Posted on 4 May 2020 in art, finance, materiality, objects, visual culture

The Assemblage of Worthless Scraps into Compositions

How does an artist engage with the uneasy churning of materiality, visuality, culture, and finance? Salvaging scraps from its excesses and reassembling them is one way….


Independent Visual Artist, New York

How does an artist engage with the uneasy churning of materiality, visuality, culture, and finance? Salvaging scraps from its excesses and reassembling them is one way….

Leah Durner, Untitled (Financial Times), 2020, collage made with cut up World of Interiors and Financial Times How to Spend It magazines and color-aid paper, sheet size: 24 x19 in 60.96 x 48.26 cm image size: 21 x 6.25 in 53.34 x 15.875 cm

Incorporating images from the Financial Times How to Spend It issue on the Frieze art fair in London, this collage also references the commodification of fresh air and open space as luxuries.

Extravagance is the term I use for a constellation of concerns—including largesse, beauty, joy, color, wandering, materiality, incarnated consciousness, and wild being—that comprises my ongoing artistic and theoretical project. I arrived at extravagance as particularly apt through its etymology: from the Latin extra,“outside of” + vagari,“wander, roam” and for its discredited association. Extravagance itself embraces the “interdisciplinary” in a fluid way.

My primary practice is as a painter working in poured enamel based in psychedelia and process art. I pull color choices for my poured enamels from the urban and mediated environment of my New York home, including from fashion, graffitied trucks, construction sites, street signs, magazine covers, modernist design, etc.  

The constant production and distribution of material objects—created across time and with greater or lesser degrees of skill, of quality of raw and developed material, and of aesthetic sensibility—is evidenced all around us in New York and London, two cities that engage me here—as a citizen of New York and a friend of London. 

Drawing and painting on paper, including on found and ephemeral substrates, has been an ongoing practice parallel to and feeding my primary painterly practice. (In July 2019, I did the installation Leah Durner works on gallery ephemera—consisting of paintings on gallery announcement cards and brochures—in conjunction with the ISRF Workshop Economics & the Plastic Arts held at Goldsmiths University of London.) Paper is a material manufactured in many ways—from the artisanal handmade to heavy industrial production—in an extensive variety of colors, thicknesses, qualities and finishes. 

Material and financial realities are very much at play in the making of objects. In December 2019, a friend proposed a series of work sessions together in her very small apartment in Greenwich Village. Here a design problem presented itself: small space, transportability of supplies, and limited time were the parameters. I elected to bring copies of the London-based magazine World of Interiors (known for its sumptuous photographs), the Financial Times Weekend magazine (tellingly named How to Spend It), fashion magazines and catalogues, and Color-aid paper to use as source material for a new group of collages. 

How does an artist engage with the uneasy churning of materiality, visuality, culture, and finance? Salvaging scraps from its excesses and reassembling them is one way….

Leah Durner, Untitled (Chinese Gold), 2020, collage made from cut up World of Interiors magazine and Christie’s brochure for Masterpieces of Chinese Gold and Silver auction sheet size: 24 x 19 in 60.96 x 48.26 cm. image size: 13 x 7 in 33.02 x 17.78 cm

This collage includes images of hand-made objects including a Chinese gold chape (the metal point of a scabbard), hand-painted folk furniture, hand-knit sweaters, and jacquard loom cards and cloth. Loom cards (invented 1803) enabled weavers to create complex and regular jacquard cloth and were precursors to computer programming punch cards.

Using my painter’s eye to view these printed images as abstract forms, I select color and pattern from these sources where the original material objects—be they decorative objects, textiles, building elements, clothing, etc.—are photographed then printed on paper and bound into a magazine, which I then cut apart and reassemble to make a new object—the collage. Detached from their identified forms and associations, I use these selected scraps to build abstract compositions that still retain traces of their underlying imagistic references. A magazine is a material object, a painting is a material object, a collage is a material object.

How does an artist engage with the uneasy churning of materiality, visuality, culture, and finance? Salvaging scraps from its excesses and reassembling them is one way….

