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Ihor Holubizky

Madonna Staunton: sorting through ...organizing things, in time ...through time.


[ 6,053 words ]


In 1893 Erik Satie composed a short piano piece titled 'Vexations': one page of sheet music with 180 notes. Scrawled on it were instructions to be played and repeated 840 times and the advice, 'it will be useful to prepare yourself beforehand, in great silence and serious immobility.' (1)  It remained unheard until John Cage gave the first performance in New York in 1963, using ten pianists working in shifts, and lasting 18 hours and 40 minutes. Since then 'Vexations' has become something of a rediscovered avant-garde masterpiece, and much has been written about it, as with any cryptic note left by artists, mathematicians and other adventurers. Satie has been claimed as the father of muzak and ambient music, but 'Vexations' may also be a precursor to systemic minimalism, one thing following another with explicit instructions.

It is conceivable that Satie was setting a trap with his polemic note. Perhaps Cage fell into that trap — the superego bubbling to the surface, in taking up the challenge. But Cage claimed that 'Vexations' changed his life: 'In other words, I had changed, and the world had changed ... It wasn't an experience I alone had, but other people who had been in it wrote to me or called me up and said that they had had the same experience.' (2)  There is another possible reading — that 'Vexations' is a collage / assemblage. Herein, is the segue to Madonna Staunton's work. Although she continues to work in a range of media — painting, watercolours, monoprints, and object assemblages — it is her collage work over the past 25 years that has come to determine much of her practice and vision. And to discuss her work (practice) by assuming it follows the simplistic Oxford Australian Dictionary definition — 'a form of art in which various materials are arranged and glued to a backing' — is to undermine the undertaking. Moreover, Staunton's work does not resolve in a single moment that defines the arc of a 'period', but in the sustained correspondence with collage over a considerable duration.

Madonna Staunton has a professed interest in music, jazz and the compositions of Satie: she studied music and gave private music tuition in the early 1960s, and her record collection includes two Satie piano music performances by Reinbert de Leeuw. The transcription of music to a visual expression is fraught with dilemma, paradox and contradiction. Sound is everywhere and enters the ear without the consent of the listener. Yet, our means to articulate aural sensation is woefully underdeveloped when compared to the visual world. If it's not music, it's noise. If dissonant music, it's irritating noise. If slow music, it's melancholic (but more often described as boring). Reinbert de Leeuw's interpretation and performance of Trois Gymnopédies — the most familiar and often used of Satie's compositions in film and television — is very slow. He has been criticized for 'overinterpreting the written music.' (3)  By the same token, the brisk interpretations of Trois Gymnopédies may be the consequence of being sped up at-the-movies. Madonna Staunton's works are slow, not to be viewed in a hurry, even if we can admire them on-the-run.

Staunton included a piano key — the ebony not the ivory — in a series of 1992 collage / assemblages. It is near-to unrecognisable out of context in contrast to the other elements, postcards, matchboxes, claim and bus tickets, and in one work, the end of a piano roll box. Moreover, the key is part of an instrument, a tool, not a document as one can say of the other compositional items where the object is self-evident. If we recognise the key as such, all we can surmise is that there is a toothless piano out there, somewhere. Abandoned. Unloved. Postcards and tickets stubs can have sentimental value, and fair market value depending on the provenance. We do not know the key note because the piano colour code is binary, either sharp / flat, or natural. (4 What more can we know? Staunton's work has something of that mystery, that which remains unknowable.

Clip Tracks: the collage, a provisional history and legacy

In the hierarchy of art object classification, collage rests not at the bottom, but outside the door. Conservators hate them because their material condition is far too irregular and chemistry, too unstable. Fortunately, conservators do not set the rules (only the occasional road block), but art historians have done something likewise, to diminish by lumping all collage together as if a medium. (5)  This is like calling all music performed by the same instrument — say, piano — piano music. Collage is a technique, not a medium. It has no meta-text or theory, yet arrived at a critical moment in modern art, introduced to the vocabulary of art in 1912 as its inventors Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were engaged in their modernist sprint. (6)  Neither was interested in a future for collage (why should they be?): it provided the means to a strategic (Cubist) end, an anti-picturesque and transgressive trompe l'oeil. Many consider this to be an epiphinal moment, a wrench in the works of the comfortable world of painterly convention. John Russell wrote that the Cubist collages forced 'the observer to interpret the pictorial structure in terms of the known world and not merely as a structure which had its own internal consistency and existed in and for itself.' (7)  That may be true had the world suddenly turned on its heel and thrown off the shackles of illusion, but it didn't. Braque and Picasso huffed and puffed but the house did not blow down. Their use of collage was in relationship to painting, rather than its own form.

