Elliott Hundley - The Bacchae, Wexner Center 2012

Cut Up or Shut Up: The Unspeakable Narratives of Elliott Hundley

One of my favorite tales from the old Indian books is how they explain why we should not lie. They say that we should not lie because lying is the root of speech, so if we lie, we expose the root of the tree of speech, and the tree is going to dry up. —Francesco Clemente

I was recently hired to teach a college modern art history class from scratch. Starting with Jacques-Louis David, I made it as far as Jackson Pollock, which luckily seems like a fine endpoint for modernism. If they hire me back, I’ll start at the present and work my way back; see how that goes. Or maybe I’ll just fling random fragments of art history at the class in no particular order. It’d make about the same sense. More maybe.

The whole experience stirred up a suspicion I’ve been harboring for some time: that the central aesthetic practice and conceptual pillar of modern art (and whatever you want to call all the post-Pollock stuff) is not painting, or sculpture, or video, or knitting—it’s collage. And that isn’t just because of the art-historical weight placed on Pablo Picasso’s inclusion of wicker-patterned oilcloth in his seminal work of synthetic cubism Still Life with Chair Caning (1912; next slide please). Or because of the medium’s centrality to such movements as dada, futurism, constructivism, surrealism, West Coast beat art, situationism, nouveau réalisme, fluxus, whatever you want to call Rauschenberg and Johns, pop art, mail art, and postmodernism. Not to mention the profound impact of collage on cultural theory, graphic design, cinema, literature, music, and the psychedelic and punk subcultures, though all these certainly bolster the argument.

Nor is it in deference to Clement Greenberg (blessed be his name) who identified collage as the pivot between representational and abstract art, the missing link in the central modernist evolutionary leap from the depths of illusionism to the truthful material surface. Although when I get around to discussing Elliott Hundley’s work, I’ll be hearkening back to Clem’s seminal 1959 essay “Collage” for its attentive and insightful analysis of the supercharged depth play activated by the inclusion of prefabricated trompe l'oeil surfaces into the already complex dimensionality of analytic cubism.

It isn’t even because, as an artist in my own right, I have been obsessively collaging—with paper, found objects, words, and sound—for most of my life. Although this has a lot to do with why I felt a powerful immediate connection with Hundley’s work the first time I encountered it, during a visit to his graduate school studio in the early years of the new millennium.

It’s deeper than all that. Collage’s imposed simultaneity of mutually exclusive simulations of the objective world not only proposes a radical resolution to the crisis of representational artmaking brought about by the advent of photography but mirrors a fundamental discontinuity at the heart of both the creative act and the human experience of reality—at least in the modern era, and possibly reaching back to the beginnings of human consciousness.

Besides, as I contended earlier, the history of modernism is equally, if not more, intelligible as a pastiche of discontinuous events—a collage—than as a rational, linear, causal sequence.

But the history of collage reaches back before cubism into the realm of Victorian keepsake craftwork, and we would be remiss—particularly in the case of Hundley’s polymorphous embrace of so much that has been disdained as decorative, sentimental, and feminine over the course of modern art—not to give some consideration to this vernacular tradition. Although the history of collage per se traces back to twelfth-century Asia, the tradition that concerns us here is from the nineteenth century, when the proliferation of photographs and printed materials prompted a widespread popular art movement in the United States and Europe. Family photographs were dissected and reconfigured into panoramic fantasias—often with little or no reference to conventional pictorial spatial structures—and commercially produced picture postcards took the technique to absurd protosurrealist extremes.

Simultaneously, in every genteel household, scrapbooks were filled with all manner of personal paper ephemera, as well as fabric swatches, locks of hair, pressed flowers, bits of decorative beadwork or costume jewelry, and whatever else was flat enough to make the cut. Greeting cards, particularly valentines, often made use of this DIY technique. Other albums—as well as the surfaces of lampshades and folding screens (fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen created a remarkable set of eight collage screens during his final illness)—were filled with cascading fragments of newspaper and magazine illustrations and art reproductions, often framed by decorative lace or brocade on a ground of paisley giftwrap or marbleized paper.

This form of amateur premodern collage art foreshadowed the obsessive devotional cataloging of glamorous movie and popular music stars that developed with the explosion of celebrity culture—a development paralleling and occasionally intersecting with modernist collage, particularly in its pop iterations. In recent years, scrapbooking has become an enormous hobby industry, with aisle upon aisle of craft and art supply stores brimming with die-cut paper silhouettes, puffy stickers, glitter pens, rubber stamps, and specialized tools for cutting and pasting.

