Paul Watson: Assemblage and Collage

Notes on the Creation of the Assemblages

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 image.

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 the work).

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 digitally manipulated 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 emulsion) or photocopier/printer acetates.

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 is produced 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 spaces between.

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 three-dimensional relationships between the elements of an assemblage and how this might affect the various meanings and references.