The second stream of collage appeared like a trickle with Dada in Zurich and Berlin, born of a nonsense word, a movement that had ripples far greater than its minority position. It was the photo-based absurdity (feeding surrealism) of Max Ernst, George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, John Heartfield, Hannah Hoch, and others. The aggressiveness and the image potency, addressed the world of photographic images in-the-fantastic. Artist Christos Dikeakos wrote that the assertive, media / image aspect 'is what saves [the collage] from collapsing as decoration or mere visual technical manipulation for aesthetic "enjoyment" and catharsis.' (8)  The third stream was that of Jean Arp and Kurt Schwitters. Because of Schwitters' fascination with urban detritus, Robert Hughes — and others — bestowed upon him the designation of 'great lyric artist of Dada.' Schwitters now serves as the patron saint of the non-narrative collage (be it photographic or non-referential the collage is still pictorial space). (9)  His approach — like Staunton's (Schwitters is the artist with whom she is often connected) — was a collecting activity, leading to small-scale (for the most part) compositions as if a gesamtkunstwerk rather than seeing art as singular object, the masterwork syndrome. Collage quickly morphed into assemblage (Picasso had a hand in that as well, with his Guitar assemblage of 1912 — 13, Collection MoMA New York), and although not the first artist to make photo-collage / assemblages, the work of American Joseph Cornell is much admired. It was not always the case. Painter Walter Murch became friends with Cornell in the 1930s, and persuaded Abstract-Expressionist painter Bradley Walker Tomlin to look at Cornell's work. Tomlin's response was bemusement, 'They don't mean a thing.' Murch saw his definition as an artist in Tomlin's response to Cornell: 'the manufacture of a completely useless thing.' (10)  This 'useless thing' can be equated to the linguistic / concrete poetry trajectory of Dada, to make an increasingly marginalised literary form in the 20th century, into something even less useful.

Staunton began to write poetry at the age of fourteen, and has produced many concrete word collages. As Johanna Drucker noted, every era of humankind's history has expressed the visual properties of writing: '[writing] manifests itself with the phenomenal presence of the imago and yet performs the signifying operations of the logos.' (11)  Hence, the thing made useless has useful sign value.

Fluxus inherited some of the Dadist subculture status (the first Fluxus event took place in 1962), but a junk art appeared in America in the 1950s — seemingly anti-disciplined collage and assemblage work — by artists such as Wallace Berman, Bruce Connor, Jess, Ray Johnson, and Robert Rauschenberg (he was to provide the next significant collage paradigm). This zeitgeist, born of the Cold War and counterpoint to the American Dream, was examined in an exhibition titled Poets of the Cities, and included the work of Beat generation writers and poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and musician / composers such as Cage, Morton Feldman and John Coltrane. (12)  Artist and writer Theodore Roszak is quoted in the catalogue: 'The way out of this corner [i.e., convention and moral dilemma] was to arrive at a vision of sordidness and futility that made of them 'spiritual facts' in their own right. The world might then be redeemed by a willingness to take it for what it is and to find its enchanting promise within the seemingly despiritualized waste.' (13) 

Can collage be a sign of redemption?

Painting with collage appeared again with vigour, 50 years after Cubism, with the advent of Pop Art. Depending on which version of the creation myth one subscribes to, Pop popped into being via Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage What Is It that Makes Today's Home so Different, so Appealing? (14)  America was to claim this British invention (and claim the 1920s work of painters Stuart Davis and Charles Demuth as a true progenitor), and take the photographic collage of Dada into the world of pure painting: James Rosenquist's Pop paintings have the broken syntax of photo-collage. The heroics of Pop Art aside, the collage is anti-heroic, anti-monumental, and during its brief history, has been embraced by the disenfranchised — the Dadaist and agitprop-ists — but there is also an introspective side to the collage, and one can add, an infirmed and wounded side. While Joseph Cornell's work often referred to European history and the Ancient world, he never travelled, and lived at home in Flushing, New York, with his mother and brother. Schwitter's Merzbau environment (an exception to his small scale collages) was, in essence, a stay-at-home work, an immersive assemblage begun in his Hanover house in 1923, and worked on until it was destroyed during wartime bombing in 1943. One of the celebrated examples of infirmed work are Henri Matisse's collages of 1951 — 53. When no longer able to hold a brush, he took scissors and cut colour paper, and glued the pieces together (in that way, they are also 'home work'). (15)  John Russell, curiously, calls them 'cut-paper paintings' and writes that they were 'received with universal delight.' Perhaps the delight was the very circumstance of perseverance. (16) 

