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by Charles Stuckey
"Hints for the Tourist: The Opinions of James Garrett Faulkner," Nov. 20, 2005-Jan. 8, 2006, at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 South Hyde Park Boulevard, Chicago, Ill. 60615

On Chicago’s South Side, the historic Hyde Park Art Center (scheduled to move next spring into more spacious and gracious quarters a few blocks away -- stay tuned) is hosting one of the best exhibitions presented anywhere in this city during the last several years: a late-in-career retrospective from collage virtuoso Jim Faulkner (b. 1933). Organized by Michael Rooks (formerly at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, now curator at the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu), the exhibition contains 100 works from as early as 1984.

The majority are classic cut-and-paste collages in the tradition of such masters as Kurt Schwitters, Paul Citroën, Max Ernst, Georges Hugnet, Joseph Cornell and Jess, but several of Faulkner’s specialty dinner plates decorated with collage are included, along with a few less utilitarian collage objects. The best of these is Gordale Scar (1991), a dirtied mannequin’s forearm (with the laced-up top of a running shoe applied like a miniature corset), the fingers clutching a roll of the sort of printed reproductions that are the grist for any collagist’s mill.

As the exhibition title suggests, foreign places -- factual and fantasized --are the primary subjects of Faulkner’s works, which often incorporate travel postcards and bits of letters. But what the artist refers to as "the pleasures of sodomy" are only slightly less at issue, as are world history, world literature and world art. On his travels, Faulkner takes along as much cultural baggage as he can carry.

During the 1970s and 1980s Faulkner and his longtime friend John Jones were among the most enthusiastic collectors of Chicago scene art, much of it first presented at the HPAC. During those years, Faulkner aspired to be a photographer, but eventually he burned all his negatives out of dissatisfaction and found his true calling with scissors and glue as an editor of readymade images.

The current exhibition is especially welcome considering how seldom one has the chance to enjoy any works by Faulkner in the usual Chicago venues. He has eschewed gallery representation for several years now, and, probably through oversight, he was not included in the 1996 survey exhibition, "Chicago Art 1945-1995," presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which owns two of his works (one included in the current exhibition). Remarkably enough, he is still not represented in the Art Institute of Chicago collection. Nor has his name come up in connection with the proposed Chicago-only museum of art promoted here recently by such high-visibility artists as Tony Fitzpatrick, hardly a lightweight in the collage world.

But there are always several of Faulkner’s works on view at Michelle Fire’s North Side bar and restaurant, Big Chicks and Tweets, a pair of side-by-side establishments that are something like little museums, with many works by Chicago artists on display. Many of the most impressive pieces in the HPAC exhibition are lent from her collection -- for example, the quasi-diagrammatic Proverb (1990), which incorporates rectangular fragments of a reproduction of Mantegna’s St. Sebastian (ca. 1480) from the Louvre, positioned with white mounting corners on a black album page. Indicating blank spaces for missing parts of the cut-up image, other mounting corners can be seen as just so many more prickly arrowheads of this gay cult of martyrdom.

No less impressive a composition is the richly colorful Georgia On My Mind (1990), also lent by Fire. The titillated schoolboy and schoolgirl figures here seem concerned only to smell, touch and spank one another. As a Chicagoan, Faulkner knows all about legendary local outsider artists like Henry Darger.

With its syntax of superimposition, interpenetration, contortion and the conjunction of mismatched parts, collage became the lingua franca of 20th-century graphic expression and, if anything, it has become more pervasive in our new millennium. Following Jess’s lead, Faulkner makes the jigsaw puzzle into a paradigm of the deconstruction and reassembly at issue in the collage genre, as in Je Repete: 2294 Deux Fois (1997). Here he intermixes the interchangeable pieces of two identical jigsaw puzzle matrices, each printed with a different reproduction of an Impressionist painting owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, both works seemingly conceived by Caillebotte and Monet in the spirit of souvenir postcards of Paris.

A series of decorative but nonetheless erotically provocative collages from 1993 incorporates actual art museum souvenir postcards, as well as illustrated dust jackets for steamy French novels, these flattened out on a background of marbled endpapers, suggestively offering front and back, inside and out.

With its grids of city souvenir cards, hotel architecture and window views The Four Seasons; Kiev (1990) is a kaleidoscopically dizzying composition of postcard image ensembles, each framing a slightly smaller and superimposed image ensemble, climaxing in four sightseeing images of waterfalls. During the recent Art Basel Miami Beach festivities, such opulent, travel-minded postcard-based collages by Faulkner, all dating from the same period, filled the rooms and hallways of the Impala Hotel at 1228 Collins Avenue in South Beach.

Next year put the Impala on your fair itinerary -- but for now ignore the early snows and try not to miss the Faulkner retrospective, while it lasts, at the old Hyde Park Art Center, while it lasts. And, for those of you with a real case of collage fever, here’s a tip -- head for Barcelona, where Diane Waldman’s survey of collage, "Maestros del collage, De Picasso a Rauschenberg," is on view at the Fundación Miró until Feb. 26, 2006.

CHARLES STUCKEY is an independent scholar based in Chicago.