Leah Durner, Untitled (for Victor Hugo), 2019, collage made with cut up World of Interiors magazine, sheet size: 24 x 19 in 60.96 x 48.26 cm image size: 22 x 8.75 in 55.88 x 22.225 cm

Art and interiors can also contain political meaning that is not immediately apparent. The red and pink images are of textiles and objects from Victor Hugo’s self-decorated house in Guernsey, where he lived from 1855-1870, exiled from France due to his opposition to Napoleon III. Hugo decorated his home over a period of six years collecting textiles and repurposing materials from second hand shops to create an environmental narrative.

Arranging these patterns and colors abstractly retrains my vision in the living world—as I walk down the street in the densely-packed visual field of New York, I read the world around me as abstract color and form. This all becomes very “trippy”—objects can lose their identity—and relates back to psychedelia (from the Greek psyche, “mind” + delos,“manifest”), which is an aspect of my larger artistic practice. In fact, for those of us with eyesight, our vision has been trained to identify colors, shapes, and patterns as objects and to give them meaning—it is a cognitive and not merely a retinal process to “recognize” what we are seeing. In addition to the shifting of visual engagement and the ambiguous identifiability of what is represented, the fluctuation of financial value—from the value of the original properties and material objects photographed, to the value of the magazine, to the value of the cut-up scraps, to the value of the collages in the art market—underlies the collages.

The collages address the scintillation of luxury and poverty, abstraction and representation, the material and the mediated, the ephemeral and the permanent, the grand and the humble that radiates through my work and thought on extravagance.

How does an artist engage with the uneasy churning of materiality, visuality, culture, and finance? Salvaging scraps from its excesses and reassembling them is one way….

Leah Durner, Untitled (for Pauline), 2020, collage made of cut up World of Interiors magazine and color-aid paper, sheet size: 24 x 19 in 60.96x 48.26 cm. image size: 17 x 8.25 in 43.18 x 20.95 cm

Image of blue and white striped fabric lower left is from Pauline de Rothschild’s self-decorated Paris apartment. Pauline was a fashion designer for Hattie Carnegie and later was married to Baron Philippe de Rothschild of the famous banking family. Pauline was an aesthete renowned for her erudite taste in fashion and interior design. Pauline also oversaw the redecoration of the Rothschild’s Chateau de Mouton, London pied-a-terre and other properties.

Some notes on the source material for the collages

WORLD OF INTERIORS – Particularly important as source material for my collages is World of Interiors (WoI), the London-based interiors magazine launched in 1981 and edited by Min Hogg from its inception until 2000. Celebrated for its deeply considered and imaginative editorial approach, WoI sets forth the historical, landscape/place, economic, and familial/personal situation of each interior while also maintaining a sense of humor and lightness. (Family, cultural, economic and political history are written in the interior spaces we occupy.) The aesthetic of WoI is distinctly sumptuous and so provides a rich source of visual material. It covers interiors across national and economic borders giving equal weight to “great” houses and palaces, shelters built of sticks and mud, studios, and writing sheds—all created with imagination where rich and poor, amateur and professional designer are given equal respect and attention. 

Related to the idea of collage in art (and reflected in the pages of WoI) is that of the transformation of interior spaces over time through the accretion/attrition of objects and furniture, through both decay and through renovations that, especially with historic houses, may uncover previously hidden walls, floors, rooms, and objects. In addition to the additive/subtractive actions of human beings, the actions of weather, animals, and plants on an architectural structure are also part of its history. 

FINANCIAL TIMES – The Financial Times, another London-based periodical printed on its distinguishing salmon pink paper, specializes in international business and economic news—news that is inseparable from the political realities of the transnational global elite and its influence on government policies. FT Weekend includes the magazine How to Spend It, which focuses on leisure and the consumption of travel, houses, fashion, art, tech, food, jewelry, cars, boats, beauty treatments, etc.

COLOR AID – Color-aid was first manufactured in the United States in 1948 for use by photographers, comprising individual, richly painted matte sheets of 212 colors (later expanded to 314) based on the color chart. Shortly after its introduction, Joseph Albers began using Color-aid for the exercises in his famous color theory classes at Yale University, which led to the publication of his landmark work of pedagogy, Interaction of Color (1963). 

Leah Durner

Independent Visual Artist

Leah Durner’s painting occupies the critical space between modernism and postmodernism—between postwar abstraction and post-Duchampian conceptualism and post-Warholian pop. Her output includes works in oil, acrylic, and gouache on canvas and on paper as well as works in poured enamel.

Leah Durner photo by Damani Moyd