The Pop-ist embrace of collage would also enter into Pop culture proper as the collage found other soil in graphic design between the wars and was favoured in the post-WWII era in the (former) Communist block. Advertising is the bastardised visual art, as suggested by purists, or the 'red wedge in a white world,' to paraphrase El Lissitzky's famous agitprop poster of 1919. Conceivably, the most famous collage of the 1960s is artist Peter Blake's cover for The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of 1967. Ten years later, collage would provide a hallmark for impresario Malcolm McLaren's punk / sub-sub culture aesthetic via Jamie Reid's design for the cover of the Sex Pistols single, God Save the Queen. (17)  Coincidentally, this is the period that Staunton embarked on her collage work. She received a Highly Commended certificate in the 1967 Bundaberg Art Society Centenary Art Contest for 'Non-representational Painting,' but there is a collage work dated 1968. Staunton purchased a book on Kurt Schwitters and studied the Max Ernst's frottage method of created textured effects by rubbing pencil or crayon on paper laid over a rough surface. (18)  Her first solo collage exhibition was at the Ray Hughes Gallery, Brisbane, in 1976.

Reading Madonna

The reception of Staunton's work since she began her collage work is worthwhile reviewing as meaning and credibility appears for an artist going against the main stream of practice, not to mention grappling with the meaning of collage and its ambulatory history with respect to late 20th century practice. In her review of Staunton's 1976 solo exhibition, Dr Gertrude Langer wrote that the work achieved 'little miracles in wedding [the] formal discipline of abstract construction to grace and soft warmth.' (19)  In the 1979 University of Queensland group exhibition MacPherson, Shepherdson, Staunton, curator David Andre established an historical authority (as writers and curators inevitably do) via Dada and Schwitters, and describes a 'lyrical quality ...in keeping with the mood of the Seventies.' (20)  Other commentary teeters between the pictorial, the emotive and the spontaneous: his conclusion for Staunton is an open-to-interpretation finale.

In 1981, Sue Webster wrote an article foregrounding six 'lesser known' Brisbane artists. She noted that Staunton was 'not attempting to project any specific themes beyond that of subtly informing her audience that aesthetic experience is not limited to the appreciation of objects that are necessarily defined as "art".' Webster continues, 'The decisive factor in Staunton's work lies in the precise manner with which she arranges the collage elements [and that] the content is never allowed to outweigh the formal consideration.' (21)  In 1985, curator Anthony Bond noted that Staunton's enterprise 'is equally divided between visual and poetic activity [but that] the dividing line between the two is at times tenuous.' Unlike prior commentary, he states that her use of words is more than a formal device, and that they 'are intended to be read and related to the other elements not just as form but also as meaning.' Bond also described Staunton as being 'as conservative about the essential concepts of design and drawings as it is possible to be.' He does, however, consider another important aspect of her influence and the discipline — that of Buddhism: 'She believes in the necessity of getting things just right. There is a moment when you know where something must go, no other choice exists. Yet the discovery of this right place and right moment is hard won ... opportunities have to be grasped but they will also have to be generated.' (22)  Michele Helmrich also explores the Buddhist connection in her text for the 1994 Queensland University of Technology (QUT) survey exhibition catalogue. Ironically, Bond concludes with a reference to painting, 'these collages have the pure transcendence I associate with Rothko at his best.' The association to Rothko is also made by Nicholas Zurbrugg in the QUT catalogue. (23) 

By the time of the QUT survey exhibition, critic Peter Anderson recognizes an interdependence: 'with works such as these, you can't really talk about the medium without talking about the message.' (24)  This, of course, underscores the issue of collage as medium cited at the outset. To reverse the proposition, the message can also be a medium, and thereby cancel out the notion of independent medium. Anderson also makes note of the importance of a 'quiet contemplative viewing [leading to the] potential to take the viewer beyond what is there, to find an extra meditative something — a sort of private poetry of materials.' The question of the meditative — one person at a time — is not incongruous with the experience of music, even though music is considered to be a collective experience as much as a private one. The aural experience became privatised with the advent of Sony personal tape and CD players and headphones. And to return to Staunton's poetry and word collages, reading a book is fundamentally a private activity.

