Catalogue of curiosities
Catalog, Two Graphic Collections:
by Alex Williamson and Martin O’Neill
An Exploration of Graphic Process
The Coningsby Gallery, London,
In this exhibition Alex Williamson and Martin O’Neill investigate and reflect on the collections of images they have built up over a ten-year period of work as illustrators and collage artists. Eschewing the notion of a simple retrospective of commercial and personal work, they explore the relationships between the component elements and, in doing so, re-order them into new work. The result is both product and process: work that illustrates the process of illustration, producing a kind of meta-collage.
Their aim was to create a new body of work that ‘celebrates and explores these graphic collections, work that looks “behind the picture” and questions the process involved.’ Or, as Williamson asks, ‘How do I collect this material? Is there any discernible pattern in the process?’
The resultant show is in itself a kind of collage: part installation, part exhibition, part car-boot sale and part museum; a latter-day cabinet of curiosities. Glass-covered tables allow us to inspect delicate piles of source materials from the artists’ studios. Heaps of painstakingly excised images are grouped according to a bizarre yet faintly discernible internal logic: Noir / Astronaut, Minor characters / Donkey, Dogs & Dice, Bikes & Bardot, and Swivel Chairs & Poufs (Hoovers & Spraycans). In the vitrines that line the walls, a Cornellesque Rolodex full of fragments of letters, maps and wallpaper, sits alongside shelves crammed with false teeth, photocopies and typewriter keys.
From this maze of elements, connections and collisions the artists have each extracted and extrapolated nine new A1 posters. Williamson’s normally richly saturated colour work is replaced with bold monochromes shot through with the grainy artefacts of the photocopier and lithographic images overwritten with hand-drawn elements that bring to mind the work of Romek Marber and Roman Cieslewicz, while O’Neill’s distinctive blend of screen-washed painterly colour, vernacular typography and found images evokes the pop eclecticism of Rauschenberg, Paolozzi or Peter Blake. Both bodies of work share an almost filmic presence as the fragments of imagery evoke a haunting, elegiac feeling.
Although investigating working methods spanning a period when the means of production – and perhaps the very nature – of collage were transformed from an arcane art form to the almost endemic digital ‘cut and paste’ (a period both have been integral to), the show seems reluctant to either acknowledge or confront this transformation, preferring perhaps the mystique of the pre-digital analogue method and aesthetic.
To say that more questions are raised than answered in this show is perhaps beside the point. It remains a bold and interesting experiment and what is important is that the questions are being asked and considered at all. ‘Catalog, like Schwitter’s Merz, is an ongoing long-term project and graphic concept,’ Williamson says. ‘This exhibition is stage one in that process.’