Sometime in the 1980s, Michael Scheurer came across an Italian toy called a Puncherino. A Puncherino is a little like what in my neighborhood we called a BoLo, a toy for one which had a lightweight wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached by an elastic cord (always the first thing to break). The difference, apparently, is that the Puncherino ball was attached to a special set of glasses, so if you missed batting it with your hands, it would snap back and hit you in the eyes. Good times. The Puncherino logo and a picture of a boy and a girl each intensely playing with one—he hitting at the ball with closed fist, she slapping at it with open hand—is one of countless things Scheurer has salvaged from his four-decades-long immersion in visual culture. Its message, like much of Scheurer’s work, is both clear and equivocal: it pays—it behooves you—to keep your eyes open.
Scheurer’s show at the Weston is a sort of a retrospective. It is certainly a substantial show with more than two hundred works on view, ranging from ink drawings and cartoons done in the 1970s through his paintings to the body of work in the form he settled on, the collage. As a whole, the show struck me as very well curated in terms of the works chosen. There were times when I wished it were more like a true retrospective. When I think of a retrospective, I have in mind an exhibit that provides some form of contextualization of an artist’s work, by period or by theme or by media or something. The show offers next to no guidance to the viewers. Most of the works on the walls are unlabeled. There is a checklist, but the one I got at the front desk omitted about a quarter of the pieces in the show. As it stands, the Weston show is important and a success for having brought together a considerable body of work by an artist who has pursued a closely related group of issues in different forms and styles over forty years.
Scheurer’s chosen medium is the collage, which makes him both a scrambler and an unscrambler of the tumult of things—mostly two-dimensional—that can be encountered in our world. He is a scavenger (and perhaps a hoarder) who wades into the torrents of visual information and stimuli that cultures provide and pulls things out to work with and explore. He is a treasure hunter. He has spent time with used bookstores and flea markets—and, one suspects, the occasional dumpster—to come up with his raw materials. I would not say that the work is impersonal, as even the most mechanically produced objects with which he works are reassembled into something new by hand, but the collager may be said to be an artist who wears something of a mask. This may be part of his own interest in figurative works that feature people in identity-shifting disguises of various sorts.
The Weston show proposes that the roots of his collages can be found in his drawing. His earliest work is all ink, and he shows the precision and economy of line of a cartoonist. Some would not be out of place in the edgier pages of The New Yorker. In the mid-1970s, he drew some interiors that suggest how close clarity and clutter can be. There is something both playful and obsessive in all the shading he does with absolutely no cross-hatching or grays. Around the same time, he did a poster for a C.A.G.E. group show with 21 caricatures of artists, mostly playful, a few a little monstrous, some with elements of both. Going forward, Scheurer keeps his interest in calligraphic markings—his own and those of others—and even the elegant calligraphy of his own handwriting. In an early drawing of Batman, the masked superhero, for example, the picture is signed, perfectly elegantly, seven times. One of the many things Scheurer likes to play at is being an obsessive. He even has a collage (Untitled #20, Box Series, 2011) about drawing. A bespectacled woman (a reproduction of some painting from the 1890s?) is studying her work as her arm morphs into that of a mid-20th century man, holding a pencil. As the arm draws, its (their?) work is being transformed into a pattern of the tiny dots you might see in a printed reproduction. Behind the figure, what looks like a room is painted, black on black, and through what might be a window is what might be a flooded street. I take the work to be about the way art is a process of transformation, both of the artist and of the work, which starts as a sketch and ends up as a mechanical, industrial medium. For Scheurer, the collage is a drawn thing.