As with this entire stream of vernacular artmaking, the content is overwhelmingly sentimental, and awfully girlish—though there is a surprisingly high quotient of puffy stickers depicting US combat forces and large earthmoving equipment. This deep, unironic emotionality (exemplified by the amateur collage’s function as a personal devotional object and aide-mémoire) is largely absent from the history of modernist collage. Though probably less so from its practice.

Elliott Hundley’s collages are profoundly and extravagantly sentimental. One of the attractions of the classics—Euripides’s The Bacchae in Hundley’s most recent (and most ambitious) body of work—is their capacity for the embodiment of human passions. And by “embodiment” I mean their localization in the corporeal realm: the human body. This holds true for both their literal content and their allegorical connotations, nowhere more so than in the dismemberment-rich mythology of Dionysus.

The theatrical nature of Hundley’s source suggests further auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and optical effects specifically geared to direct manipulation of the audience’s physiological sensations. Similarly, amateur collages are designed to trigger complex sense memories; programs for immersive imaginary narratives encoded in a sequence of bodily sensations, approaching—depending on the strength of the memories and imagination in question—another form of virtual reality.

Hundley grafts this multisensory emotional engagement onto the painting-specific illusionistic fan-dance of cubism, and all the subsequent modern explorations of collage’s formal and conceptual potentials—particularly its impact on narrative. The narrative invention in Hundley’s work has made a quantum leap with his Bacchae exhibitions, but it was present at the conception of the artist’s collage practice. Before looking more closely into his myth-based magnum opus, we should trace its origins.

Elliott Hundley was born in 1975 on the sun-struck plains of Greensboro, North Carolina, to a more-or-less working-class family (his dad was a rock musician) who supported his early artistic calling. While at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the 1990s, Hundley focused on printmaking and painting (unfashionably muddy sensual abstractions) but reached a point of crisis from the chilly reception his canvases received and decided he had to incorporate narrative.

After a brief fling with figurative painting, he shifted his attention to photocollaged dioramas depicting nude male figures wandering through blurry, dreamlike landscapes and architectures, which he rephotographed and presented as intimate 4-x-6-inch prints. During a postgraduate period in Rome—immersed in classicism—Hundley recognized the rickety miniature sets for his photo shoots as more satisfying than the end results, and he began emphasizing collage as his primary artistic medium. Passing unscathed through several residency programs (including that of the Skowhegan School), Hundley wound up at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where his practice rapidly metastasized into the monstrous beauty we know today.

The earliest examples of Hundley’s collage qua collage oscillate between claustrophobically spangled works like At the Slopes of Vesuvius (2001)—so densely packed with fragmentary images that it almost tips over into a minimalist static field—and elegantly composed works like Alessandro Seated (2000), which employs more white space than actual imagery (though much of that is made up of white silhouettes of the titular model, photos that have been cut out but glued face down).

Formally compelling as these early collages were, they were still contained by the frontal, hypothetically infinite flatness of the illusionistic picture plane. Hundley’s breakthrough came from another dimension—the third. With a 2002 series of untitled sculptural wall pieces (variously subtitled Cave, Cage, Night Garden, The Wreck, and The Bonfire), he was freed to array his vocabulary of variegated minutiae across delicate lattices of bamboo-like plastic straw that sometimes resembled nests, sometimes explosions, sometimes Micronesian navigation stick-charts, sometimes the remains of a shipwreck. (Most of these works were subsequently destroyed but parts were recycled by the artist into later projects, including The Wreck, a sculpture from 2005.)

But their common and most significant point of reference was the Cartesian grid at the structural heart of picture making, expanding its spatial indexing capacity out along the z axis and subjecting it to a mighty centrifugal torque. The skeletal architecture of renaissance perspective and neoplastic abstraction was extracted from its secret hiding place, dressed up as illusionistic fragments of actual landscape and architecture, and plopped down in the middle of a tornado. Lucky it had all those pins holding it together.

In addition to their pivotal function anchoring the intersections of the hundreds of lengths of plastic tubing, straight pins were first used in these works to attach Hundley’s signature scores of collage units: beads, petals from plastic flowers, and tiny images—automobile tires, watermelons, gloves, cement bags, rockets, jewels, snakes, exploded dartboards, and always, fragmentary, dismembered photographic portraits of the artist’s friends.

