No assemblage is started with a clear view of what the finished piece will look
like. The starting point is usually a wooden board (recently they’ve been “primed”
with household white emulsion paint first) and one or more images or objects.
In general, each assemblage is constructed around (or sometimes over) a primary
The Primary Image
The primary image has tended be a pencil drawing or photograph that I have made
earlier. The later move towards larger work—The High Cost of Living
from 2002 is probably the best example which is illustrated on this site—has enabled
me to use almost life-size life drawings (for the past ten years the vast
majority of my life drawings have been made on A2 paper with pencils ranging from a 2H
to a 9B) as well
as a greater selection of larger objects, including police cordon tape, wooden
box constructions and white plastic bathroom tiles (a cheaper and more workable
version of the traditional ceramic bathroom tiles, although sometimes I feel
that the cold clinical feeling of the ceramic version would be more “true” to
In earlier assemblages I frequently used black and white photographs that I
had taken and developed as the primary image in a piece. I later
returned to photography of a different sort, and have used webcam images printed
on glossy A4
inkjet paper as primary images. These webcam images have been
to greatly increase the contrast and colour saturation, producing an effect
that a friend described as “looking like stills from an alternative version of
David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet”.
On a practical note, the intensity of colour and contrast of the manipulated
A4 webcam images enable them to remain a focal point of such a
large scale assemblage (whereas a 10 by 8 inch b&w
photograph would be visually overwhelmed by the other elements of the composition).
There are, of course, exceptions - one piece from 2003 measuring approximately
one metre square, and covered with police cordon tape and white tiles has a standard
6×4 inch colour photograph as a primary image, but the rest of the assemblage
is deliberately “toned down” through the use of pale neutral colours to prevent
the image being lost on such
a large piece.
The Layering Process
The primary image provides the “motivation” for the assemblage. It is a starting
point and a key. In most pieces it is the first item to be attached to the backing
board - usually glued with PVA (white
woodworking glue known in the US as “Elmers”) and then sometimes varnished over
with clear household wood varnish. Then the accumulation of overlays starts, with
objects being layered over the board.
Sometimes layers will hide layers below completely, sometimes they will only
partially cover the underlying strata, and sometimes an obscuring layer is
partially removed (cut away with a scalpel or torn or dissolved) to enable
the rediscovery of the earlier layer. Layers may be made of objects, images,
coloured wood varnishes, layers of paint (typically artists’ acrylic or household
The layering process is a struggle which eventually results in a balance between
the primary image (the bottom layer) and the wish to cover/hide/protect/destroy this
image. The point at which this balance is achieved is realised by instinct.
By juxtaposing the primary image with other images and objects they provide a
context, and for some a narrative by which to read the work. This context or
narrative—the objects and images—is laden with symbolism and references of all
levels - personal, sub-cultural, cultural. The key, the intended narrative,
is produced by the interrelation of all of the elements of the assemblage.
A multi-layered narrative is produced by these references. The first is a linear
reading of the signifying elements, almost like reading a book written in images,
but a more subtle (and to me, more interesting and important) narrative
by the interrelation of the signifying elements, and the way in which their
juxtaposition alters what they signify. The “real” narrative is produced in the
Boxes and Frames
The use of boxes and frames has been an occasional feature of the assemblages for
several years, whether they are small frames constructed from wooden beading
or actual boxes (usually found wooden boxes) forming part of the assemblage.
The obvious art historical references are to the twentieth century American
artist Joseph Cornell, as well as to a number of other artists who explored
the possibility of the box, such as the various artists of the Fluxus movement.
Although I had some previous knowledge of Cornell’s work, it was the
“Worlds in a Box” exhibition
at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1994 which introduced me to
the wider range
of artists who had used boxes (the exhibition catalogue is still valuable reference
material for me).
Unlike Cornell, my boxes (and frames) are to be found within the assemblage,
rather than as the frame or container for the assemblage (apart from one 1998
assemblage entitled Box 1). The boxes isolate one (or more) particular
element within the assemblage, and probably have a “caging” or “defining” function.
For me, the boxes and frames have more in common with the painted boxes and “cages”
in the paintings of Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti than the nostalgic wooden
“relic” containers of Joseph Cornell.
The inclusion of boxes has started to push the artwork further into
three dimensionality, making the term “assemblage” far more suitable than “collage”.
This reflects a growing interest of mine in exploring the possibilities of
relationships between the elements of an assemblage and how
this might affect the various meanings and references.