If you don’t value playfulness and the sorts of things playfulness reveals, collage is not the medium for you. The collage-maker is constantly repurposing materials, assigning new roles to things whose role had been culturally determined and is probably already fading. It is this repurposing that makes a collage fresh and makes it possible for there to be new relationships between the parts and the whole. With what sorts of materials does Scheurer like to work and play? In an early work, “Berr” (1979), we can start to get a feel for his inventory. There is a series of paper strips for measuring things with numbers that imply a progressive scale. There are hand-drawn circles (two of which have embossed cut-out wings) that seem to be about directions or proportions. There is a handwritten table with a list of colors and a hand-painted graph that plots the relative amounts of heaven only knows what. There is an ascending row of five small floral cut-outs, a small rendering of a steam-powered boat, and a small cyan painting of a swan or goose being pulled in a carriage by a turtle, a reference to some myth with which I am utterly unfamiliar. At the center is an elegantly printed antique business card for Berr, a Parisian store specializing in “Lingerie haute fantaisie” and an assembler, it says, of trousseaux. So what is in this trousseau, when we unpack it?
Much of Scheurer’s work is built up out of type and writing of various sorts (often used for texture and shading, like the screen of dots in the collage about drawing), in a wide range of languages, European and otherwise. Besides the clear pleasure he takes in all kinds of letter forms, it suggests that there are always other worlds out there, realities described in languages that are never translated or, really, translatable. Fragments of musical notation sometimes fulfill a similar function. Similarly, Scheurer loves numbers. Something is always being measured, catalogued, or referenced in his collages, but we rarely know what. It is like having half an index. The numbers point you towards something else, but we do not have that something else. It’s like having a key but no door. He loves using elements of maps and topography, and explores the many ways that space is abbreviated. (In one of Scheurer’s many extraordinary portraits of girls with tennis ball breasts—they occupy a whole wall of the show–the lines graphing out western perspective are invoked twice: once to suggest that it would be like to reduce the girl into a picture frame, and once to suggest what the girl might look like from the point of view of a flower with eyeballs. One space always implies other spaces, and point of view is capable of being made highly relative.) Scheurer celebrates the ways that we surround ourselves with things that are both intimate and commercial; the physical objects that are most personal to us can be mass-produced. Portions of virtually all Scheurer’s collages are hand drawn or painted in an effort to make the unique and the industrial at least acquainted with each other and to ask questions about how much hand-made marks are required to allow a thing to hold the cultural value that an actual painting has. In his hands, the collage draws incessantly on the ghosts and remains of other works of art; it is a highly modernist form, making meaning from the fragments of things that have gone before but can no longer be counted on. And finally, Scheurer makes his art out of science. A substantial proportion of the printed material he uses comes from the realm of anatomical illustration, for example, and is filled with taxonomies and explanations and numbers–as always, using an index of which we only have half. What if the world is populated by humans, but chiefly in the most technical sense?
This means that there are bodies everywhere in his pieces. As a whole, collage or no, Scheurer’s work is very much in the figurative tradition. It is not necessarily a reassuring reading of that tradition. He has a propensity to start with the body that is inside out, a vision of the body that Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “grotesque” to distinguish it from cultural idealizations of the body that he called “classical.” In one piece, he makes a figure from anatomical illustrations with a pair of kidneys for eyes, with a bladder, perhaps, completing a frowny face, a flayed foot, and other details I can’t (or won’t) recognize making up a braid, a torso, and two legs. In a more elegant piece, he places the head of a laughing dog on top of a piece of wood. To a collage maker, it is ridiculously easy to make—literally—stick figures. So many forked sticks, so little time. Behind this figure is another, even more abbreviated. A millipede of some sort extends out of a bifurcated twig, its many legs and sections looking like a monstrous, twisted spine. Of course, there are numbers spattered everywhere. Close to the dog is a decorated painted oval, like a shield. Is this a version of St. George and the Dragon? Scheurer’s world is animated and visceral.
