Collage is one of the defining aspects of twentieth century art, and its influence pervades our contemporary culture, from the popularity of sampled beats to the increasing use of computer-generated characters in movies. The splicing together of dissimilar images, once so unsettling to viewers, is now hardly noticeable. We have grown accustomed to rapid juxtapositions. It takes an artist like Jakob Kolding, whose work is currently on view at the U-M Museum of Art, to break us of our viewing habits and demonstrate how collage operates.
Kolding combines a streetwise, mash-up aesthetic with astute formal control to explore the multifaceted landscape of life in the modern city. The sixteen pieces chosen by Jacob Proctor, UMMA’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, riff on the theme of the “urban jungle” and contain images culled from a variety of media. Young skateboarders, run-down factories, and giant concrete apartment blocks inhabit Kolding’s scenes alongside pop heroes such as Batman, who appears prominently in Architecture 2000 (2009). Words proliferate, as do images of earlier collage artists like Hannah Hoech. Black snaking forms drawn directly onto the surface reinforce the jungle theme and help to keep the overall composition from looking too crowded. Identifying the individual elements of these visual puzzles is great fun, but it should not keep visitors from appreciating the overall effect, particularly in Kolding’s sparer works, which are elegantly shaped and complex examples of what great collage can be.
Also featured are two pieces made especially for the exhibit named Untitled (Ann Arbor/Detroit) (2010). Both are poster-size prints that speak to Michigan’s longstanding socioeconomic difficulties. One features a newsprint photo of a crouching man next to a black jagged line. It reads: “A rip in the fabric of reality.” Visions of dilapidated city blocks, so prevalent in downtown Detroit, immediately spring to mind. The ruins that checker the Midwest’s deindustrialized cities are rips in the urban fabric that have yet to heal. Kolding’s contrasting views of the reality of urban decay and the creativity of youth culture suggest that such sites are uniquely primed for artistic regeneration.
While some might see his work as an ironic comment on the ubiquity of mass-media representations, it can be equally argued that Kolding’s collages reflect a more heroic view of the power of cultural appropriation and metropolitan renewal. The distinct glimmer of a utopian impulse shines out from these tightly constructed pictures. Catch a glance before they leave.