In truth, Hundley had been searching for a method to dislodge his praxis from the tyranny of glue, and—inspired by both the poetically formalist land art of Andy Goldsworthy and Öyvind Fahlström’s magnetic variable paintings—he hit on the humble solution of turning the picture plane into a pincushion. This single small shift had enormous repercussions within Hundley’s craft, allowing him to isolate individual pictographic elements literally and allegorically and to deploy them across a newly liberated topological landscape in a manner that suggested a roiling surface frozen in one of an effectively infinite set of possible configurations.

In addition to these dimensional, compositional, and semiotic benefits, the pins incorporated a whole sphere of connotative content, with the domestic craft of sewing being the most immediately observable. From the outset, Hundley’s collage works have openly embraced the disparaged amateur side of their heritage, most fundamentally in his constant integration of original photographs of emotionally significant personal friends (the artist has likened his work to “the back pages of a high school yearbook”), but most conspicuously in his abundant use of beads, sequins, shells, costume jewelry, ribbons, upholstery, dollhouse furnishings, plastic flowers, peacock and ostrich feathers, and sundry items of the type reclaimed as fine art materials by the feminist artists associated with the pattern and decoration movements of the 1970s. His use of straight pins as both basic structure and (in the case of colored-plastic-headed and other specialty pins) content aligns his collages with the body-centered art of sewing (as well as the world of haute couture fashion) in an emphatically process-oriented manner; sewing pins are explicitly temporary placeholders, meant to be removed as soon as the garment is complete.

Of almost equal and somewhat creepier import are the pins’ connotations of entomological taxonomy: the passion of the insect collector, whose specimens, on retrieval from the killing jar, are mounted on specially coated beetle-juice-resistant display pins, usually with an accompanying didactic panel. This association summons a dark pop cultural archetype of erotic fetishism—à la John Knowles’s 1963 novel The Collector (in which a butterfly collector wins the lottery and repurposes his hobbycraft towards an art student with whom he’s smitten)—that adds considerable gravitas and humor to Hundley’s inventory of partial friends. But it also speaks to the less caricatured fetishism inherent to amateur keepsake collage: the identification of even the smallest ephemeral object as identical with (or a vessel for) a fond or meaningful memory and therefore deserving and in need of preservation.

It is difficult not to imagine these connotations spilling over to encompass the eventual acquisition of Hundley’s finished works by museums and private collectors—and the role of collecting in the history of art to which Hundley so often makes reference. The displays of natural history museums have been an important strain in recent art, from the Museum of Jurassic Technology (which includes several insect exhibits) to Damien Hirst, but Hundley’s approach is more allusive, his categorical impulse filtered through a nonverbal, nonhierarchical syntax, more akin perhaps to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne-Atlas (1924–29), or the Internet.

Social stitching and phallic piercing aside, Hundley’s pinning bears several fruitful second-tier connotations, most notably as a form of mutated cartography, where coded pins are arranged to represent troop movements or consumer demographics, in constant flux, simultaneously a site for accounting and strategizing. This aerial topographic motif has emerged as a subtle but typically expansive formal device in Hundley’s art, with undulating contours articulated through variations in the height of the pins and the placement of the collage elements along their length. The results have been uniformly organic: a wall-mounted relief map of a forested landscape or ocean floor, or a giant model of some parasitical worm bristling with setae.

Short version: pins good! And Hundley hit the ground running with his new gimmick, producing an early masterpiece in Deathless Aphrodite of the Spangled Mind (2003). A palette-like composition of discrete visual elements arranged in clusters by color, subject matter, and scale, and pinned to an 8-by-16-foot ground of battered white foam, Deathless Aphrodite is probably the most overtly maplike piece in Hundley’s oeuvre, both literally and in relation to the work that followed. This was the piece that grabbed my attention in UCLA’s Warner grad studios. And many others’ attention, too. The work was soon exhibited and then snapped up by a prominent LA collector, and Hundley became the object of a local and soon international art world courtship whose hype threatened to overshadow the strength of his work.

Although he took his time choosing his galleries, Hundley used the success of Deathless Aphrodite as a launching pad for an extraordinary body of work, exploring and experimenting with the territories opened up by that work and the untitled sculptural nests. The sculptural collages came away from the walls, expanding the range of potential points of view accordingly, and began incorporating larger found objects. A series of relatively flat, vaguely rectangular wall pieces catalogued Hundley’s virtuosic flair with color and composition, all the while toying with the limits of fragility. Their spindly armatures seeming to collapse under the unbearable lightness of their exquisite pointillist semiotic froth.