If bodies are everywhere, the parts of the bodies that signify the most are the eyes, a favorite trope of the Surrealists. (Who can forget Un Chien Andalou?) They start off as a simple geometric gesture. One circle will suffice to suggest an eye, a pair of concentric circles virtually confirms it, and put it inside an oval and you’re done. In an untitled mixed-media collage from 1995, Scheurer mounts a round blue jewel in a scientific lithograph suggesting an iris and some musculature that turns the jewel into the bluest eye. He then attaches it to a elongated double oval shape that might be an insect’s body or the tail of a kite or the handle of a paddle (we’re rarely very far from Puncherino) and he has a sort of sacred object that might have been found in a pharaoh’s tomb, assuring its occupant of eternal sight. In another remarkable untitled mixed-media assemblage from the early 1990s, a three-dimensional eyeball bursts its way out towards the viewer. It is coming towards us from inside a delicate brass frame which is nailed to a dreary landscape painting framed in gold which is mounted inside a black framed shadow box. Frames within frames within frames: it is hard not to think of the eye as, at least in part, a stand-in for the principle of art, and as Scheurer’s work often suggests, it is deliberately unclear whether we are looking at the art or the art is taking our measure, looking at us. There is little place for the idle gaze in this body of work.
Sometimes a single eye is enough to define a face. In a 1975 untitled mixed-media collage and painting, Scheurer puts a circle inside a white canoe and with the quick addition of three more shapes, has a face as Jean Arp would have painted it. For an artist, as the show’s biographical paragraph notes, with very little formal training in art history, Scheurer has an extraordinary and deeply felt working knowledge of the artistic traditions both East and West. Scheurer must have seen Matisse drawings early on and found through them a fellow spirit—an elegant and economical abbreviator. At least two from his series of portraits of girls seem like homages to Matisse, including the French painter’s love of decorative patterning. There is a small but interesting work “inspired by da Vinci notebooks” from 2005 that features a non-western script in place of Leonardo’s mirror-writing, and fills the page, as Leonardo would have, with a host of visual inquiries and experiments. There is what looks like a map of a constellation as seen by another culture (two conjoined figures—Gemini?—defined by large dots) echoed by an extensive set of other dots, a sequence of printed thumbnail European silhouettes, a shoe, and a bit of printed music.
In an untitled collage (#17 from the Surreal Series) from 2008, we encounter an early modern figure holding a pageant flag. In place of a head, the figure sports a de Chirico-like series of arches. The black and white cross on his livery is made up from emblems from old Columbia record labels. The old Columbia logo (a dark circle in a white oval) once again stands in as an eye. The picture seems a cultural fantasy that stretches across several centuries and celebrates, skeptically I think, a range of cultural symbolism. Like de Chirico’s own paintings, it is both intensely psychological and yet remarkably impersonal: there is nothing personal here and no face, just an assemblage of signifiers. And yet at the very bottom of the piece there is a very small fragment of a painting of a child with an animal and a small bit of script, suggesting something more personal and intimate, a glimpse of an actual lived life.
We see a range of artistic legacies in a work like Untitled #24 (Box Series) from 2011, where an African mask sits on top of woven African grass serving as an elongated neck. We only see the top of the torso, a simplified geometric shape in the color one would associate with a portrait of a 17th century cardinal. For arms, the figure has the clasped hands of a praying female martyr or saint. As with a number of figures in this show, there is a kind of morphing and blending between genders here, not I think suggesting androgyny (which I tend to think of as representing a sexuality so faint that it could be either) but rather suggesting an energetic blending of both male and female at once.
Scheurer’s work is actively interested in raising any number of questions about gender. In a letter Scheurer wrote during an early trip to Japan which is displayed in one of the show’s vitrines, he uses stationary with a picture of a Tengu, a “long nosed genie.” Scheurer writes that “I read something very obscene in this traditional mask.” Virtually all of his figurative work from the first decades of his painting feature a phallic-nosed caricature. In an undated sketch, the big-nosed creature is trotting off somewhere with a brush and palette in his hand. Next to it there is a picture of a tennis-ball breasted woman carrying a frame trotting off somewhere with the same nose. They seem like alter egos.