The slowly unfolding critical analysis is to some degree a consequence of Madonna Staunton's approach. As noted at the outset, she has not adhered to the still-prevelant assumption that an artist's work must show ever-evolving stages. Her work is rarely that predictable: Staunton has doubled back, returned to earlier considerations (there is always unfinished business), and crossed into the dimensional world with hybridised work. In 1979 she exhibited a large scale work at the Institute of Modern Art, titled A Recent Work [sic], comprised of discarded mineral sample packets with only traces of minerals remaining. It is a form of minimalism, and in music terms, a tonal composition that can be appreciated in terms of Satie's repetition instructions for 'Vexations'. (25)  In the mid 1980s, some of Staunton's small format collages took on other minimal qualities, such as the work shown in the 1985 Australian Perspecta. It is less the construction of pictorial space, than the placing of two or three elements within a space — as Anthony Bond noted — and hence having a ritual, near-sculptural quality. In 1987 Staunton made work with letter-size envelopes, barely touched, or somewhat distressed. In a rice paper envelope diptych, there are indistinct cancellation (franking) stamps on each — a minimal intervention — yet they appear on the back of the envelope, the visible face in the work. One of the stamps has the date 5 / 2 / 58 (i.e., 1958). Is it a found object or made? There is, and must be an answer to this, but that fact is not the answer to the meaning. For argument's sake, let us say that it is a minimal intervention for maximum effect.

From 1988 to 1992, Staunton made a series of chair and found crate wood assemblages — derived from things of the world. Like her two-dimensional collages, there is never a doubt about the source, but a lingering question about the degree of intervention. Moreover, the chair assemblages pre-empt any literary-symbolic reading, and therefore are much more troublesome things because we can walk by them and not think twice. Here again, there is a relationship to Satie if one considers his musique d'ameublement (furniture music) to be played during intermissions. Satie commented, 'We urge you to take no notice of [the music] and to behave during the intervals as if it did not exist.' (26)  Staunton's 1998 Armature exhibition utilised wire coat-hangers as meditations on that most useless of things, often used only once and with no other practical application (apart from breaking into locked cars). In some variations, the hangers were stapled to hardboard surfaces and (the hardboard surface) roughly painted to amplify mass rather than outline of the hangers. Critic Rex Butler described them as 'the dangling and rattling ghosts of domestic space' and saw in that work 'a translation of the grand ambitions of American postwar abstraction and the self-reflexive rigours of conceptual drawing into the strange familiarity of an Australian or feminine vernacular.' (27)  Following on Butler's last comment, Staunton's on-going use of clothing in collage and collotype work has a physicality and an evacuated presence that we can relate to our bodies and social status. And nothing is more personal, nor more disturbing than coming across abandoned clothing. In Cipher 1, 1995, stencilled single digit numbers are repeated on a woman's undershirt, as well as the letter Q. The stencils came from her father's toolbox, hence found and found-at-home. Staunton described them as an 'autobiographical device' and sometimes a metaphor for 'humankind'. (28)  In a related work, Curtain, 1995, the single digit numbers and letter Q are stencilled on the painted background of the collage, but floating above a horizon-landscape created with a black drawstring bag laid over a flattened out grey skirt (i.e., transformed into a 'curtain'). (29)  As Staunton noted in conversation, the use of numbers in identifying people (usually for the truly disenfranchised), has the effect of desensitising and dehumanising. Her use of numbers can be seen as a form of redress, a reversal of misfortune. Needless to say, the collage draws from a pool of personal experience and intimate knowledge.

