It's about five months since the opening night of Richard Dawson's 'Collages' exhibition at NewBridge Books in Newcastle. I rarely write about an exhibition or an lp or a gig with a sense of deadline or urgency. This is no reflection on the work, rather it affords a bit of time to think. A poetry habit. Today I was going through the notebook I was using back in January. Just like when you're looking for something you're missing now and find something else that's been missing a while, I stumbled on a page of notes about these collages. I really ought to write something about this, I thought. So here I am.
Calling this messy penciled scrawl 'notes' is really being kind. They're fringe-y marginalia, a disjointed collection of textures, nouns, questions and statements. Shoulder to shoulder in this packed first viewing I wrote things like the curvature of rooves (roofs?), marbled Rococco...a mussel?', the angles of paintings and could be an eyeglass.
With that last one in mind, fighting my way through all these jotted and disorientating impressions, it strikes me that this fits the exhibition quite appropriately. What I logged attempts to track the movement of my eyes, both the process of taking in the heaps of images and textures layered within each collage but also thinking about the order we do this in and why. Is it the size of the image that draws us in? It's positioning? What happens once we've acquainted ourselves with one artwork and then we move onto the next? Do we rebooting the process or learn from it?
Even though in his modest artist statement (I think that idea may well be a oxymoron) Richard suggested audiences may find the collection a) naive to the point of redundancy, b) generally good but problematic in places c) a dog's dinner, d) pretty bad but not without merit, e) fine from a distance (this list is made in jest/unjest and isn't exhaustive) I find something interesting in that last point, there. Fine from a distance.
Other than the images which surface at the principal layer of the artwork, there's no clear sense of hierarchy with a collage. Richard performs his songs in a similar way, in amongst the crowd, no pedestals or wind machines in sight. Traditional paintings use trompe l'oeil to draw the eye in and create an illusion of spatial realism. In French it means to deceive the eye so we might wonder if collage could be an antonym, moving us further than collage's French meaning: to glue.
Perhaps we could look beyond the medium and practice of gluing a collage together and instead consider the arresting act of looking at it. As when Dawson sings to an intimate audience (which always seems to contract around him, poised on his every word) the viewers of these collages don't just find the work fine from a distance, rather there's a sense of urgency to get nearer, to encounter it.
Proximity it seems, is key. Although it would be tricky (and ultimately reductive) to thematically categorize Richard's collages, they are tied together by a sense of being created out of the peripheral. They distort the precis and question 'the real'. Having stopped writing this to seek out some of the collages for another look (here) There's something in the disorientating effect they have, especially connected to Richard's eye condition, retinoschisis which impacts his overall sight including depth perception, colours and distance.
Being visually impaired means you experience the world in a different way. I think these collages encourage viewers to see a little differently, too. They play with perspective and distance, shrinking the grand and magnifying the tiny. The vast sails of ships become smaller than a flint tool. It seems appropriate that there's a remnant of early collage running through the artworks in their use of religious architecture, as churches were the first European buildings to use stained glass and to apply gemstones, gold leaf and precious metals to iconography, which we might consider a form of colour collage.
Any kind of absorbing practice like collage is meditative, so there is a tie there too, in that we can find spirituality in the focus and creation of things. Regardless of whether we or anyone else thinks they are of any value: process is the point. I found these collages so wonderful and most importantly good fun to explore. They are another facet of Dawson's demiurgic and quick witted imagination that we can really enjoy them. When's the next exhibition? I can't wait.