from the excess of facts and opinions.

Regan Golden, Garden Remainder, 2020, Digital Color Photograph of Collage made with sod from backyard, cut photographs of garden, Red Maple seedling, mylar, graphite and acrylic on paper, 50 x 36 inches.

I work primarily in collage because, as a medium, it is unfinished and unruly. A collage never reaches a clear and lasting resolution. Even after being pasted in place, there is a sense that one section could suddenly be lopped off and recycled into something new: there is always a fragment drifting towards the edge ready to depart for the next iteration. Collages are undisciplined: there are no set steps to make a collage. The only guiding principle is a good gestalt, a unified image, but even this powerful rule can be broken in an artwork, spewing imbalance and asymmetry into the world. Casting a wonky bronze sculpture, throwing a tilted vase, creating a warped canvas, or a skewed photograph is possible, but generally considered just bad craft, not poor form. As Rosalind Kraus and Yves Alain Bois argue in their dictionary of the informe, Formless: A User’s Guide, poor form is not sloppy or lame compositions, but the undermining of the tenuous unity that gestalt produces as the formless seeks to lower form, rupture dualities and break the frame. Collage is the most potent medium for artists to embrace this rupture of form, randomness and lack of structure. With collage, imbalance and asymmetry are as likely an outcome as the creation of a harmonious image and, since collage has no clearly defined end, either one may be the resolution.

The collage of life currently is a constantly changing composition. There was a time when I was able to strike a balance between making art, writing and teaching, but after moves between several cities and raising two children that balance is elusive at best. Before coronavirus, I carefully constructed elaborate frames to prevent my role as a parent from spilling over into my job as a teacher and an artist. Despite these frames, sometimes I still struggled to drop my two young children off at school without being overwhelmed by a swell of sadness and anxiety about not spending enough time with them. It is a fifteen-minute walk between their classroom door and the front door of my home and some days just putting one foot in front of the other was hard, especially when I taught night classes and knew I wouldn’t be able to spend time with them again until the next day. Then there was the flip side: putting my concerns about a struggling student behind me when I walked in the door of my house at the end of the day was a whole other challenge that again demanded the frames be built higher every semester. I used to be an expert, or so I thought, at compartmentalizing one part of life from another in order to be fully present for both my children at home and my students at school. These days, any symmetry between work and life feels impossible to compose.

I find this arrangement reflected in Hannah Hoch’s “Goldener Mond (Golden Moon)” (1923) in which strips of lace pattern unfurl like silhouettes of trees against a rising orange moon. When I saw this small collage in a Dada exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006, I stopped short in front of it. In an epic exhibition packed full of viscous oil paintings depicting tortured men returning from World War I by artists like Otto Dix, Hoch’s collages offered a feminist perspective at a point in history when materials were scarce, propaganda plentiful and women like Hoch were reconfiguring traditional gender roles. Unlike Hoch’s better-known collages of female figures cut from the pages of 1920s German fashion magazines, in “Golden Moon” Hoch uses lace to create the likeness of a landscape in a clever critique of both the conventions of femininity and traditional landscape painting. Through her use of materials, Hoch brings together two approaches to collage, the more abstract papier collé (paper adhered to a flat mount) and the long history of découpage used to decorate keepsake boxes. In “Golden Moon,” Hoch collapses the decorative border to form the landscape rather than simply framing the scene. There is no better analogy for the experience of daily life right now. The frames that used to separate work from home have collapsed into a single scene, one uneven and jumbled landscape.

The illusion that I went through daily life stepping with ease from one frame to another was shattered last March by the pandemic. I am now amazed by how much energy went into separating the studio – from home – from the classroom. Even though it can be isolating and frustrating to work from my kitchen table, I realize it is also a privilege that has kept my family from getting sick while enabling me to keep my jobs. Now that I am working from home as an artist, teacher, citizen, and parent, all the frames are breaking down and the collage of work, art, community, and family is richly convoluted. The daily composition of life oscillates wildly with some layers overlapping and obscuring others, or setting into sharp contrast one fragment from the next. This collage of life is a more honest representation of my existence than the orderly sequence of carefully framed compositions I imagined I was living before.

I built these frames because I feared that having children would negatively impact my career as a teacher and an artist, that I would be denied opportunities for travel, research, teaching, and exhibitions simply because I might be viewed as distracted and uncommitted. To fight this perception, I rigorously organized my classes, kept exacting office hours, and rarely took my young children to art openings. Before the pandemic, I had walled off my professional life from my home life as best I could, but the truth was that sometimes a memory of my children would pierce my thoughts in the middle of a lecture, or I would think of a troubled student while walking with my son to the park. There were always cracks in the frames, but the next day was an opportunity to build them thicker and taller.

Or not. I now find myself acutely aware of how framing devices function. My home and garden have a real hold on me right now. The literal frame of the four walls of my home offer both protection and confinement. Within these parameters lie the psychological frames I built myself to separate my ‘work life’ from my ‘home life,’ as a daughter, mother, sister, neighbor, citizen. Then there are statistical frames – race, gender, class, medical history – that determine my susceptibility to coronavirus: white, female, clinging to middle-class life by a thread (no savings, no retirement) and a history of hypertension. Our community garden, located right on the line between Saint Paul and Minneapolis, has become a space for me to rethink the borders that alternately separate and integrate my neighborhood into the surrounding cities. I can barely put words around the sadness that both cities have experienced with the loss of so many people from COVID, the harrowing effects of persistent racism that led to the murders of Philando Castile in 2016 and George Floyd last spring, as well as the growing recognition of the role that state sanctioned violence has played in the occupation of this land stolen from the Dakhóta Oyáte. The frames that society affixes us within are clearly apparent and the impacts of enduring racism, sexism, classism and ableism are horrifying and plain to see. Recognizing the frames that secure my place in society and acknowledging my role in maintaining them is only a start. It is time to broadly reimagine and disassemble these framing devices starting with re-envisioning the home, the garden, and the city, to undo firmly entrenched cultural divisions.

Making art can be a starting point for this process of reimagining and disassembling. The truth of my collaged existence has always been visible in my artwork: I just could never hide it there because my images and installations are about my relationship to the city where I grew up and returned to two decades later. My work is often framed as being about landscape and botanical illustration, but take away those art historical boxes and what is revealed is that my images are about the complexities of returning home, seeing someplace familiar in a new way, being part of a community, and accepting that places change over time.

My artwork is also about freedom of imagination, finding freedom in nature even within a city, finding freedom in collage. Collage has enabled me to invite chance into my artistic process when every other aspect of life, from teaching to parenting, was so seemingly scripted and neatly framed, allowing little variation. In collage, a complex image of reality can be mirrored or reconfigured. Either way, the layered quality of life is revealed and the power of the frame is challenged.

Regan Golden is an Artist, Writer, Parent, Gardener, and Lecturer at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Golden’s collages and installations have been exhibited nationally and internationally including the Lawndale Center for Art (Houston, TX), Soo Visual Art Center (Minneapolis, MN) and Gallery 44: Centre for Contemporary Photography (Toronto, ON). Golden’s reviews and essays have been published in Modern Painters, Art Pulse, New City, and her recent series “Seeing Plants,” was published by MnArtists & The Walker Art Center Magazine.