Even some of these pieces came unstuck from the walls, presented as translucent double-sided compositions or as freestanding folding screens. Sketchy soft pastel portraits began to pop up in the mix. Paint began to reappear, first as a ground element, then as an ongoing series of old-school oil-on-canvas (or linen or panel) gestural abstractions. Intended as an alternative—a “resting place, or space for projection”—to the collage pieces, and therefore constrained, or at least defined, by the exclusion of many of Hundley’s signature strategies, these unabashedly sensual accumulations of impasto calligraphy and luminous stains have undergone a separate but parallel evolution, expanding and contracting in counterpoint to the collages. Hundley’s painterly aggregations—always on the verge of coalescing into imagery—came to a literal head with his 2008–10 portrait series Euripides after de Chirico Obscured by Flowers, which combines sumptuous and sassy in a manner that recalls early Peter Saul. Or late Picasso.

The other coordinated side-explorations of importance are the C-prints and lightbox-mounted inkjets of the photo shoots staged initially as source material for the collages. For that purpose the prints needed to be small. For the recent C-prints, they stay intimately scaled: 4-x-6-inch icons, hearkening back to Hundley’s earliest rephotographed collage dioramas.

The lightboxes emerged earlier; first as a component of an untitled 2008 grouping of objects: three double-sided panels in a distinctly amateur celebrity-hound scrapbook style (readymade collages, corrected by Hundley) and a gaily painted foam meteorite that resembles a heart stabbed by a paintbrush—all suspended from an overlapping pair of welded diagrammatic cone shapes. You know. Your basic mobile. The lightboxes—two variations on Ryan as Polyxena, plus Teddy as Polydoros, all of which would reappear under their own names—were mounted on the adjacent wall.

The glam bang of this sculptural collage installation emphasizes the movie marquee quality of the backlit photos and sets the tone for the stand-alone photography as a whole. The highly charged expressionism of the friends’ and actors’ poses and facial expressions, the dramatic and color-saturated lighting, and the elaborate, improvised, or nonexistent costuming together foreground an operatic theatricality whose volume expands exponentially with the size of the actual photograph.

Although not even life-size, the large, backlit C-prints are gigantic blowups of their familiar, jewel-like counterparts in the collages and so take on some of the exaggeration and alienation of early pop. At the same time, they spotlight a previously underemphasized performative aspect of Hundley’s practice and reveal heretofore-unsuspected affinities with the work of Jack Smith, Bill Viola, and Eleanor Antin. During the same period, even larger-scale renditions of these figurative photographs have begun appearing as the grounds of the collages, dissipating the theatricality into romantic atmospherics whose areas of dense information such as faces modulate the play of data on higher planes.

The untitled celebrity-hound mobile also marked one of the earliest appearances of long, visually integrated texts spelled out in mismatched ransom-note style. Here the texts seem to be presenting a set of pointedly quotidian constructions, like a very specialized foreign language phrasebook: "3. There is clean white snow on the balustrade. 4. Across the way in front of a private house is a wagon. 4. The bags of groceries are wet." Or maybe it’s a list of shots, a script meant to generate a cinematic montage in the mind’s eye. Not far off. In fact it’s an excerpt from a book of method acting instructions from Stella Adler, who taught Marlon Brando and Robert de Niro. Embedding this fragment of directed active imagination inserts a burst of quasi-cinematic narrative in the midst of all this glamour and fame—and all these bodies and characters. It marks one of the first times narrative makes an explicit material appearance in Hundley’s work and is spectacularly multivalent.

Hundley’s extended quote from Adler alternates inventories of mundane sensory observations with directions for internalizing emotionally charged, often violently physical, scenarios. “Imagine…I were sticking a needle into your eye.… A boy being beaten by a policeman.… Remov[ing] barbed-wire from your leg.” Then, finally, the reader is guided through a sequence of quotations taken from Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” describing bodily sensations that might have been experienced by titular absurdist hero, adding “myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them.”

Narrative—in its written, verbal incarnation anyway—is introduced in the form of a radically disconnected series of pictures (a collage, if you will). Some of the images are dramatically pitched, others contemplative , while the very mechanism by which a narrative becomes personified in an actor, i.e., the craft behind the magical stardom the scrapbook screen panels are consecrating, is laid bare. Myth is introduced as a living pattern, another virtual reality program waiting to be embodied through our senses. Although a few ransom-note texts occur earlier in Hundley’s work, this reads as his manifesto about the centrality of storytelling. But it was present, as noted, from the beginning.

