One person’s junk is another person’s treasure, as the saying goes, and the art of collage is the ultimate scavenger hunt. Appropriating, rearranging, and re-contextualizing found objects and images requires a certain delicacy and a preternatural ability to visualize the end product in advance. Like all forms of abstraction, collage is deceptively complex, and it has the ability to conflate the past with the present and fuse unrelated subjects in ways that are surprising and revealing.
As a longtime teacher and mentor to artists across Santa Barbara, Tony Askew’s practice is familiar to many in the area. But his most recent work at Art Resources is a refined, carefully edited exhibition of collage work at its finest. Askew’s is an unaffected, inquisitive approach, and the resulting miniature narratives are intricate and evocative.
Because found imagery already comes with its own associations, the collage artist is a puppet master of happenstance, finding new meanings in the merging of old objects. Askew’s technique for this is straightforward, blending materials and imagery into seamless, multi-leveled constructions. Like miniature theatrical sets, each collage describes a scene of its own, giving off clues to the underlying text via photographs, ticket stubs, painted paper, matchbooks, old books, magazines, and other materials.
In “Big Red,” Askew has used a color as the theme of his story. The centerpiece of this work is the rich, velvety red of a book cover for the Manual of Egyptian Archaeology. Surrounding it is a background of handmade red paper and a variety of other objects, including a seamstress’s measuring tape. The book has become the subject of the work, its exoticism evoking an opulent library in a foreign land.
It’s clear that Askew gathers his materials from diverse sources-many of the objects are original items and not copies-which lends them an air of mystery; each object had a unique past before it went through a rebirth under Askew’s hand. In “Pass Good Through,” a photo of a couple sitting contentedly on the porch is surrounded by numbers from a BINGO card, a train ticket from Italy, and the cover of a pack of cigarettes. Like a scrap-booked travelogue, the collage has brought together disparate parts of memories and gathered them in a single moment.
For Askew, meaning lies in the activity of gathering the pieces and combining them via a process of invention. Like our memories, the result may not always be exactly the truth, but it does tell a good story.