Jewels in the dung heap
Suspects, Smokers, Soldiers and SalesladiesEssay by Joseph Giovannini
Lars Müller Publishers, £39
Chermayeff has been producing collages for almost 50 years, trawling and scavenging the streets of his hometown New York for the expendable everyday of a bloated urban society. Magpie-like, he charts his daily journeys between home and work, swooping on the humble, the discarded, the abused and the ignored, with the sharp, discerning eye of the skilled designer that he is. Award-winning and highly respected, Chermayeff uses the collage experience to fuel and inform his professional practice, which in turn hones his designing disciplines.
As with Rauschenberg’s early Schwitters-inspired ‘combine’ paintings, constructed out of the discarded excesses of others peoples’ households, or Louise Nevelson’s massed monochromatics fashioned from crippled furniture limbs, or even Carl Andre’s misunderstood bricks and iron plates, Chermayeff’s collages, while not claiming the status of such high art icons, do share a commonality. Through the fusing of heterogeneous materials such works can be read as diaries or landscapes of their time, intimate snapshots of a culture in flux. All are imbued with the possibility of inner realities which parallel our wonderment with the world and our own destinies by offering the magical potential of the mundane in association.
On first glance these witty, playful collages, predominantly of heads, look simple and naïve and yet they are stamped with a quiet authority. The use of colour is confidently bold, the startling dynamics and seemingly effortless restraint of placement within the given rectangle, the bewildering diversity of materials brought together so harmoniously, the economy of means, the elliptical sub-plots of the obsessive, and the sheer joy that is evident in their making, should be a paradigm for art students, professional artists and designers alike. Chermayeff scans the ‘mother-lode’ of New York’s gutters with the curiosity of a five-year-old, locking on to nuggets of potential in the dung heap and, over time, transforms his finds into gloriously unpretentious meditations on the known and the only imagined.
If it was merely gorged with nearly 250 beautifully reproduced, full-page, full-colour plates, this monograph would be a joy to revisit endlessly. The fact that it also carries two concise and revealing essays, one by Chermayeff himself, who writes with disarming charm and directness, ultimately coming over as a rare person endowed with elegant simplicity, and another by Joseph Giovannini who provides a compressed yet rich overview of the man, his work and its historical context, is a genuine bonus.