Hundley has always had literate titles (Kindling for the Great Fire, Penelope Unraveling Her Web, The Hanging Garden, The Invention of Drawing, Medea’s Craft), but previous incursions of writing into the collages themselves had been incidental, like the word “Cement” on the image of a bag, or in the form of pictographic languages: a tablet of Egyptian hieroglyphics or maybe some Chinese script. His exclusion of text was clearly deliberate. In the stream of ephemeral paper from which his collage materials are drawn, a tremendous amount of effort and concentration is needed to sift the verbal language from the visual.

Hundley’s preverbal oeuvre comprises an encyclopedic demonstration of the unique narrative forms that can be generated through appropriative visual language—forms that don’t translate into words, no matter how elegantly described, because they constitute a cloud of multivalent potential associations that may be parsed in an effectively infinite number of configurations, or comprehended as a simultaneity. Two discrete images may be read as such, or as a sequence moving forwards or back, or as two concurrent phenomena. With each additional image, the possible permutations and combinations and the complex gestalt of the accumulated potentials expand exponentially.

With a certain category of appropriated images, another entire layer is added: literary, historical, art historical, pop cultural, and personal references link to entire clusters of preexisting storylines external to the image system in question. Whether the specific citations are recognized or not, the knowledge that they are present unfolds a perpendicular narrative dimension to the constantly shifting planar flow chart made up by a simple multiple image collage. The fragmentation and grafting together of images from within or between these categories generates further tangents, as does the incorporation of actual artifacts—a feather or shell as opposed to a pictorial representation thereof. The incorporation of three-dimensional simulations—petals from plastic flowers, for example—complicates the nature and legibility of the artifice further still.

Now, the level of nonverbal narrative complexity we’ve arrived at thus far can be said to exist in any basically two-dimensional collage. But with Hundley’s addition of his carefully modeled topological pinscapes, we are launched into entirely uncharted realms. The expansion of his collage practice into a literal new dimension not only impacts the scope of his storytelling but allows him to destabilize his enormous formalist talents in controlled increments. His phenomenal compositional skills, already fractally complex in the large works, sway and weave with the shifting binocular gaze of the viewer, altering proportion and emphasis, even moving tiny figures through disintegrating illusionistic spaces.

This is where Hundley’s work makes its sudden leap from a retinal cognitive mode—which although vastly more expansive than the verbal mode, is still subject to the tyranny of consensus—to a kinesthetic mode, engaging the viewer in an intricate collaborative choreography that is encoded in patently subjective physiological sensations in real time, and is recorded only as sense memory.

If Hundley had stopped here, prior to the incorporation of words, his work would already constitute a major contribution to the history of contemporary art: a reclamation of collage as a central, if not the central, practice in modern artmaking, and a long overdue corrective to the overwhelmingly illustrative artifacts—verbally generated and verbally mediated—that occupy the majority of the art world’s attention. But Hundley’s work is above all an inclusive practice, and having demonstrated collage’s enormous narrative capacity so irrefutably, the artist found he needed to create an opening to allow physical texts into his previously wordless realm.

As noted earlier, the Stella Adler passage was a brilliant précis of Hundley’s understanding and intentions regarding written language, but for the long term he turned to a literary tradition that was even more directly connected to the theatrical alchemy of human passions. Traces of classical literature and mythology were appearing in Hundley’s work at least as far back as his pre-UCLA photocollaged dioramas, and such references were an escalating component up to the moment they erupted into his pictographic world in the form of Hekabe, which takes its story from Euripides’s account of the murder of Polydorus, the youngest son of the titular queen of Troy, and her subsequent gory revenge.

The emphatic emotionality and multileveled corporeality of Hundley’s work have been touched upon repeatedly in this essay. Inspired by and quoting from Grief Lessons, Anne Carson’s collection of Euripides translations, Hundley began in 2008 to articulate his identification with the primal, cathartic, ritualistic form of verbal craft that was Athenian tragedy, weaving extended fragments of dialogue into his intricate collage spaces.

His most recent and ambitious engagement with ancient literature has been with Euripides’s late, dark play The Bacchae, the physicality of which goes far beyond the sacrifices and blindings of Hekabe. It is a story that starts with a bang: Semele, Dionysus’s mom, is fried to a crisp by the lightning flash illumination of seeing Zeus in all his godliness. This is followed by a bizarre bit of male surrogate pregnancy, plagues of fire, thunder and lightning, and earthquake, and misbehaving ladies performing ecstatic inversions of physical laws. Pentheus, the king of Thebes, is so overwhelmed by a desire to witness the ladies (one of whom, Agave, is his mom and Dionysus’s aunt) that he is persuaded—by Dionysus in disguise—to sneak into the ladies’ camp in drag and carrying a giant phallic baton. The spectacle causes his vision to double, at which point he is torn limb from limb and paraded back into town. Awesome.

