A number of innovative artists of the first half of the 20th century discovered and worked with collage and the related practice of assemblage: Pablo Picasso; Georges Braque; Marcel Duchamp; Max Ernst; Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoch; John Heartfield. The fruits of their explorations traveled across the pond and flourished anew in America: Robert Motherwell; Anne Ryan; Joseph Cornell; Hannelore Baron; Bettye Saar; Jess; John Outterbridge; Bruce Conner; George Herms; Joe Brainard; Ray Yoshida; Romare Bearden all made original works in this decidedly modern art form. And while these practices have been thought of as chiefly 20th-century art forms, they are still alive and thriving in the hands of artists, poets, and filmmakers such as Renée Stout, Peter Williams, John Ashbery and Guy Maddin. Another artist who deserves to be mentioned is Varjuan Boghosian, who began showing in the early 1960s at the legendary Stable Gallery, and later showed with Cordier and Eckstrom, which also represented Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Isamu Noguchi and Romare Bearden.
What this diverse group underscores is how wrong it is to think that digital technology and Photoshop have supplanted collage and assemblage, rendering them obsolete. The world is awash in detritus, and there is much to be found if one is in the business of looking. Varujan Boghosian is certainly in that business and has been for a long time. If Varujan Boghosian: Master Bricoleur, currently at Kent Fine Art (November 12–December 23, 2015), offers us a window onto what he has been up to throughout his career, it seems as if he is particularly disposed to distressed and obsolete things: children’s blocks, penmanship exercise books, and tin toys portraying young circus performers; stained wallpaper, scientific diagrams; outdated currency; musical scores, photographs of artists and authors; bridal portraits; found drawings; floor plans; written and found language.
Boghosian adds something new to collage: erasure. Working with found photographs and drawings in an additive process that also involves used and unused paper, he sands away part of the image in a found photograph or a drawing. In the photographs, it is as if time has intervened, making a remote moment even more distant, like a lover whose face you cannot remember, much less describe to someone else. In the sepia-toned photograph “The Bride Vanishes” (2012), Boghosian has sanded away the face of the bride as well as the surrounding area. It is as if the effects of light and time have worn away her visage, leaving behind an incomplete memory.
In the found drawing “Bride & Groom” (2012), Boghosian has sanded away the groom and most of the bride, leaving behind the bridal bouquet, one of the bride’s hands and her comb, which echoes her hairline. She is otherwise absent, a memory that never comes into focus. Here is where Boghosian employs an innovative process: by using sandpaper to erase part of the bride, he is accelerating the action of time as an agent of constant and irrevocable abrasion. Procedure and meaning are inseparable.
Boghosian’s brides can be understood as evocations of Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)” (1915–23), but I think these works do more than allude to Duchamp’s unattainable bride. Photographs can be memory aids; they document a moment and are part of a history or, in the case of wedding photographs, a deeply personal narrative. The erased face caused by time suggests that we are ultimately inconsolable, that our storehouses of memories do not help to heal us. And yet, at the same time, Boghosian has used the sandpaper to lovingly caress the surface of his found materials, accepting time’s grinding indifference.
In a number of other works, Boghosian pays tribute to artists, writers, and poets — James McNeill Whistler; Vincent van Gogh; James Joyce — some of whom, such as Louise Bogan and Stanley Kunitz, were his friends. Boghosian will often tear an image out of its source before incorporating it into a collage. The torn edges infuse the subsequent artworks with a melancholy murmur, while the pasting of one image on top of another underscores time’s passage as process of accretion and covering over. Such formal underpinnings in the realm of collage, where process and meaning are intertwined, is as rare as an albino rhinoceros.
In “James Joyce in Dublin” (2003), a torn image of the writer’s legs and signature cane become the lower trunk and roots of a tree: any visitor to Dublin who looks at this picture would quickly realize Boghosian’s evocation of how thoroughly Joyce has become a part of Ireland’s soil and atmosphere. In a recent work, “Homage to Louise Bogan” (2015), Boghosian gouges out the lines of the poem on the assemblage’s rough wood surface, turning the words and the act of writing into a deeply affecting material presence. You don’t have to know Bogan’s poetry to be touched by this work.
A sheet of blue paper filled with a child’s penmanship exercises recalls that part of childhood we tend to forget: rote memory and constant repetition, dullness. Through the particular materials that Boghosian incorporates into his collages and assemblages — be they a poem, piece of wood, found photograph or drawing — Boghosian has his fingers on the pulse of everyday loss and pain, the essential tragedy of being human. And yet, in his hands, the tragic never turns maudlin, never devolves into sentimentality or staged angst. There is a tenderness and humor running through the work, a sense that one is always on a tightrope, as his assemblage “Tight Rope Walker” (circa 2000) suggests. A vintage toy walks on a string angling down from the right to left, and ending in mid-air, its ends frayed. The abyss is on either side of us as we go through our day, but, as Boghosian also makes gently and comically apparent, it is also our destination, and we are headed downhill to get there.
Varujan Boghosian: Master Bricoleur continues at Kent Fine Art (210 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23.