Raven Schlossberg layers calligraphic ink drawings, snaky trails of enamel or acrylic paint, sections of Chinese newspaper and glossy images torn from vintage fashion, lifestyle and porn magazines onto large oil cloths, vinyl squares or sheets of wallpaper. Her media mixtures satirize consumer culture, American mythology and constrictive gender roles.
While Schlossbergs source material is often banal or trashy, the collages are literary, personal and seductive. Ads aimed at housewives, illustrations from childrens primers, characters from goofy kids comics and slick teen-pop icons can be juxtaposed with clippings from her library of pornography encompassing 1960s beehived pinups, 1980s lacquered phone-sex kittens and the raw, hard-core cuties of today. Those images are then topped off by Schlossbergs painted armies of clowns, marching through the rubble of pop culture imagery accumulated in the collage.
Since graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1994, Schlossberg has had solo exhibitions at Germanys Museum Schloss Morsbroich, Leverkusen and Galerie Geiger, Konstanz. With Valerie McKenzie, she showed in New York at James Graham and Sons gallery, and now she is represented by McKenzie Fine Art.
Schlossberg has six new collages on view at the g-module gallery, 15, rue Debelleyme, Paris, May 5-July 2, 2005.
Ana Finel Honigman: Where do you cull the source material for your collages from?
Raven Schlossberg: I cull my materials from my extensive personal archive containing more than 25,000 pieces of printed material. This collection includes obscure magazines, odd books and teetering towers of loose materials dating back to the 1920s. I have been collecting materials for my work for over ten years, endlessly scavenging all over the world from one pile of junk to another. Most of my materials are collected intentionally, en masse, buying entire years at a time of a specific periodical, journal or newspaper. It is a hunger that I have always had, a need to discover lost images, to rediscover the things that have fallen between the cracks.
AFH: Is there something like a protagonist or recurring character in your work?
RS: In a lot of my work, I use an invented figure in repetition. I have always referred to this figure as "my clown," due to my love of circus clowns and the mystery they evoke. But it is perhaps better to describe this figure as an "everyman" character, representing a general population moving through a particular scene. This figure manifests itself at first as a quick, graffiti-esque line drawing set into the background that I call a "watcher." This character is seen peeking out from between scenes, watching the viewer. The other way I use this character is as a central figure, or more often as a group of figures moving through the picture plane, each appearing curious about his/her own surroundings, but also as a guide pointing out places or people of interest. Every figure is drawn by hand without the use of a stencil and then individually hand-cut.
AFH: But clowns are hardly "everyman" figures. After Stephan Kings It, John Wayne Gacy and even art like Bruce Naumans Clown Torture, arent clowns an odd choice?
RS: I believe theres a clown in "every man." I am not of the camp that is afraid of clowns. In fact, I dont really understand this fear. I find clowns magical, able to move between realms of fantasy and emotion with costume and pantomime. They bring joy in the form of laughter. They are tricksters -- not serial killers. For that matter, my clown figure only appears as a clown to me, and appears as a more amorphous figure to everyone else.
AFH: You use a lot of vintage porn in your pieces. What is the thinking behind that decision?
RS: I have had a fascination with pornography from a very young age. It was around, although hidden, and my stepsister and I would look at it when our parents were out I remember seeing some boys in my neighborhood looking at dirty magazines behind some dumpsters and watching them, studying them in the hope of better understanding the opposite sex.
AFH: What would you say porn has taught you about men and what have you learned about men who collect, versus men who just use and discard, porn?
RS: I've noticed that the men and women who collect porn are of a certain personality type, you might say obsessive-compulsive, and collect not just porn but maybe also comic books and strange stuff ... I fall into this category.
AFH: So is porn just another example of cultural ephemera in your work?
RS: Absolutely. Pornography is just a small aspect of my work. I examine childhood and memory more than just "sex." When I do use porn (which isn't always), I never use it for "shock value." It often functions as a social critique.
AFH: Are you responding to all the images you take from porn magazines in the same way or are you looking at each image in its cultural context?
RS: I choose the characters in my pieces with very strict criteria that are personal and/or painterly. Sometimes, it will be the lighting in a 1970s image that I'm drawn to, or often it's the set dressing that attracts me, as opposed to the T&A.
AFH: Because you use images of smiling housewives and old-fashioned mothers taken from vintage womens magazines alongside the porn, it is easy to read a feminist critique into your work. Are you making a statement about gender stereotypes by showing pre-feminist ideals of good girls and bad girls?
RS: Yes. Im interested in talking about "labeling," specifically societys propensity for labeling women in such ways as the "housewife" or the "mistress," the "whore" or the "saint." I look at the journey from good girl to bad girl and everything in between.
AFH: You occasionally juxtapose porn from different decades in one image. Does the dreamy porn from the '60s have the same function, as a social critique, in your collages as the harder, glossy porn from the '80s or the raw, graphic imagery of today?
RS: Graphically, each era has its differences: in earlier decades, up until the early '80s, the camera lens was often smeared with Vaseline to create a gauzy haze, and of course it was pre-Photoshop so there was a sort of raw naturalism which is sadly gone now, except in the more obscure publications that I'm interested in. But, yes, in my work the porn from each decade functions as the same social critique.
AFH: Are you criticizing the women in the images, the culture of porn -- or is porn an example of something else entirely in your images?
RS: My opinion of these "models" moral fiber is not pertinent, because they function like actors-for-hire, manipulated by me. I am taking the model's initial act of self-objectification in front of the lens and bringing it into another venue, from between the pages into a gallery or museum space. I suggest many lines of thought and perhaps discussion within the context of the piece by the juxtaposition of other narrative information -- but I am not criticizing these "models" in any way. That is not my job.
AFH: So yours is a political, not a moral, critique?
RS: As a girl growing up in California, a place that is truly body-obsessed, friends of mine got into situations, almost always of a sexual nature, that were very dangerous and often turned out tragically. In this world we are presented with so many images of the "ideal" that unquestionably promote a cycle of insecurity and instability in ones own body image, creating paranoia based upon comparison with a false front. What I have realized, from looking at how my work has developed over time, is that one of the major themes I deal with is danger. I visually set up dangerous situations for these "characters" to try to illustrate that we make all kinds of decisions that alter our futures. These decisions act as puzzle pieces that form a person's end-story, seen in retrospect as good, bad or just plain dumb. If my critique of the culture of porn or for that matter the media in general is political, it is for this reason.
AFH: Do you think of art and art making as outside this media or market system?
RS: Yes, I think the majority of art viewers are intelligent and contemplative and can have a dialogue with the artwork without the influence of the media or market entering the picture. As far as art making goes, I still entertain the romantic notion that making art is a significant contribution to society and history that can, and should, function outside this system.
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.