Todd Bartel: An Omni-Coupler

By Etty Yaniv

Todd Bartel came to serious collage because of an assignment he received on the first day of his first class as a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design: “Create five collages that work with the following sentence: Surrealism is the chance happening of finding an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table.” That was his introduction to surrealism and chance coupling. He fell in love with collage immediately, coming up with forty-five collages by the first week. One of the key elements that draws him to collage is that it can involve a vast array of analog and digital technologies. “I consider myself an omni-coupler,” he says.

It is quite evident in your work and in your texts that you are passionate about collage. You focus on the relationship between landscape, or as you coined – landview – and collage. How do you see that relationship?

I love working with paper, and I love working with wood. After two decades of exploring these materials, I awakened to their interrelation, which continues to raise questions that drive my studio practice. While not all collage is paper-based, paper as a collage material is the predominant idiom, which got me thinking: paper comes from woody plant fibers; wood comes from trees; both come from the landscape – cut and hacked from the land. I love history and have read extensively about both genres, and in 2004 I realized they were two separate histories that intersected, in the 1960s and 1970s, with environmental art. As a result, I now consider myself a collage-based eco-artist.

I coined the term “landview” in 1995 as a dissenting concept to the artist’s term “landscape” – a Dutch and Germanic technical word for “created and shaped” images of land. “Landscape,” to quote John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “first meant a picture of a view; then the view itself.” I found that particular word evolution problematic because landscape’s etymology has connotations of “cutting, hacking and shaping,” which led me to wonder about “viewing” a tract of earth that is “untouched” by humans or otherwise protected from human activity. We also tend to separate ourselves from the definition of nature, and we often divide our actions from natural processes. Considering our place in nature and the dubious ways we sometimes use the term “landscape” inspired my Terra Reverentia series and all the work since.

In disagreement with the idea of humans removing themselves from the definition of nature, the Terra Reverentia is a series of oil paintings of appropriated medieval land backgrounds. I removed all the people and buildings and then boxed and framed them with various materials and imagery juxtapositions. While finishing up that series, I developed a want for a new word, which inspired a search for an alternate suffix. I should note, of course, now, during the third decade of the twenty-first century, we recognize that Earth has been shaped by human intervention during our short tenure on the planet. Everything has been touched by human activity, but when I coined “landview,” I had not heard of the term “Anthropocene” yet.

In contrast to land-shaping, the etymology of “landview” uses the Proto-Indo-European root, “weid” – to see, wise, wisdom, way of proceeding, manner, view – a view designed to encourage human mending strategies, especially when it comes to cutting timber. For me, collage, assemblage, and installation practices provide inexhaustible possibilities for creating work that raises questions about the seemingly unrelated histories of collage and landscape. I have been working to pull both histories into the same timeline for close to three decades now, and that idea has kept me busy with serial work.

Terra Reverentia: Recrudesce, 15.5 x 15.5 x 3.5 inches, constructed wood box, tempera, velvet, vines, oil on wood, gold leaf, branches, glass, mustard seeds, 1995

In the Landscape Vernacular series, you address the history of land depiction, specifically the changing attitudes about land use and ecology. This involves research, accumulating data, and editing. Tell me about your research process and how it is expressed throughout this series.

I collect books, dictionaries, engravings, antiques, and all things paper-related, which fuel all my series work. I also collect discarded books, specifically to harvest the end-pages. My resource materials are made up of analog and digital materials, which are filtered into dossiers, and which eventually get used in the collages, assemblages, Synterials, or whatever project is at hand. I often re-publish my resource materials; I make high-resolution scans and print them onto period paper end-pages to achieve contemporary facsimiles of the originals. Sometimes I use actual engravings or book pages in my Landscape Vernacular (LV) collages, and at other times I use re-published copies. Whenever I am able, I obtain multiple copies of my materials to keep an original out of circulation while others get used up in the work itself. As a result, I now have an extensive library of ephemera, books on collage and landscape, and a vast digital library that informs my work and research.

Terrain, Scream and Cede – Industrial Locomotion 1844, 27.5 x 16.5 inches, burnished interlocking collage, xerographic-transfers on 19th-century endpapers and rain-washed, weather-beaten bulletin board paper with staple rust, map graticules, dictionary definitions of “pastoral,” pencil, wax paper transfer, Yes glue, document repair tape, 2021
Terrain, Scream and Cede – Industrial Locomotion 1844, verso, 2021

In the past ten years, I have made a concerted effort to collect original texts and objects expressly acquired to establish a Wunderkammer or museum that examines these fields. I hope to show such materials one day in connection with a more in-depth examination of my work.