The parallels between Hundley’s enormous collages, filled with tiny images of his loved ones, and the Greek tragedies—epic mythology peopled by regular mortals—were rich enough in their early incarnations. His recent emphasis on Dionysus, whose religious festivals are thought to be the roots of theater, brings deeper structural consonances to the surface. Dionysus is the androgynous god who comes from somewhere else, disrupting the unity of the cosmos, manifesting duality in the phenomenal world, abutting incongruous realities one against the other: collaging. He radically disorders the world in order that it may reconfigure itself in a new equilibrium. He has a thing for getting people torn limb from limb. In some accounts of his childhood, he is himself dismembered, and has to be reconstituted from the only fragment left, his heart.

To make the textual components reflect the discoherence and radical subjectivity of his sculptural and pictographic renderings of The Bacchae, Hundley employs seven different translations of the plays, using multiple versions of a single scene: one to a panel across a series of panels depicting substantially different collage extrapolations of the pertinent characters and action. The result is startlingly cinematic in its sequential framing and multiple viewpoints, emphasized by mounted lenses that create distorted close-ups of selected areas. But the implied seriality is rapidly undermined, in spite of the drolly arbitrary chronological arrangement, by sudden pictorial discontinuities and illogical pictorial continuations from one panel to the next, embedding these framing devices into the vocabulary of temporally indeterminate collage components.

In “eyes that run like leaping fire,” one of the most recent multipanel groups in the series, Hundley adds a loose screen of color-matched threads—hung about a foot from the panel surface and a couple of inches apart—that resemble digital print glitches, but also create a second flat surface, parallel with the wall and the panel, that defines the outer edges of the universe in which Agave’s tragic frenzy unfolds (she tears Pentheus’s arm off, thinking he’s a mountain lion, then presents the head to her father as a trophy!).

In Clement Greenberg’s seminal 1959 essay “Collage” (thought I’d forgotten about that, didn’t you?) he identifies Georges Braque’s incorporation of text as the first technique to successfully set up a binary dynamic between the not-quite-abstract facets of analytical cubist space and the literal surface of the painting. Collage, Greenberg asserts, “expands the oscillation between surface and depth so as to encompass fictive space in front of the surface as well as behind it.… Braque and Picasso had obtained a new, self-transcending kind of decoration by reconstructing the picture surface with what had once been the means of its denial.”

Braque and Picasso retreated from the implications of this blast of pictorial fission—as did Greenberg for that matter—but the portal had been opened, and the fictive animation of the space on this side of the picture plane was eventually recognized in the wake of Pollock: first, tentatively, by Harold Rosenberg, then, emphatically, by Allan Kaprow, at which point it almost immediately expanded to encompass happenings, performance art, and the whole goddam world as far as I can tell.

What Elliott Hundley has done is to push the outer membrane of that space back to about a foot away from the wall and fill it chock full with the crucial catalyst of everything that followed the cubist revolution—collage. Under Hundley’s meticulously improvisational direction the formal and pictographic elements collide, combine into molecular configurations of meaning, disintegrate, and recombine, in a process that is analogous to the way our churning human consciousness constantly makes sense out of the flood of phenomena with which it’s confronted. But ultimately, inevitably, he has to sign off on a final configuration, and consign his exquisite craftwork to its tragic redundancy. Because the tragedy of the creative act is this: the fragment of life that can be mapped in its phenomenological complexity entirely is invalid as soon as it is fixed; the desire to preserve destroys the object of desire.

But there’s a catch. The resulting artifact can set off an entirely new chain reaction in viewers. The viewer’s consciousness enters the space, wanders around its fractal depths constructing a story, and then withdraws. Could viewers recreate that narrative if they had to? They try again, and find a different story, then another, and another, and another. After a while they pull back, look at the big picture, and recognize that the field of dismembered signs are humming with life, and that by some sleight of hand they’ve been enlisted as co-creators, that the spark that connects the symbolic units of a collage are the same for everyone, even though every narrative is different. That’s the mystery of the creative act. Maybe if they ask me back to teach that modern art history class, I’ll just start at the surface of one of Elliott Hundley’s collages and work my way down. I’ll bet I never hit bottom.
A version of this essay is included in Elliott Hundley: The Bacchae , published by the Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University in 2012.