Scheurer’s collages also suggest an interesting critique of the ways we read—and write—gender in our culture. In the wall of girl’s portraits, it is hard to escape gender issues. But the gender coding in their eyes is much more important to their identities than are their boobs. Most of them start from essentially the same sketch, though a few are wearing men’s clothes and may or may not be male. Besides a wide range of backgrounds, virtually each one has a distinct set of eyes that have been collaged on. In any number of ways, there are not easy matches between eyes and face. The eyes are too small (which makes the figure look distrustful) or too large (which makes them look like Keane paintings). The eyes of some are obviously male (taken, I would say, from the portraits of dead presidents on US paper money) and many others seem taken from glamor shots in one magazine or another. Sometimes they seem like the eyes of a Byzantine Madonna, not happy to be looked at, barely interested in the adorer’s glance. The result of their not quite fitting is that they create a type of mask for their faces, eyes that are more like false fronts than like windows. They are both funny and forbidding. It is impossible to read what might be going on behind those masks, giving the impression that they are serving to guard some sort of under-articulated interiority. The pictures suggest that gender itself may be seen as a collaged thing, an artificial assemblage, familiar and commodified, that is designed to preserve a more hidden identity that is not easily readable.
Each one is mounted in a cardboard photo holder that a photo studio might use to return its commercial renderings to their customers. The photo holders are all from Madurai, India, which raises a final issue for me about this body of work. By its very nature, the collage is an appropriative form. It takes things from one context and recontextualizes them. These days, we are less likely to think that this affirms a universality to the constitutive imagery of collages than to wonder whether we are dealing with a sort of colonial model of appropriation: this molecule of visual information means something to another culture but I want to borrow it for mine. Perhaps we can argue that the collage tradition makes something out of nothing. It scavenges around in cultural detritus and makes a new meaning out of something whose meaning is too fragmented to amount to anything on its own. These are orphaned things already, badly in need of a new home. Or perhaps we can argue that the culture of mass production is already a cultural leveler. Is there something uniquely Indian about the garishness of Bollywood posters not already encountered in–and perhaps implied or even created by–the garishness of Hollywood movie posters? Besides, publicity photos are by their nature designed for public consumption. Once you’ve given something to the public, can you propose that it’s off-limits at the same time?
I think that Scheurer knows his cultures, and has given this matter a good deal of thought. In one of a pair of remarkable collages based, I would guess, on publicity stills of Bollywood heroines, he seems to suggest that public glamor is in every way a constructed thing. Her brown hair has been replaced by a patchwork of deep blue cut outs. She rests her chin on a collaged hand that is not quite in the right scale. The centerpiece is her eyes. She wears, as if it was a mask or perhaps just a pair of glasses, an antique double photograph frame. Photos of a cutout pair of eyes are inserted, raising as Scheurer’s work often does, questions about who is looking at who. Those eyes separate two parts of what looks like an 18th century European mythological painting or print, completing an image that seems designed to remind us how hybrid a thing culture is and how elaborate a process our construction of cultural fantasies is.
Its companion piece also has a woman leaning on her hand. She might have been wearing a wearing a western-style dress in the original, but it has been collaged to look like a deep purple sari. She too wears a mask, but this mask takes the form of a miniature brick wall with the eyes peering out from behind two openings. The wall is massive and yet light enough to be hung on her forehead by a nail and picture wire, as you might have any framed thing in your living room. Is the real self hiding out or being held prisoner behind the wall? Who has built the wall and imposed it on her face—who has turned her face into a mask? Is she free to take the wall down? Is the point that she must hide or that she ought to come out of hiding? Crowning her head is a French phrase: “Voila l’Ennemi!” Here is the enemy. But where? Is it the woman, or the forces that have remade her, or the audience consuming the image?
Scheurer makes art that shows his confidence in building things out of leftovers while still being sympathetic towards the deep compulsions of individuals and cultures. He appreciates the mystery of what he sees, finds, and makes. I think he would argue that after he has taken everything apart and put it back together again, he has left things a little bit better than he found them because he has exposed what is most puzzling about what they present and evoke. He has taken all that stuff that no one has any use for and used it to acknowledge privacy and intensity. The accomplishment of Michael Scheurer in his 40 years of making art is that he has found ways to suggest that the tidal wave of utterly mundane and potentially dehumanizing visual data all around us can be made to point to a world bigger and richer and harder to encompass than anything we’ve imagined thus far.