International collage artist Michael Anderson is presently enjoying a solo show, the first in four years, at Arts & Leisure gallery on New York City's Upper East Side. Armageddon Yacht is an exhibition of sixteen recent works, all featuring Anderson's unique and inimitable style. Whereas most collage artists make use of magazines, Michael uses exclusively street posters gathered from around the world, which allows for work on a much greater scale than is typically associated with collage. His pictures are at once unmistakable and visceral, sweeping, playful and ironic.
Consider for example the title piece of the show, Armageddon Yacht (2019). The name is derived from a term that US sailors use for an aircraft carrier. Power and violence are recurring themes in Anderson's work – and no less here. With irony and wit he questions our contemporary assumptions and illusions about power. The central image of three models sipping martinis on a yacht presents us with an idealized vision of Western luxury and decadence, privilege and wealth. Contrasted with this is the wide surrounding border where we find a kind of conflagration out of which emerges a montage of terrorists, and exaggerated machismo. In a darkly humorous way Anderson suggests that both worlds represent fantasies and asks us to question the unspoken ways that each needs and implicates the other.
There is currently an exhibition in Israel entitled Naked Soul, centered on the painter Chaim Soutine. When we are naked, we are at our most exposed and vulnerable. Some artists are intent on baring everything, their soul, with every stroke of the brush. Van Gogh was perhaps another such painter. This is not what Michael's work is about. His work is not about himself as such, but about the world. But nor is he simply collecting and aggregating the fragments of an atomistic society. There is an aesthetic transformation of these fragments that takes place – he works his materials over. This accomplishes something crucial: it defamiliarizes the material and turns it into something we no longer know; to put it another way, perhaps more precisely, it depotentiates our habitual frame of reference. There is indeed a subversive element to his work. But in what sense, precisely?
Anderson is keenly aware that we live in an era oversaturated with imagery – some real, some "real", and some fake, with the lines between them growing ever blurrier. He confronts head-on the challenge and necessity of finding ways of constructing meaning out of this chaos. At the same time, he refuses the temptation to privilege any particular construction, or set of signifiers: everything is off-center – set free of its origin, and reduced to a kind of vector of energy, free to float and intersect with other modes, creating new and novel ways of becoming. One is tempted to suggest that there is an implicit ontology running through this body of work, an ontology of univocity perhaps, a kind of univocity of being.
Briefly put, to say that being is univocal, means that being has only one sense, and is said in one and the same sense of everything of which it is said, whether it be God or man, animal or object. The fundamental problem of a univocal ontology is that if being is said in one and the same sense of everything that is, then how should we understand the difference between beings? It was Spinoza who grasped the solution to this problem. The only acceptable difference is difference as a degree of power or intensity.
What I am suggesting is that in Anderson's collage there is no hierarchy, or ontological privileging – nor is his work meant to meant to invoke a former unity that has now been lost or broken. All things are in this sense equal. What we find in Anderson's work is a kind of "continuum of differential multiplicities through which intensities are actualized." So, there is undoubtedly something subversive about his work – but not in an immediate political sense. What he subverts is fixity and essentialism, any system that blocks the process of continual transformation.
Anderson's art invokes a great sense of freedom, of limitless possibilities, the most disparate images, visual references and allusions can intersect in startling and provocative ways. His de-centered, non-linear approach enhances this sense that we are not bound by ordinary logic. At the same time, every genuine work of art sets up its own rules, its own limitations, its own conditions which determine what can and cannot be done, what will and will not work. This is not less true of Anderson's pictures, and he is scrupulous about honoring the work itself, respecting the parameters, as it were, which are internal to and different with every work.
In my many visits to Michael's studio I have had the opportunity to observe his process up close and over time – from the long and careful method of layering by which he makes his "canvas" to the dissection and application of representational elements and graffiti abstraction (and now graffiti textiles), to the countless small touches which fine-tune the piece and lend it polish in its final stages.
Anderson has been and remains a formidable and prolific collage artist. This show is but a small sample of the monumental work he has yet to reveal to the public. In Anderson's work faces, figures, forms and things emerge, converge and seem ever ready to submerge back into the universal substance from whence they came. His vision is a large, comprehensive, almost Spinozistic, one. And for that – at a time when we are beset on all sides by narrowness and provinciality – we can only be grateful.
Michael Anderson: Armageddon Yacht runs through February 9th at Arts & Leisure located at 1571 Lexington Avenue in New York City.