The Oxford Australian Dictionary includes in its collage definition, a list of materials, 'photographs, pieces of paper, and matchsticks' (why matchsticks?), and defines the assemblage as 'a collection of unrelated things.' To the contrary, the materials are very much related in the act of collage. But in order to achieve this, there must be an organising principle at work, even if unconscious, battling the waves of entropy: entropy may be the universal condition. It is in our (modern, human) nature, to organise the unrelated stuff of our lives, yet related through our being, will and desire to have a visually pleasing form (if only to us), and coherency. Some of us shelve, others box and label, or simply pile. The manner in which Staunton recognises and organises things, bringing things together as composition, is more than effect or aestheticism. Moreover — as if to complicate matters — one need not be a Buddhist to enter into this way of thinking, nor even think of this as Art. (30) 

Staunton included the record cover for Paul Simon's 1976 album Still Crazy After All These Years, in her 1988 chair work Assemblage with plank (collection of the Queensland Art Gallery). It is not an expression of musical taste but an autobiographical note, slipped into the cracks — the cover is not clearly visible, and there is no record in the jacket (the body evacuated, as with the clothing work) — like loose pocket change that finds its way between the sofa cushions. The wry element of humour and surprise should not be overlooked in Staunton's work. (31) 

Setting a tempo

John Cage believed there had been only one new idea in music since Beethoven, with whom 'the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie and [Anton] Webern they were defined by means of time lengths.' (32)  The idea of duration, as noted at the outset, is a critical aspect in the appreciation of Staunton's collage work, as much as formalised composition. Time is difficult to retrieve (the envelope diptych is an example in Staunton's work) because it is implicit, not explicit, and time itself, as George Kubler noted, is unknowable as such: 'We know time only indirectly by what happens in it: by observing change and permanence; by marking the succession of events among stable settings; and by noting the contrast of varying rates of change.' (33)  We are conscious of time when clues are provided: the date of a postcard, or the possible vintage of a book cover. In Marcel Proust's terms, it may be a 'remembrance of things past' through the signals triggered by association — the distressed condition of a chair, or a particular piece of clothing. Staunton bring such tokens together in a single interchronic moment — another Kubler term — and is able to extend those moments through co-dependent works. (34)  It is not so for painting, nor drawing, nor sculpture, unless the work has a clear disjunctive aspect, as in Ian Burn's 1989 — 1993 found landscapes which used an overlaid text as interpolation. (35) 

Sitting and Walking

It has been said of Satie that he seldom played the piano and composed while walking the streets of Paris or sitting at a café table. Pianist Olaf Hojer wrote, 'It is not really surprising that Satie's piano music never became successful on the concert platform. Something within it counteracts the conventional concert custom, both in its stark, simple unobtrusiveness and its many layers of musical and verbal expression. It calls for a more intimate and personal context, which leaves space for a private communication.' (36)  Much the same can be said for Madonna Staunton's work. The material for her collages are chosen from things at hand and home — hence her intimate knowledge with the properties, and different than a strategic gathering of things of type and style. She embraces contradictions in the assembly process, which is distinct from mannered or conscious ambiguity: contradiction declares itself, ambiguity is the game of being elusive. Another quality of the work — something that slowly reveals itself — is the sense of reduction, different from accumulation associated with collage. There is a spatial quality in the way elements are overlapped and thereby projecting a dimensional sensation. These aspects undercut the possibility of coming to a definitive or concluding statement. Early on (1979) she stated that 'I don't like to tell the whole story, the viewer has to advance toward the work, to meet, to participate.' (37)  While artist statements must be taken with a grain of salt — often written under exhibition and curatorial pressure — Staunton's caveat cannot be discounted, it is consistent with her method and practice. In conversation with the author, Staunton remarked (and joked) about the last word, that which art historians often assume and presume of their relationship to an artist's work. Because it is not painting, not drawing, not even sculpting, collage can only be an adherence to a way of seeing, thinking, and organising that which is inherently disorganised. And at that, it is a very unstable proposition, even if the appearance may suggest the opposite, something that is highly formalised, measured and aestheticised. Jeremy Walsh wrote that the collage is 'a tool that anyone can use, and precisely this ubiquity makes it viable and interesting.' The notion is expanded by Marshall McLuhan: 'we have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art.' (38)  To this daunting possibility, Staunton has added a test of time as a continuing engagement. Time, as is oft-repeated, will tell and is demonstrable — in returning to Satie's 'Vexations' — as time goes by. (39) 




Text: © Ihor Holubizky. All rights reserved.

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