The LV collages always center upon definitions of selected words. I’m interested in the combination of text and image. For example, the word illustration originally meant “verbal description.” “Illustration” expanded to mean “a picture” due to Grangerization and the proliferation of the scrapbook. The LV series juxtaposes vintage ephemera from the 18th through the 21st centuries set within the limitations of a puzzle-piece-fit collage to extra-illustrate problems about land use throughout Western history.

In Witness, you create rule-based series of puzzle-piece-fit collages, aiming to achieve zero waste during the process of making these diptych collages. What is the idea behind this project and what drove you there?

In the early 2000s, I began to audit my studio practice. I realized that collage always produces waste, and I wondered how to forge a more mindful approach to waste management within my creative process. Pushing beyond my regularly using negative shape remnants, I started thinking about reducing, reusing, and recycling as a conceptual strategy. My entry point was a mental comparison between Herman Melville’s The Whiteness of the Whale (1851), Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique (1910), John Cage’s 4’33 (1952)Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), and Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977). Each of these works offered insight into minimalism and reflection, and informed particular ways of working. I thought about these works for about two years before doing anything, and ultimately, I think I pulled from each in some way. I devised ways to incorporate all production parts in an end-product, ruminated on all aspects of an idea upfront – including materials and all processes involved – and became mindful of the beginning and the end before ever setting out to work.

Witness 15a, Frederick Judd Waugh’s Circa 1900 ‘Curling Waves,’ with A Circa 1770 Chippendale Tabletop, and Treetop Negative Space, 2.875 x 6.5 inches, burnished interlocking collage, auction house catalog cuttings, watercolor, document repair tape, 2021

Eventually, the idea of cutting on top of two pieces of different colored paper simultaneously came to me because I realized multiple-page, simultaneous-cutting yields identically shaped pieces that can be exchanged. Puzzle-piece-fit collage, or “interlocking collage” – to credit artist/curator Cathleen Daily with that distinction – was born out of that thought exercise. There is zero paper waste when the only cuts you make are identical for all pieces of paper used, and the resultant pieces are exchanged evenly. Interlocking collage technologies and using my waste materials have led me to many projects. Witness was the first series that came out of that inquiry. I call the series Witness because the onlooker can only see the unequivocal exchange between location and object when seeing these positive and negative spaces in tandem. I also can’t help but think about trees witnessing furniture made of their own wood and furniture witnessing the deforestation from whence it came.

The titles of the Witness series are obnoxiously long, but they too are rule-based, and they make a point about paying attention to where things come from. I use the actual titles of the objects, which come from auction house catalogs, and I couple them into a single title, however long they may be.

Witness 15b, A Circa 1770 Chippendale Carved and Figured Mahogany Serpentine-Front Five-leg Card Table with Shaped Fragment from Frederick Judd Waugh’s Circa 1900 ‘Curling Waves,’ 10 x 8.75 inches, burnished interlocking collage, auction house catalog cuttings, watercolor, document repair tape, 2021

What are you working on in your studio these days?

Currently, I’m working on several Landscape Vernacular collages in preparation for a solo show at Anna Maria College in 2024. I’m thinking about juxtaposing the definition of “no man’s land” with imagery of the moon or the planet Mars. I am also considering including the definition of my newest neologism: “unland” – the de-classification of land as a thing that can be owned; a change in the status of territory that was once thought to be owned but cannot be owned in actuality.

(All photos courtesy of Todd Bartel)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on December 2, 2019 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.

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Marley Massey Parsons (b.1998, Berlin, MD) is a multidisciplinary artist whose work advocates for acknowledging and unearthing the relationship between human and nonhuman worlds. Marley received a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from Salisbury University in 2019 and will earn an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2022. Her body of work ranges from landscape responses, recordings, and observations of humans interconnectivity with the environment using photography, painting, drawing, foraged materials from the earth, writing, and video. Marley’s work has been exhibited across Maryland and in Pennsylvania. In the Summer 2021, she was an artist-in-residence at Mass MoCA. She is currently a Visiting Artist Coordinator and Student Life Assistant at PAFA.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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